Deglazing: It Captures the Flavor!
Deglazing is the process of adding a liquid to the bottom of a pot or pan in which something is cooking, or has been cooked.
That’s it. That’s all it is. Mystery solved.
So why do it?
The answer to this comes from the bottom of the pan. What’s at the bottom of the pan? Flavor!
If you read the page on roasting, you will understand the concept of carmelization. When you saute or sear something on the stove, the surface of the food you are cooking becomes transformed. Specifically, the sugar in the food becomes carmelized, which increases its flavor dramatically.
The limitation to this is that it can only occur near the surface of the food, because that is where the heat reaches the optimum temperature. Sure, you could increase the heat and carmelize the inside, but that would burn the outside, and that would not be tasty. So carmelization is limited to the outside.
Also, when you cook food on a metal surface, little bits of the food will stick to the metal and get pulled off the food. This happens regardless of whether you are sauteing onions, searing beef cubes, or gently warming apple slices.
The downside to this is that the little bits of food left behind contain a ton of flavor that is no longer in the food! The upside is that we can recover this, and even add to the flavor besides.
The way to do this is to simply add a splash of some liquid, and use a whisk or a wooden spoon to release the bits of food from the surface of the pan or pot, and dissolve them into the liquid. The liquid itself can then be added back to whatever you are cooking, or used to make a sauce to be added back later.
Deglazing is that simple. Add liquid to pan; scrape. However, there are some choices to be made. For instance, what liquid should you use?
There is nothing wrong with using water. In fact, my theory is that deglazing was accidentally invented by someone who tried cleaning a pan by adding water to a pan while it was still on the heat. However, water has no flavor, and it is not particularly good at carrying flavor either.
I prefer to use a liquid that acts as a good flavor carrier, and preferably one that has a lot of flavor itself. If you read the page on broths, you will know that stocks containing collagen are about the best and tastiest flavor carrying liquids there are. So thumbs up to beef, chicken and fish stock. Vegetable broth is a good choice for its flavor, but as it contains no collagen it will not carry the flavor as well.
Vinegar is another good choice, and is one that I like to use with bacon and onion. A good sweet and sour balsamic vinegar is the perfect compliment to the savory combo of bacon and onion.
Wines work very well as deglazing liquids, and their flavors intensify wonderfully when they reduce and evaporate from the heat of the pan. The other nice thing about wine is that there are so many varieties to choose from, and you can always find a good pairing with whatever food you are cooking. And another nice tip is that using wine in food makes pairing a drinking wine that much easier.
Spirits, too, make good deglazers, but I offer one safety tip: do not add high-alcohol liquids to the pan while it is on the heat, as this is a good way to start a fire and possibly burn yourself. Yes, I am aware that this is the classic way to create a “flambe”, and flames are always impressive, but the average person’s kitchen is not equipped the same way a professional kitchen is. For one thing, they have higher ceilings, and probably no flammable drapes either.
Having said that, I should point out that many fantastic reduction sauces have been made with liqueurs as deglazing agents. Cognac is the perfect addition to seared beef, while whiskey adds a lot to a mushroom cream sauce.
The other decision to make is whether to remove the food from the pan before deglazing or not. This will usually be decided by the cooking method itself. Typically you will not remove the food when making soups, as with French Onion Soup where the wine is added to the onions. However, if you are searing scallops (as an example) to be added to a seafood soup, you can deglaze the pan after the scallops have been added to the soup, and toss the liquid into the soup afterwards.
Deglazing is a simple but effective way to make sure that you get the maximum flavor from your food. Try it whenever the opportunity presents itself, and you won’t be disappointed!