The basics of a good pan sauce is to gather all the flavors left in the bottom of a skillet used for sautéing a piece of chicken, steak, pork or fish by deglazing with an acidic ingredient or liquid and simmering for just a few minutes until you have a sauce-like consistency. It really couldn’t be easier and it is likely that you have all the ingredients you need for a good pan sauce in your kitchen already. The key to a good pan sauce is to balance the acidic ingredient with a little fat. In this recipe, sherry is the acidic liquid that you use to deglaze the skillet and cream is the ingredient that will balance out the acid. A little minced shallot, fresh thyme and good-quality chicken stock add additional flavor.
The first step of pan-searing the chicken is an important one. Make sure you do not over-crowd the pan. Over-crowding might seem like a short-cut, but it never turns out that way. If you have too many chicken breasts in the pan and not enough surface area around each one, moisture from the chicken breast will accumulate in the bottom of the pan and that moisture will inhibit browning. You’ll end up leaving the chicken in the pan for longer in the attempt to get some color on the chicken breasts and will spend more time sautéing than you’d planned, possibly overcooking the chicken. In addition, if moisture does accumulate in the pan, you won’t have any of the delicious brown bits left in the bottom of the pan which forms the basis for the flavor of your pan sauce. Bottom line: don’t over-crowd the pan. If you don’t have a pan big enough for all the chicken you are cooking, sauté the chicken in batches.
Set the chicken aside on a plate and hold it warm in a 170ºF oven while you make the pan sauce, which will only take a few minutes. Add the shallot and thyme to the pan and let the the shallot pull up some of the brown on the bottom surface. Minced shallot cooks very quickly, so this should only take a minute or two. Then, deglaze with the sherry. If you don’t have sherry (or if you want to vary the recipe), you can use wine (white or red), vermouth (sweet or dry), marsala, madeira or any other fortified wine. If you don’t want to use alcohol to deglaze the pan, you could substitute a fruit juice (apple, orange). Of course, the flavor will change as you make a substitution, but that might be exactly what you’re going for.
The chicken stock and cream will balance out the sauce nicely and will just need a couple of minutes to simmer and reduce to a sauce consistency. The best way to test for that consistency is to dip a spoon into the sauce and then drag your finger down the back of the spoon. If the sauce coats the back of the spoon and you can see the line that you drew on the spoon’s surface, it is the right consistency to coat the chicken breasts. All you have left to do is to put everything on the plate and pour the sauce on top. Voilà!