As I wrap up my month of cookware testing, I’ve been stretching the limits of nonstick pans by using some of my favorite flavor-building techniques: browning, reducing, and glazing. Stainless steel and cast iron are the more typical materials for these techniques, because some of the point is to suck up the caramelized bits that stick to the pan—those bits that nonstick surfaces are designed to eliminate. But there’s a difference between burned-on food and fond, the caramelized particles left after browning. Even a good nonstick pan generates some of these intensely flavored bits.
It made sense to me to test these techniques in nonstick pans, since I never create them using the standard base ingredient: browned meat. By cooking a quick sauce or glaze in the same pan as your main ingredient, you can soak up that concentrated flavor—whether you started with meat, shrimp, mushrooms, or root vegetables. It really is all about the flavor.
To Deglaze or Glaze
At its most basic, a reduction is something that is cooked down to concentrate its flavor. If you cook something in a pan and then set aside that ingredient, you can add some liquid to the hot pan to dislodge any leftover bits that stuck to the pan’s surface. You could always just splash in some water, let it warm up enough to loosen the remaining food particles, and then scrap them into the compost or trash. But that’s like pouring the juice for Grilled Tomato Bloody Mary Mix down the sink drain.
Instead, you can cook that liquid down to about half its volume and have the makings of a pan sauce that you can spoon over your main ingredient. Adding a little butter or cream boosts the classiness of your pan cleanup. Add a sweetener with the liquid and return your main ingredient to the pan, and you get an opposing effect: Your sauce caramelizes and sticks to the food, coating it in a glaze.
So whether you simply cook down, brown, deglaze, or glaze, incorporating some type of reduction can give you loads of flavor in minimal time. Here are some of the recipes that I’ve been playing with this month as I test pots and pans:
- Last-Minute Risotto
- Braised Breakfast Potatoes
- Pan-Fried Tofu with an orange-and-spice glaze
- Glazed Carrots and balsamic-glazed beets
- Mushroom Pan Sauce (see below)
Twice as Tasty
Mushrooms are one of the best vegetables for pan sauces. Their meaty flavor intensifies as they release their juices, but they become rubbery or mushy when overcooked. By cooking them briefly, setting them aside as you make a quick pan sauce, and then returning them to the pan, you can keep both flavor and texture.
If you have just a couple of mushrooms lurking in your fridge, you can use the basic reduction technique to turn them into a tiny batch of sauce to spoon over another vegetable, fish, or meat, almost like a flavor-packed garnish. A larger batch of mushrooms can be turned into a standalone sauce for pasta, rice, or bruschetta. Every mushroom type can give you a different flavor, and it’s one of my favorite ways to celebrate foraged mushrooms like morels. But even a simple cremini mushroom becomes magical in a reduction.
Ready to give it a try? Full details are in the recipe below, but here are the basics:
You need just 3 main ingredients plus some liquid.
1. Cook the mushrooms, onion, and garlic.
2. Pour liquid into the same pan and reduce.
3. Mix in the mushrooms and enjoy.
Mushroom Pan Sauce
1 medium onion (about 1 cup when sliced)
4 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup Vegetable Stock or water
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1–2 tablespoons butter or cream, chilled (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh herbs (optional)
Wipe any dirt from the mushrooms with a damp cloth or paper towel. Slice the mushrooms, onion, and garlic. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook for 2–3 minutes, just until they start to soften. Set the mixture aside.
Return the pan to the heat and pour in the white wine. Bring it to a boil, and then turn down the heat to a simmer. Scrape the pan with a wooden or silicone spatula to deglaze and dissolve the caramelized bits as the liquid evaporates. Reduce until a few tablespoons of liquid remain, surrounded by a clean pan.
Add the stock, salt, and pepper. Cook the liquid down to about 1/2 cup, until the syrupy reduction coats a metal spoon, and then remove it from the heat. Stir in the butter or cream, if desired. Return the mushrooms to the pan and, over low heat if they’ve cooled, stir to combine. Serve over pasta, garnished with fresh herbs, if desired. Serves 2.
Tips & Tricks
- This sauce is so intensely flavored that you could stick with water as your only liquid. But wine and stock give more dimension to the flavors. Red wine, beer, vinegar, or (you guessed it) leftover pickle brine works as the acidic ingredient but may overpower delicate mushrooms.
- Fresh herbs can be cooked into the sauce in the final minutes, but they look brighter and still release flavor when used as a garnish. In spring, sorrel and chives are my go-to garnishes; later in summer, basil and parsley or even arugula can be snipped on top.
- Once the mushrooms are added, this recipe creates about 1 cup of sauce, which I find sufficient for 2 people. If you prefer more sauce on your pasta, just use twice as much liquid as you want for the final sauce. For more servings, double down on the main ingredients as well.
- This pan sauce technique works for more than mushrooms. I often choose shrimp for Feeling Saucy workshops and always soak up the flavorful bits for potato bowls.
Need more ideas for using pickle brine? Get The Pickled Picnic in an easy-to-read PDF format to learn how to use pickles and leftover brine in a range of recipes. You can also order a personally signed, packaged, and shipped copy of The Complete Guide to Pickling directly from me. Click here to order.