Why make pancakes from scratch?
The classic American pancake has many variations, but the buttermilk pancake is its highest form. Properly made, it is extra light, almost nothing in your mouth. Its flavor is also more complex, revealing a depth beyond just the syrup poured over the top. It is also, unfortunately, one of the rarest finds in American kitchens: most pancakes are either microwaved (shudder) or made from a mix, which is too bad as they are so easy to make. Once you’ve had them like this, there is no going back…
I am not a professional chef. I have, however, made thousands of pancakes. I have three boys and Sunday morning is usually pancake morning. I have tried all the classicrecipes, withhundreds of variations in ingredients, cookware, and technique. I’m always learning new tips and tricks, so this is a never-ending quest. I’ve also made pancakes in dozens of less than optimal situations: no eggs, no buttermilk, no salt, even no flour. These extenuating circumstances have taught me quite a bit about what is important.
The goal of this article to go far beyond just a recipe, encouragingthose who feel they can’t cook to give this a shot. Good cooking is much more than just saving money, it is a creative act that shows you care at many levels. Kids devouring pancakes that come from your hand is about as good as it gets.
This is a rather long article for ‘just pancakes’, but it tries to cover both beginner and advanced techniques. The first two chapters are all you need to get started. You can stop there. The remaining chapters are for those of you who are as crazy as I am and want to create the perfect pancake.
The Basic Recipe – Making the batter
Buttermilk is, of course, the magic ingredient. It not only adds flavor, but also acid which reacts strongly to the baking soda. This is one of the key reasons for the lightness of the pancake. Just buy one quart every few weeks and keep it on hand. It isn’t expensive and it keeps well.
You won’t need anything fancy for equipment, just a typical set of measuring spoons and cups. A whisk is nice, as it makes it easier to mix everything, but a big spoon will work. You’ll also need 2 separate bowls, one for mixing the dry ingredients and one for the wet.
Put the wet and dry ingredients into separate bowls. Whisk each one lightly. Add roughly half of the dry mix into the wet and whisk smooth, not too long. Add the remainder of the dry mix and barely whisk together. Make sure all of the flour is mixed in. You don’t want to beat this too much as it strengthens the gluten in the flour and makes the pancakes tougher. Don’t worry, you can’t screw this up; just don’t put it in an electric mixer and let it run forever….
If possible, let the batter rest for a few minutes to allow the baking soda and baking powder to perform their magic. This will make for airier pancakes.
NOTE:The batter should be fairly thick,not runny. The perfect batter should pour onto the fry pan and not move much; it should only require a few taps of the measuring cup to spread it out.A few UK readers have commented that they get runny batters and this is most likely due to thin buttermilk. If this happens don’t worry, just add a bit more flour, a few tablespoons at a time until it thickens up. Don’t be afraid to add flour to thicken up the batter!
This recipe will make about 8 pancakes and can be easily doubled.
Cooking the pancakes
A simple non-stick fry pan is all you need. Heavier is better as it spreads the heat, prevents burning, and browns the pancakes nicely. Heat the pan on the lowest setting on your stove top as it is easy to burn pancakes. If you have an electric skillet, set it to 325°F. By the way, don’t try to make it work with a scratched 20 year old camping pan. This has to be a good quality non-stick surface to work well.
TRICK: Usually, it helps to put a few drops of oil on the fry pan and rub it around with a paper towel. Even with a non-stick surface, it helps the batter release easier.
Drop a 1/4 cup scoop of batter onto the pan. You might need to spread it around just a bit if the batter is extra thick. You should hear a *slight* sizzle when you pour the batter; if it sizzles loudly, or worse, big bubbles form as you pour, the heat is way too high, turn it down.
It is a good idea to get good at ‘peeking’ under the edge of the pancake with the flipper. This gives you a good idea of how quickly the bottom is browning. Still a bit yellow? Keep it on for a few more seconds. Browning too fast? Flip it and turn down the heat.
Flipping takes a few tries to get the hang of it. If you’ve got a good thick batter, there will still be plenty of ‘goo’ there in the center. When you flip, you’ve got to do it quickly so it doesn’t sploosh across the pan. It might take you a few tries at first but it isn’t hard, just do it fairly quickly. This is REALLY fun to do with your younger kids, just start off with scant cups of batter to make them even smaller and easier to flip.
TRICK: If you want, substitute Splenda instead of sugar. This makes the batter handle higher temperatures without burning and doesn’t affect the texture or flavor much.
The first pancake usually has ‘white spots’ on the first side, which I think is the result of the oil I spread on the pan. However, after the first one, the following pancakes will have much more uniform color and pattern.
