Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Endless Value of Vermouth

In the midst of making potato leek soup for tonight's dinner, I tried to get a little clever and do the dishes before instead of after dinner. Silly me... I lost track of time and realized a little too late that the heat under my gently sweating diced potatoes, leeks and onions was set too high.

There was a slightly burnt layer on the bottom of the pan. It didn't smell bad yet, but I knew that if I didn't get it off it would become charcoal because the soup had some time left to cook. I tried scraping them off but no dice. Stuck.

That's when I turned to my trusty friend dry white vermouth. As I poured in a 1/4 cup or so (maybe a little more), I realized that this incredibly useful trick might be worth sharing...

Deglazing is a common technique - splash a small amount of cold liquid into a hot, caramelized saute pan. I don't understand the chemistry, but this causes the crust on the pan to temporarily soften so that you can rub it with a wooden spoon causing it to dissolve into the liquid. Any cold liquid can be used to deglaze, but I've found that alcohol works best. Let most of this liquid burn off, then add the main liquid for whatever you're making.

Dissolving the caramelized meat, veggies or spices that were cooking in the pan adds a tremendous rich flavor to your dish that you just won't get if you add all the liquid to the pan at once. As a nice bonus, the reduced alcohol adds complexity to the dish as well.

After practicing this technique in a few recipes, I've gone crazy and started using it every time I saute or roast something in the oven, whether the recipe calls for it or not, and always with good results.

A few general guidelines. Try using it in soups, stews, sauces, gravies or stir fries. Vermouth works well in poultry, or seafood, as well as white sauce based dishes. For heavier dishes, specifically ones containing red meat or tomatoes, red wine or sherry works well.

What's even better about this trick is that vermouth and sherry are quite cheap, and because they don't taste good on their own, they're easy to keep stocked - there is absolutely no temptation to sneak some as an aperitif.

So next time you're in danger of burning up your dinner, give it a try!

Here's a much more eloquent explanation of deglazing and making a pan sauce from the Los Angeles Times.

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