|A cast iron skillet full of browned bits of yummy goodness, also known as fond|
Caramelization is a chemical process that oxidizes complex sugars into simpler sugars—the net result of which is nutty-tasting-savory-sweet goodness.
Caramelization is the reason grilled foods have that certain something extra. It is also why roasting on higher heat is generally preferable to simply baking or poaching. When your meats and sweeter vegetables or tubers get browned, it means that they have caramelized.
Caramelization in liquid form
It's only natural that chefs have sought to harness the flavoring power of caramelization for use in things other than grilled and roasted foods. Adding caramelization flavors to soups, sauces, pilafs, and other liquid dishes is often what sets these dishes apart from their run-of-the-mill cousins.
How is this accomplished?
|A close-up view of fond developed in a cast iron skillet|
As mentioned above, you should not use cast iron cookware if you are after a true pan sauce. These sauces involve developing a rich layer of fond, and then deglazing the pan as the base for the sauce. Deglazing for a pan sauce is typically accomplished by adding liquid to the hot pan which has the effect of lifting the fond. Common deglazing liquids include lemon juice, white wine, red wine, vermouth, tomato juice, and broth.
If you deglaze a cast iron pan, you are likely to remove the seasoning. This not only harms the pan, but adds black bits of petrified grease to your recipe: a losing proposition on several fronts.
Harvesting fond from cast iron
You can effectively remove the developed fond from cast iron through more subtle means than high heat and acidic liquids.
Adding aromatics (onions, carrots, celery, etc.) is usually enough to remove fond from cast iron. You can also add broth or other liquids (as called for in the recipe) to a cast iron pan that already contains other ingredients (e.g. the meat), or is not hot enough to deglaze (no hotter than medium heat, as a general rule).
Cast iron cookware is unique in its ability to provide a non-stick surface for searing meat and vegetables, yet at the same time allowing for the development of fond. This allows dishes like chili and spaghetti sauce to cook all day in your dutch oven without sticking to the bottom, but also allows you to add the richness of caramelization.