If you want 6 bigger pancakes, use a 1/3 cup instead of 1/4 cup. They are harder to flip so make sure you’re comfortable with the smaller ones.
Eating the pancakes!
There is no wrong way to do this. The classic approach is to pile up 2-3 and pour syrup over them. Which kind of syrup is entirely your choice. Whatever you do, a nice touch is to heat it in the microwave so you pour hot syrup on hot pancakes (don’t underestimate this, it really helps!)
For fun, you can sprinkle fruit, like blueberries or sliced strawberries over the top. Kids love chocolate chips placed between the layers. If you layer pancake – chocolate chips – pancake as they are coming off the pan, the chips melt nicely.
If you really want to get fancy, put some powdered sugar into a sieve and tap it over the pancakes, it’ll dust them with a thin layer of sugar ‘snow’. Be sure to do this BEFORE you put on the fruit or the syrup.
If you want to go “Martha Stewart” then place an object, like a paper star or heart, on top of the pancakes, dust with sugar, and then pull it off: instant domestic god…
One more ‘knock their socks off’ trick: Create a killeralternativeto blueberrysyrupbygentlyheating on the stovetop one jar of good quality blueberry jam together with a small container of fresh blueberries. MUCH better than the store bought stuff!
Making them fun: adding stuff
If you really want to blow your breakfast crowd away, add things into the pancake batter while it’s cooking. The classic addition is chocolate chips. The technique is simple:
Pour out the batter normally Sprinkle the chips over the top “Stomp” the chips down into the batter using the back of a spoon Try to cover the chips with a little batter as you stomp them. This is important as when you flip the pancake, it will seal the chip inside the pancake and not burn the chocolate on the frying pan.
Kids absolutely kill for these things. I’m not kidding. You’ll never make anything else for breakfast once you get this perfected.
Blueberries: A more grown up, but amazing alternative to the chocolate chips. Fresh are best but I keep a bag of frozen ones in my freezer just in case. They work very well, just be sure to cook the pancakes a bit longer as the frozen berries make it harder to cook the center of the pancake.
Bananas: Another good alternative is banana slices. Pour the batter and place slices of banana around, pushing them slightly into the batter. Unlike the blueberies, leave them exposed and not covered with batter. That way, when you flip the pancake, the bananas are directly on the griddle and caramelize a bit.
Smart aleck alert!Don’t think you’re going to be clever and dump everything into the batter and just scoop it out. You *can* do this of course but it is much harder to pull off than you would think. Things tend to settle at the bottom, making it hard to get them evenly distributed. They also tend to cluster when you pour. The “add after you pour” method makes for a more uniform presentation.
Spices: Like the vanilla, adding spices increases the aromatic quality of the pancakes. I personally like Cinnamon (very nice with blueberries!) or Cardamom (for you Nordic types…) Start with something small like 1/4 – 1/2 tsp and work your way up. The amount will vary with your personal taste and the quality of your spices. This is where you can hardly go wrong, just experiment and have fun.
Going for perfection
The following section is going to list many ways to make the pancakes extra special. You don’t need to do this of course, but if you really want to do this right, a few simple things will really take these pancakes to the next level.
Flour: A really good bread flour makes a difference. I use King Arthur flour (as do many bakers) as it just forms a stronger structure and creates a lighter final product. Don’t use cake flours thinking that it will make the pancake lighter, it doesn’t. Pancakes need the extra protein that comes from bread flour to trap the air that is created while cooking.
You can certainly use whole wheat flour or any other flour for that matter. If possible, get a ‘pastry grind’ as it makes the batter lighter. I’ve also used wheat germ and ground oatmeal (put normal oatmeal through a spice mill). They are all fun and dramatically change both the texture and the flavor. Try them all and experiment. However, each one makes the final pancakes heavier. To reclaim some of that lightness, just add 1 Tbsp of wheat gluten (found in the baking section of your super market) to make up for the heavier flour.
Vanilla & Sugar: Both of these are in the recipe above but are optional. Many pancake purists omit both of these, using fruit and syrup to add sweetness and flavor. I like my pancakes to stand on their own and these two add a depth and complexity that I find very appealing.
Whipped egg whites: Some recipes use 2 whipped egg whites instead one whole beaten egg. This does make the pancakes loftier so if you’re adventurous, I encourage you to try it. However, I don’t find this to be a big difference and it increases the overall effort.
Ingredient Temperature: If you can, pull the egg/buttermilk out of the fridge a bit early and let it come to room temperature. It reacts more strongly to the baking soda and gives more rise to the pancake.
Batter consistency: This is for the true purist. Getting the batter exactly right is the key to making them extra light. The basic rule to keep in mind is that runny batter makes the pancakes dense and flat. Thick batters can be harder to work with and create tough pancakes.
