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Deglazing is the process by which the caramelized residue of seared foods is dissolved via liquid in order to incorporate it into the target dish for the purpose of maximizing flavor. Deglazing is the foremost method by which to make a “pan sauce,” i.e., a sauce made in the same pan that the primary item was cooked. Most often the seared item is some kind of protein but it could also be vegetables, either as a main dish or as a building block of another dish.
Searing is a browning reaction whereby the food’s surface is caramelized from complex chemical reactions generated by the intense heat. Contrary to the common myth, it is not done to seal in juices but rather to intensify flavor. Food simply tastes better when browned. The leftover caramelized bits on the bottom of the sauté pan, known as the fond, is loaded with flavor and should always be taken advantage of.
Some victuals such as shrimp or thin cuts of meat or fish are completely cooked once browned on each side. Thicker cuts may need to finish cooking in the oven after being seared. Either way, once the main item is cooked, remove it from the pan and cover it with aluminum foil or place it in a lukewarm oven to keep it warm while deglazing the pan and making a sauce. There are a number of ways to proceed.
First, some cooks like to remove the “excess” fat from the pan. Now there’s a subjective concept if I ever saw one. For example, the difference in fat between the typical food neurotic’s concept of “excess” and mine is large enough to make another cow. The “fat” that you are pouring out of the pan is not 100% fat. It is also the juices and other constituents released from the food. These drippings are loaded with flavor and also add body to the sauce. Ergo, in addition to some fat, you are also disposing of taste and texture by discarding them. Granted, with a large roast, there may truly be “excessive” fat which could produce a greasy sauce. In this case, tilt the pan and skim some of the fat from the surface or use one of those fat separators. But for the average pan-seared steak or pork chop, the drippings are limited and I recommend utilizing them in their entirety.
Even if you choose to drain the pan, prior to doing so you will need the fat to sauté shallots, onions, garlic, or any other aromatics you wish to augment the sauce with. This is not absolutely necessary, (although it adds more flavor), and you could just proceed with the deglazing procedure.
But if you are adding them, simply sauté any aromatics with some salt and pepper in the leftover pan drippings. Depending on how little drippings you have, you may even need to add some oil and/or butter to the pan. Once the aromatics are sautéed you’re ready to deglaze.
Deglazing can be done with any liquid. Alcohol and/or stock are most often used but simple water can be employed as well. The method of choice for maximal flavor is alcohol followed by some type of stock. Wine is the most common with the red-meat/red-wine and white-meat/white-wine rule normally guiding the process. Other options include brandy or cognac, fortified wines like Marsala, sherry, or port, and even vodka. The type of alcohol chosen is determined by the nature of the dish and the flavor profile desired. For example, for a sweeter sauce choose a port. For a more complex, earthy and aromatic brew try a good cognac. Veal Marsala will obviously require Marsala wine while Penne vodka would enlist its namesake.
Be careful when adding alcohol since it can self-ignite, especially brandies and hard liquors. The traditional warning is to remove the pan from the stove when adding the alcohol but spontaneous combustion is still possible. If your goal is to flambé the alcohol and it did not self-ignite, tip the pan so it touches the flame or use a match.
Once the alcohol is added, or once the flames have subsided if you’re flambéing, bring it to a boil as you scrape the fond off the bottom of the pan. A straight edged wooden spatula is the most effective tool for this job. You are now deglazing. All of those intensely flavored little bits will invitingly melt into the sauce, creating a complex web of flavor. Usually the alcohol is reduced to at least half and sometimes even further. Vaporizing it down to a syrupy glaze is a key flavor enhancing technique.
Once the alcohol is reduced add the stock. Continue to boil and scrape, reducing the stock to at least half. If you are not using alcohol simply add the stock from the get-go and deglaze accordingly. Once the stock is added, season with salt, pepper, herbs, zest, etc. Or, if not using stock, (such as when making a sauce based solely on wine), add the seasoning after the initial deglazing with the alcohol.
Once the alcohol and/or stock has been reduced to the target viscosity, an optional final step is finishing the sauce with cream or butter. Add cream and simmer for a few minutes to concentrate it or if using butter, add a tablespoon or two of cold butter and remove the sauce from the heat the instant it has melted. Strain the sauce and serve with the primary item.
Follow the exact same procedures for making a sauce for roasts. While the roast rests, straddle the roasting pan on two burners and deglaze as above. If making a gravy, after you add flour to the drippings and cook it to make a roux, deglazing occurs when the stock is added. Whisk the stock into the roux scraping up the fond as you go.
Deglaze sautéed vegetables by adding vegetable or chicken stock. Here you don’t need to remove the food from the pan. Simply finish them in the stock as you scrape the pan clean. For tomato sauce, deglaze the garlic and/or other sautéed aromatics with wine, reduce, and then add the tomatoes. For rice pilaf and risotto, deglaze the aromatics and rice with wine before adding the stock. Deglazing the fond will also boost the flavor of soups and stews. Virtually anything that can be seared or sautéed can be deglazed.
Finally, NEVER use a non-stick pan for deglazing. The non-stick surface, while not impairing the searing process, will inhibit the development of a fond and thus restrict the flavor potential of your dish.