The gnarly pan you just seared food in is the secret to a bistro-quality meal. “Deglazing” might sound like the opposite of delicious, but it’s actually the crack trick smart cooks employ to save themselves cleanup while making a dreamy sauce—in a flash. Here’s how.
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Most home cooks remember the first time someone taught them to deglaze. It usually starts with a gentle hand on the wrist right when you’re about to drop a particularly messy, food-caked skillet into the sink to start soaking it.

“You’re not going to just put soap in there without making a sauce, are you?” I remember an ex-boyfriend asking me.

“Making a sauce?” What was this, the Four Seasons? We’d just cooked pork chops and mashed potatoes and I was hungry. I’d be darned if I was gonna wait any longer to eat dinner. But the chops had to rest for 10 minutes anyways, so I allowed myself to learn something new (while frowning).

I’m forever grateful for the lesson. When you sear meat or vegetables over medium or high heat in a skillet, you tend to end up with little brown or black bits where the food has caramelized. Think: steaks, mushrooms, ground pork and beef, chicken thighs, and the like. Those bits have a French name—fond—and they’re the source of massive amounts of flavor thanks to that caramelization. All they need to transform into a sauce is a liquid to release them from the pan, sometimes oil, and salt and pepper.

Our pork chop pan got a couple slugs of bourbon, a tablespoon of butter, and a few minutes to bubble away over low heat while we scraped away at the pan—this step is key—aggressively with a flat-headed wooden spoon. Slightly reduced and seasoned to taste, it was an elegant, glossy sauce to drizzle over the chops. (Bourbon and pork are a match made in heaven.)

You can use any potable liquid to deglaze, such as water or stock, but I like bourbon, red wine, white wine, rosé, and beer best. (Safety tip: Some would have you pour super-flammable alcohol away from the open flame on a gas range, but I just turn the heat way down.) Remember to really dislodge those brown bits, but if there’s something like blackened garlic in the pan that you know will taste bitter, just dump it out before you start the deglazing process.

I start with liquid, then add oil or butter, and finally season with salt and pepper, finishing with fresh herbs if I have them. I pick my liquid and my fat by the cuisine: For this Chinese pork sauté, I deglazed after searing the pork and setting it aside using rice wine vinegar, which worked with the other flavors in the sauce I made (oyster sauce, sweet soy sauce, soy, fish sauce, sesame oil) to toss with the pork. For Italian food, I’d look to sherry vinegar or red wine. Bourbon and butter have become a standby for me with autumnal foods like pork and chicken. Steaks tend to get some sort of luxe red wine and butter sauce.

Taste as you go, and see if it needs acid—maybe apple cider vinegar or sherry vinegar—or more fat, more liquid, or more salt. Let it reduce so it’s not too thin. When it’s done, you’ll know it, and whatever you’ve seared is probably about the right temperature to serve by now. Just plate it and just drizzle your insta-sauce over it.

I’m not the first to say that a sauce can take a dinner from simple to elegant, but I’m a believer. And whoever’s doing the dishes will love you even more for taking care of the worst one—without batting an eye.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.