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If you put a steak or a chicken into a hot pan which is not completely non-stick, it is likely to stick to it a bit and leave a residue when you flip it. That is our fond.

Later we deglaze the pan by adding some liquid which causes all of the small bits to release (yes, adding onion or mushrooms counts as adding liquid, since it will release enough water), this incorporate deeper flavors into our cooking, which is absolutely great.

But how does deglazing work? On the chemical and physical level, is it somehow a different rate of contraction when rapidly cooled by the liquid, or some other kind of reaction?

And how come when I heat my stainless steel pan and put water on it, the burnt bits stuck to the side are not just magically floating away?

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It seems like there are 3 sub-questions to this question:

Physical level

Adding liquid in the pan creates steam, a moist, hot gas which is able to move between the solids of the fond and lift the fond from the bottom of the pan.

Chemical level

The majority of the relevant food molecules in the fond, created from the Maillard reaction and caramelization, are water soluble. (The Maillard Reaction produces hundreds of products, only 8 of which are relevant factors on flavor and aroma, 6 of which are water soluble.) Since the flavors inside the fond are potent, dissolving them into water makes them available to our taste buds.

Regarding burnt bits stuck to the side

I have to presume from the scenario you provided that, since you "heat [your] stainless steel pan", you have left the bits there from your previous cook and allowed them to dry. The lack of moisture content will make the bits more difficult for the steam to remove. When we deglaze the fond from the bottom of the pan, the fond already contains some level of moisture and is able to be easily removed by the steam. When you allow, presumably now overcooked and dried out, bits of food to sit on the pan and become moisture-less, hardened carbon, it will take more effort to remove.

For an analogy, think of clay. If you throw it in a pan and immediately wash it off, it will come off with relative ease, but if you let it sit (even without heat) and simply dry out, you would have to crack and and chip it away, or cover it in water and let it sit and absorb moisture for some time before you could wipe it away.

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  • 1
    I see! So it's both physical and chemical reactions joined together to maximize flavor and clean pans!
    – Ink blot
    Sep 20 at 18:09
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    At the chemical level, far from all of it is water soluble, but enough is to loosen the bits that aren't. Both soluble and insoluble parts are tasty.
    – Chris H
    Sep 21 at 7:37
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    @ChrisH You're correct, the thiophenes and pyrrole are not water soluble. They contribute to the roasted/meaty tastes. The other 6 relevant products of the Maillard Reaction that contribute to flavor and aroma, plus caramelization, are. I wouldn't presume to say enough are, but rather, the majority are. "Far from all" barely has a hand to play here, unless you include the hundreds of other products from the Maillard Reaction that don't contribute to flavor or aroma at all. I'll update the answer to avoid duplicating this confusion for anyone else in the future.
    – DeeJayh
    Sep 21 at 8:06
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    Pouring off won't get rid of all the fat though (if there's enough to pour off in the first place, which there may not be starting from a steak). That's why I say "residual" rather than talking about bulk fat; my "quite a lot" was in proportion to the tasty solids we're unsticking. I can't find any studies on the composition of fond, but here's a (thought) experiment: produce fond as you normally would, pouring off any fat. Deglaze with water then allow to cool. Is there (much) fat floating on the surface?
    – Chris H
    Sep 21 at 8:27
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    @ChrisH I appreciate critical thinking, but you're ignoring the fact that that any residual fat is merely a contaminant, albeit a desirable one. It is not a product of either the Maillard Reaction, nor caramelization, and merely exists, but has nothing to do with, the deglazing of the pan. Since I am, very clearly with the update to my answer, talking specifically about deglazing the pan at the chemical level, and deglazing specifically refers to the fond only by definition, my answer remains correct and your point remains, to put it bluntly, invalid.
    – DeeJayh
    Sep 21 at 18:30

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