The Perfect Pancake

I love pancakes. Whether they are being served up hot from the griddle for breakfast or are featuring in some fiendish layered dessert, I love pancakes. And I am picky about how they should be made and what kind of texture they should have. A pancake should be soft and pillowy on the inside and crispy on the outside. To get the perfect texture, you have to control the ingredients, the way you combine them, and the way you cook them.

Imagine my joy when I learned a few years ago that for most of the Western world, Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent) is typically observed with the eating of pancakes served up with all the bits and pieces of things left in the pantry. They eat sweet pancakes, savory pancakes, and fun combinations of the two. In fact, in England Shrove Tuesday is often called Pancake Tuesday, and is often the only day of the year when pancakes are eaten. While I like the thought of a holiday centering around pancakes, I hate to think of only eating my favorite breakfast treat once a year.

As you might imagine, I am not a fan of pancake mixes. Mixes never give the right amount of fluffiness or crispness. Besides, and I did the math on this once, making your own is insanely cheap compared to buying pancake mix. At my local grocery store, a 1 pound box of pancake mix costs $3.99, while making my own batch of the same weight costs about 39 cents. I love to use a variant on Alton Brown’s
“Instant” pancake recipe. I also love what I think is pretty much exclusively an Alaskan phenomenon, the sourdough pancake, but that is another story and will be another post in the future.

While I love making pancakes from scratch, I have to admit that this rule about only eating the real thing goes right out the window when I am back in my parent’s house. My dad is the breakfast cook of the family, and I never remember him using anything other than a mix – usually the cheapest mix he could find because we were a pretty poor family with three kids who could all put away some pancakes.  Dad worked nights, and would get off work at about 1:30am, but he got up early every Saturday morning to make us pancakes anyway. My brother, sister, and I would sit at the kitchen table with plate and fork while he flipped pancakes, serving them to us one-at-a-time in order of age (youngest to oldest).  I remember asking him one time why he would get up to make us pancakes when he had to be exhausted from working so hard all night and only getting a few hours of sleep. “Because I’m your dad and I love you,” was his reply. So, to this day whenever I go home to Missouri for a visit, at least once while I am there my dad makes us pancakes from a mix and we sit enjoying every single bite.

Ingredients
Pancakes in the US are usually leavened with the chemical leaveners baking powder and/or baking soda, but some recipes originating in Europe are leavened in whole or in part with whipped egg whites. If I’m making pancakes as part of a dessert, I tend to go with the whipped egg white treatment. Breakfast pancakes, for me at least, are simpler affairs leavened chemically. For some reason, at 6am, I really don’t feel like whipping egg whites. Go figure.

So, when it comes to chemical leavening, I get one question all the time. “When do I use baking powder, and when do I use baking soda?” Baking powder will activate in water or any water-based liquid, while baking soda needs the presence of an acid. My preferred recipe actually incorporates both baking powder and baking soda. I like to use buttermilk in my pancakes (more flavor), so the acid in the buttermilk will activate the baking soda. If you aren’t using buttermilk or some other acid (lemon juice, etc), just stick with baking powder.

Beyond the leavening, your choice of ingredients is important, but at the same time is something you can play with to create a lot of interesting variations. There is no need to use just white wheat flour. Try some whole wheat, or spelt, or oat flour (usually as an addition to white flour in no more than a 50/50 mix). Being a southern boy, I love adding a little corn meal if I am making the pancakes to accompany dinner. The Japanese and the Russians both enjoy pancakes from buckwheat flour (think blinis with sour cream and caviar). No matter what flours you use, just be sure you maintain a ratio of fluid to dry ingredients of about 1.5:1. So, for every one cup of dry ingredient, you are looking for about 1.5 cups of liquid. And do remember that melted butter and eggs both count as liquid. Of course this ratio is just a guideline, because you flour can vary in humidity enough to throw off the ratio a bit. Basically, when you mix your liquids you are looking for a texture reminiscent of thick paint.

