Truth be told, I’m quite fond of fond. But what it is?
Properly pronounced, the word is fahn, which is French for “base.” (Ask my wife and she will tell you that I butcher French pronunciations, but that’s neither here nor there.) But that fond – that base – is that beautiful brown stuff you often find stuck to the bottom of a pan after searing meat, or even vegetables, over very high heat. Especially for many beginning cooks, the temptation is to wash that stuff out before beginning the next phase of cooking. I mean, look at the picture in this post – unless you know what you’re looking at, it doesn’t look very appetizing. But believe it or not, if you do know what you’re looking at your mouth might be watering just a little bit.
Fond is a magical, secret ingredient. You will never know it’s there in a final dish, but its presence packs a powerful burst of deep flavor which cannot be otherwise achieved. It is the result of two chemical reactions present in the process of cooking food over fairly high heat – the Maillard reaction and caramelization. Both reactions are similar in that they are a form of non-enzymatic browning, but with the Maillard reaction you have amino acids involved with reducing sugars which gives food that distinctive nutty, savory flavor whereas with caramelization you actually have sugars burning – which makes things taste like, you guessed it, caramel. The Maillard reaction happens at a slightly lower temperature than caramelization (about 310°F and 330°F, respectively) but that is mostly irrelevant because when you sear a steak (or whatever) in a hot pan you’re likely above both of those temperatures so you’re going to get both reactions.
Anyhow, if you’ve read many of the recipes on this blog, or others for that matter, you’ve likely read things in the instructions such as “Deglaze the pan with ________, bring to a boil and stir constantly, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.”
Deglazing is simply the action of adding some kind of liquid (wine, stock, spirits – even water) to a hot pan to act as a solvent into which your fond will incorporate itself. Bringing that deglazing liquid to a boil, and then stirring and scraping up the fond helps accelerate the process of dissolving the fond into the liquid in the pan; as it reduces due to evaporation it thickens, becoming a pan sauce.
Thus, this process of (A) browning protein or vegetables, thus creating a fond and then (B) deglazing the pan with liquid, and then (C) allowing the liquid to thicken is process of making a basic pan sauce to be served over a main dish, or building a base sauce for a more complex sauce, such as Classic Marinara Sauce.
There is an optional step between steps (A) and (B) which is often employed to add even more depth and complexity of flavor to a final product: the flambé. When you add a higher-proof alcohol to a hot pan and ignite it, you are doing several important things. First, you are beginning the deglazing process (although a second deglazing liquid will likely be needed). Second, you are adding the kiss of flame to whatever is in the pan (increasing caramelization, which adds sweetness and depth of flavor). Third – and most importantly – you are actually ensuring that the beautiful fond you have in the bottom of your pan doesn’t burn. It seems totally counter-intuitive that setting something on fire would prevent it from burning, but it does. Here’s why: The boiling temperature of alcohol is actually lower than the boiling temperature of water (173°F, to be exact). By igniting the alcohol, you keep the temperature at the bottom of the pan right at that temperature – too low for anything to burn. A few inches above the bottom of the pan, however, where the flames are, the temperature is higher – right around 330°F, the perfect temperature for a bit of caramelization.
So, what’s the takeaway here? First, don’t throw all that brown stuff in the bottom of your pan out. Figure out a way to use it – make a pan sauce with it, or use it to make a more complex sauce. Second, don’t be afraid to add a flambé to your cooking process at some point – you will taste the difference. Third, don’t be afraid to experiment – get out there and make something delicious!