What Deglazing the Pan Means (And How to Do It)

What it means to deglaze a pan

Those browned, caramelized bits and pieces of food burned to the bottom of your frying pan (or baked onto your roasting pan) after you’re done cooking with it?

Most of us will give our pans a soap down and rinse the scraps down the drain when, instead, we could be deglazing them to make some of the most flavorful pan sauce we’ve ever tasted.

Yes, the same kind of oh-so-delicious pan sauce that they make in your favorite restaurant. And, its intimidatingly professional name aside, this cooking method is way easier to do in your home kitchen than most of us may think.

What does deglazing mean? And what’s the point of doing it?

To “deglaze” is to bring cooking liquid, such as beer, wine, sherry, or stock, to a boil your pan after you’re done cooking. This releases the food residue browned on the bottom and sides of the pan, and dissolves it into a sauce that French chefs call the fond (also known as “base” in the United States).

Deglazing works best in heavy, thick-bottomed cooking vessels that conduct heat evenly and promote the caramelization of food, such as a carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel skillet, or an enameled braiser, cocotte, or Dutch oven.

You don’t need much grease to make pan sauce: the stars of the show are A) the food residue and B) the cooking liquid. If you’re worried that there’s too much fat floating around and about in your pan, soak it up with a paper towel or put the drain spout on your skillet to work before preparing the sauce itself.

Red meat (beef, pork, mutton and lamb), poultry (chicken, turkey), and seafood yield the deepest and most savory fond. Though vegetables that brown and caramelize well, like onions and mushrooms, can also produce a rich base for your pan sauce.

Now that we’ve cleared the basics, let’s spend some time talking about how deglazing works and when to do it.

Along the way, I’ll show you photos of and walk you step-by-step through how I deglazed my pan after making chicken breasts last night—and whipped up a sweet and savory sauce to coat them with.

How to Deglaze a Pan

Time needed: 10 minutes.

Those bits and pieces of food burnt to the bottom of your pan? They pack a ton of flavor, and it only takes five steps to turn them into the tastiest sauce.

  1. Pan-fry red meat, poultry, or seafood as you’d normally do

    Deglazing works by releasing the bits and pieces of food burnt to the bottom of your pan with the help of a cooking liquid, and incorporating them into a basic sauce called the base (or “fond” in French).

  2. When you’re done frying, wait 4-5 minutes for your pan to cool down

    Deglazing a hot pan is also perfectly possible, but it’s messy: as soon as the cooking liquid comes into contact with the hot surface, it will splatter all over your stove and counters.

  3. Add cooking liquid, seasoning it with spices, alliums, and herbs

    You can use any cooking liquid to your taste and preferences, whether that’s beer, wine, sherry, stock, or water. Season with salt and pepper to taste, throw in a crushed clove of garlic or two, add a few of your favorite herbs and, if you like a slightly sweet sauce, add a teaspoon of honey.

  4. Bring to a boil and reduce, stirring occasionally, till thick

    Set the heat on your stove to medium high and, with the help of a silicone or wooden spatula, scrape off the bits and pieces of food glued to the bottom of your pan. Let cook, stirring occasionally, until enough moisture has evaporated to yield a thick, gravy-like sauce.

  5. Drizzle the sauce on the meat

    Lightly tilt the pan over the plated meat and drizzle the pan sauce over it. It’s best to do this on a stone counter that’s easy to clean in case you end up making a mess the first one or two times you try this.

Why Deglazing Works

Suppose you wanted to make sunny-side-up eggs or pan-fry whitefish on the stove. You’d probably reach for a non-stick pan, as the Teflon-coated surface would keep them from sticking (and getting mangled by you and your spatula).

But it would also prevent them from coming out superiorly browned. 

Perhaps that’s why, if you were searing steak, pan-frying pork chops, or browning chicken breasts, you’d go for a cast iron or carbon steel skillet or a thick-bottomed stainless steel fry pan.

The bare, uncoated surface makes these pans stickier than their teflon-coated counterparts, that’s for sure (even though the seasoning on cast iron greatly reduces the stickiness).