Finally, there is no reason why you can’t mix up a big batch of your dry ingredients and store it in an airtight container so all you have to do when you want pancakes is measure out some of the dry mix and add your liquid ingredients.

Mixing
Mixing your pancake batter is simple, and should take you no more than a few moments. If you spend any more time than that mixing your batter, you are over-working it and the resulting gluten development will guarantee a heavy, tough finished product. I like to use a whisk to do this job, and I try to limit myself to ten turns around the mixing bowl. You will not work out all the lumps, and that’s ok. You are just trying to make sure the dry ingredients are wet and somewhat smooth.

Cooking
The cooking implement has to be something heavy and designed for even distribution of heat. And it has to be capable of withstanding a high temperature. To me, this screams for cast iron,  but a good non-stick pan will also work. I have a special cast iron griddle pan that I use for pancakes, and nothing else. It has been carefully seasoned for years and has a perfect natural non-stick surface without a blemish on it.

(In fact, one of the worst fights ever had in my house was when my beloved decided to use my pancake pan to cook a piece of meat. It changed the surface of the pan just enough that I had to break every rule of cast iron care to get back to a smooth surface. Needless to say, that will never happen again.)

An important key to making pancakes quickly and perfectly is getting the pan or griddle nice and hot. We aren’t talking smoking hot, but if your surface isn’t warm enough not only with the pancakes take forever to cook, but they will most likely stick or burn before they are done in the middle. And forget about a fluffy texture. You are looking for a surface temperature of about 350. For me, that means heating the cast-iron pan over a medium heat for about 4 minutes. After 4 minutes, I test the heat of the pan by placing a few drops of water on the surface. If it flows across the pan like, well, water, your pan isn’t hot enough. If the water explodes, it is too hot. If it “dances” across the surface, you are ready to go.

Even though I am blessed with the perfect cooking surface for pancakes, I like to add a little fat to the pan to ensure perfect non-sticking and to encourage the surface of the pancake to fry and deliver that crispy surface I love oh so much. You can use a flavorless oil like canola, but to me it just has to be butter. Not too much – just wipe a little butter on the heated surface, and whatever melts in the two seconds you are moving the butter across the pan is sufficient.

Dry Pancake Mix

Adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown

6 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons sugar (I like either unrefined sugar or light brown sugar)

Combine all the dry ingredients in a lidded plastic container (metal can interact with baking soda to create a metallic taste with the passage of enough time and the introduction of even a small amount of humidity). Shake to mix thoroughly. Store for up to three months.

Pancakes

2 eggs
2 cups buttermilk (or just under 2 cups of 2% or whole milk with 2 teaspoons of lemon juice added)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted
2 cups of dry pancake mix
1 stick of cold butter, for buttering the pan

  1. Whisk together your eggs, melted butter, and buttermilk in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Add dry mix to the liquid and whisk together until dry ingredients are moistened. After 10-12 turns around the bowl, walk away for 10 minutes. You will not remove the lumps, and that is just fine.
  3. Heat your griddle or pan to 350 degrees F. If you want to cook all your pancakes before you start serving them, also heat your oven to 200 degrees.
  4. Check the heat of your griddle with a few drops of water. If the water dances across the surface of the pan but doesn’t explode, you’re ready to go. Let the water evaporate before buttering the pan (this should take perhaps 5 seconds).
  5. Unwrap the stick of butter and with the long-side facing the pan, rub it evenly on the cooking surface for 2 seconds.
  6. Ladle the pancake batter on to the pan. For silver-dollar pancakes, use just a few tablespoons each. For full-sized pancakes, use 1/2-3/4 cups each.
  7. When bubbles form on the top surface of the pancake and then mostly pop (2-3 minutes), gently turn the pancake to brown the other side (1-2 minutes).
  8. Serve immediately or remove to a cotton towel-lined baking sgeet and cover with another towel. Hold in the oven for 20-30 minutes until all pancakes are cooked.
  9. Serve with butter and good syrup (I love Alaskan Birch Syrup, but maple is probably more available to you), warmed. Or with fresh fruit or fruit compote.

Yield: 12 pancakes

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