The perfect batter is a bit stiff, but still pours out of the measuring cup: it requires a few ‘taps’ of the measuring cup to spread it out on the fry pan. Always test your batter by pouring it out of a measuring spoon, back into the bowl. If it is too thin, just add some more flour until it is thick enough. If it is too thick, a splash of milk. Check out the video above to see what I go for. Don’t be a slave to the measurements! Getting the batter right makes the pancakes perfect.
Once you’ve made these pancakes a few times, this is where you’ll spend your time fiddling and experimenting as getting the consistency right is what takes them from good to great. It’s not hard, you’ll get be more sensitive to it and depending on your ingredients, usually tweak the flour or milk just a bit.
If you start doing this as frequently as I do, you’ll want to invest in a good wide skillet that allows you to cook 2-3 pancakes at once. This makes all the difference as you can actually feed a small group in a reasonable time. I have a stove top version that covers two burners. It is very heavy and has a high quality non stick surface. There are many out there. I happen to use one from All-Clad that cost me about $90 in 2004. Yes, it’s pricey, but it makes your life much easier and the pancakes look beautiful.
You can also get electric skillets. They have a big advantage in that you can control the heat much more accurately. The problem is that a good heavy electric skillet is hard to find. The vast majority out there are much too thin, don’t hold their heat well and cause the pancakes to brown unevenly.
When disaster strikes
I’ve been called on to make my pancakes in many situations. While these pancakes are very easy to make, it is hard to pull this off in most kitchens that aren’t prepared. Here are a few tips:
No buttermilk:The ultimate disaster! Should you give up and go home? All is not lost. You won’t be able to make them swoon, but you can make do. Here are four alternatives, in ‘best results’ order: If you can find it, powdered buttermilk actually works quite well. Follow the direction on the package. I keep some on hand just in case I run out of the real stuff. Simulate buttermilk by mixing whole milk and lemon or lime juice. Mix 1 cup milk and add juice from half a lemon and let it sit for a few minutes. This will sour the milk and give you much of what buttermilk can do. You can certainly do this with any grade of milk, whole milk just works best. White vinegar will also work in place of lemon juice, in the same proportion. The point is to sour the milk, and both methods work just as well. The reason for the reduction down to 1 cup is this will be not be thick like buttermilk so less liquid is needed. Yogurt also works as it has a high acid content. The only trick is that the thickness of yogurts varies quite a bit. Here in the US, our yogurts tend to be quite thick so 2 parts yogurt to 1 part milk has worked well for me. The simplest solution is just to use regular milk. Whole milk if possible. Use only 1 cup as it is much thinner than buttermilk. Be sure to let the batter rest for 5 minutes before cooking!
Important Buttermilk Breaking News:I recently had to change buttermilk brands and have noticed that it can make a huge difference. My original brand made light and fluffy pancakes and my new brand (Knudsen if you must know) produced a very gummy, wet and heavy version. I really couldn’t believe that it could make such a difference. I switched to my fallback, milk + lime juice, and noticed a big improvement over my new gummy brand. Lesson: if your pancakes aren’t super light, try using a different buttermilk (or substitute)!
No Milk: Basically, you’re toast. Well…… you *can* make it work but you’re in a ‘battle mode’ here as the milk fat and proteins are a key part of making the texture and loft possible. A few nice lactose intolerant readers have commented that you can use water, juice, and soy milk and get reasonable results.
No Baking Soda or Baking Powder: Baking soda reacts strongly with the acid in the buttermilk. The baking powder is there to give extra lift from the heat that comes from cooking the pancakes. The two together give you double lifting power. If you have no baking soda, just double the baking powder. However, if you have no baking powder, just increase the Baking soda to 3/4 tsp as too much risks a bitter taste.
If you don’t have either, then you really are toast.
No Butter:Use oil. It won’t be sublime, but it works… No Egg: Not great, but you can survive without it, it won’t be as lofty and the pancakes will taste a bit ‘flat’ and the texture of the final pancake will be stiff. Add a teaspoon of wheat gluten (if you have it) to add more protein and a bit more buttermilk to make up for the lost liquids and think about adding fruit or spices to the batter to liven the flavor up.
This is a rather long article for ‘just pancakes’. The point was to write enough so that complete novices will feel someone is there, giving them tips and encouraging them to try. I’ve met too many people that never even think of trying to cook like this. Give it a shot! The ingredients are cheap and the results are amazing.
Thanks to the many people that have offered edits/suggestions to this knol. It is MUCH improved due to your suggestions. I wish there was a way on knol to chat and create our own backroom to discuss the many suggestions (and challenges!) you’ve made.