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Corn Starch in Pan Sauces

Sheen. Viscosity. Flavor. What does a well- done French sauce add to the final dish?

French pan sauces are typically creating by deglazing the cooking vessel (typically of a protein product) with an acidic liquid and reducing it, then adding a “knob” of butter to thicken the sauce and complete it.

Why does this work? Butter is a complex emulsion of fat and water. The structure and specific emulsifiers (lecithin- found also in egg yolks and soy) hold it together so each water molecule is suspended. When added to a hot sauce, the butter’s emulsifiers go to work with the additional liquid and fat in the reduced sauce, the final product mimicking the original micro structure of butter.

Why does it stink? For those with dietary limitations, i.e. dairy allergy (me.), butter is out of the question. Alas! Pan sauce can still come out beautiful with the use of a little corn starch as a thickener that also adds the all-familiar shine to the final product.

Now don’t gasp yet my French-ies and wanna-be French-ies. Added in small amounts corn starch does a really nice job!

Here’s how to do it. Brown your protein of choice in a heavy pan, (typically some kind of cast iron, Dutch oven, roasting pan, etc. etc.) and then roast it to the desired temperature. Remove protein and let rest under foil on the cutting surface.

Add 1 tsp- 1 tbsp oil if needed, then 2 cloves of smashed garlic, 2 sprigs of thyme, and a minced shallot. Cook over medium heat, scraping the bottom of the pan continuously. Add 1/2 cup white wine and 1/4 cup chicken stock, beef stock or veggie stock… any stock you have on hand. This should loosen the (very flavorful) brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Scrape these up and reduce the sauce by half. At this point you have a few options. You can either puree then return to the pan, strain all the lumps out, or just fish out the (bare) thyme sprigs and garlic cloves and ignore the minced shallot. I usually the third route.

Now is the point when the “knob” of butter comes into play and today we will instead be mixing a scant tsp corn starch with 1/4 cup cold stock and whisking until combined. Add this slurry to the sauce and whisk, bringing the mixture up to a simmer and then reducing the heat.

What’s happening here? Picture the cornstarch as stretched out slinkies. They’re perfectly straight because they’re frozen that way in their powdered and cold dissolved form. As soon as they heat up to a simmer, picture them tightening up and springing, thus tangling with each other. The tangling actions gets water molecules stuck in its web and suspends them. (Hey! That was butter’s job!)

Your sauce is now thickened! Slice your protein and drizzle with the beautiful, glossy pan sauce. Drizzle with a little herb oil, if desired, and serve.

Call it what you may, this tastes delicious and looks fabulous. I don’t really care if it’s technically a gravy- it works, and widens the range of people who can enjoy that perfect finishing touch on their dinner.

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