Still, it comes with a flip side, which restaurant chefs swear by and home cooks often underappreciate because personality chefs and cookbook authors don’t really talk about it all that much:

Uncoated pans can cook meats and veggies that smell and taste better, thanks to something that food scientists call “the Maillard reaction.”

A chemical reaction that occurs when the exterior of your food gets heated to 285°F (140°C) or higher, the Maillard reaction is what takes place when the sugars and proteins in your food clash and merge in the hustle and bustle of the cooking process.

As a result, your food not only comes out looking appetizingly browned, but hundreds of new aromatic and flavorful compounds get created on its surface, too. This imparts it with a rich, savory, complex taste.

The Maillard reaction is the main reason why grilled steak, toast bread, and roast coffee have such a captivating aroma and full-bodied flavor.

That crispy crust is the result of the Maillard reaction

Conversely, the inability to trigger this reaction in liquid (water won’t exceed its boiling point of 212°F, and the Maillard reaction starts at 285°F) is why most boiled foods appear bland and boring.

The same applies not only to the exterior of your food, but to the leftover bits and pieces that remain stuck to the bottom and sides of your frying pan, Dutch oven, roast pan, or baking sheet as soon as you’re done cooking with it.

Many of us—especially those who are unaware of the merits of the Maillard reaction—make the mistake of cleaning them off with soapy water and draining them down the sink. Don’t: those scraps carry a ton of aroma and flavor.

That flavor’s just lying around there in your pan, waiting for you to release it with the help of a cooking liquid, be it beer, white wine, red wine, sherry, vodka, broth, or even water with a bit of honey, pepper, and a few herbs.

Heck, that’s precisely how the line cooks in that upscale restaurant in town make that mouthwateringly good pan sauce resting on top of your steak, pork chops, or chicken breasts when they’re cooked to order.

The good news? All it takes for you to start deglazing pans and whipping up pan sauces at home is a little know-how (which you now have) and some practice.

Deglazing Mistakes to Avoid

From bitter to overly salty or too watery pan sauce, below are some of the most common mistakes that I used to make before I mastered deglazing.

Burnt food produces burnt sauce, no matter what you to do it:

There’s caramelized food, which tastes deep and complex, and then there’s scorched food, which tastes acrid and bitter. To achieve the former and prevent the latter, pan-fry red meat, poultry, and seafood over medium to medium-high heat, and never crank up the heat dial all the way up to high.

Don’t forget to add a touch of acidity and sweetness, and not just salt:

The best sauces are salty, sweet, and sour. They’re like a rainbow of aroma and flavor that colors every spectrum of taste on your senses. So don’t forget to add a touch of sweetness with a teaspoon of honey, molasses, or sugar, as well as a bit of acidity (unless you’re deglazing with wine, which is already acidic) with vinegar or lemon juice to taste.

Not simmering the sauce long enough causes it to come out too watery:

Even if you make the tastiest sauce, it won’t look and feel good if you take it off the heat too soon, and it comes out too splashy and watery. You want a thick, viscous consistency that’s somewhere in-between gravy and caramel. When the moisture level in your sauce is so low, it sticks to the pan unless you keep stirring it, that’s a tell-tale sign that it’s there.

Avoid using wine and vinegar to deglaze carbon steel and cast iron:

Wine, vinegar, and acidic liquids in general are not good choices of cooking liquid for deglazing a carbon steel or cast iron skillet. The bare-metal cooking surface will react to the acid and leach into your sauce, imparting it with a strong metallic taste. The acidity can also strip away the top layer of your pan’s seasoning.

Stainless steel pans are less reactive and have no seasoning at all, which is why many consider them as the best cooking vessels for whipping up pan sauce.

Cream and milk can curdle; skip them:

As tempting as the idea of a creamy sauce may be, dairy products, like cream and milk, can curdle in the high heat of your frying pan. For better or worse, they’re not a good ingredient for making basic sauce and should therefore be avoided.

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