Pancake Perfection

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Someone told me his mother always made pancakes from a box mix–the kind where you just add water and stir. So when he first tried making some from scratch, he was disappointed. He said to me, “they just didn’t taste the same.” And I thought, “Isn’t that the point?” Then I realized what he was saying. His idea of what a pancake should taste like came from a box mix. That was what he had grown up with. That was his gold standard. For him, the taste of homemade pancakes came from a box.

If you’re like me, nothing says ‘Sunday morning’ like a stack of hot pancakes, but if you’re still using a box mix, you have no idea what you’re missing. Nothing from a box can come close to the taste of pancakes made from scratch. Let me explain why.

This is what goes into making pancakes from scratch:

Ingredients: All purpose flour, milk/buttermilk, eggs, butter, sugar, leavening (baking powder and/or soda), salt, vanilla extract.

Do you think the fresh taste of buttermilk, eggs, and butter can really be capture in a powdered mix? More importantly, consider what you don’t see in the list above; things like dextrose, hydrogenated oil, wheat gluten, corn syrup, lactic acid, artificial coloring, and mono or diglycerides. Those are just a few of the additives found in some of the big name pancake mixes.

We can do better. In fact, I’m going to show you how to make the best buttermilk pancakes ever. I’m talking–thick, spongey cakes that are perfect for soaking up loads of butter and syrup. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, see the picture below. These pancakes are so good, that I’m certain once you’ve tried them, you’ll never go back to a box again.

The Basic Recipe

There are hundreds of recipes for pancakes, but they all have the same core ingredients–flour, milk, egg, and butter. My goal is a thick pancake that’s light and airy–not dense or heavy. The key to this is in the ratio of flour to milk, which differs from recipe to recipe.

In his book Ratio, Michael Ruhlman advocates an equal ratio of flour to water by weight. In other words, for every ounce of flour, you need about an ounce of milk.  This certainly produces a thick batter and, as such, a thick pancake, but I find them too dense for my taste.  I don’t want to walk away from the breakfast table feeling weighted down.

I recommend a “lighter” ratio; one that uses only an ounce of flour to ever 1½-2 ounces of milk. This not only creates a much lighter pancake, but oddly enough, it works out to be a one-to-one ratio volumetrically. For every cup of flour, you’ll need about a cup of milk or buttermilk, which is easy to remember. Ordinarily, I advise cooks to measure their flour by weight rather than volume to ensure better accuracy and consistency. However, pancake batter is pretty forgiving, and you have a wide range of latitude. Stir the flour briefly before scooping it into a measuring cup. This will aerate the flour, and reduce clumping.

I prefer buttermilk to milk. I like the slightly tangy taste it lends to the pancakes, but buttermilk has another advantage. Because it contains more acid than milk, buttermilk reacts more with the leavening agent, producing more gas and therefor a fluffier pancake. I use two leaveners, baking powder and backing soda. The baking soda will work with the buttermilk as soon as the two come together. So before the cakes are cooked, the batter will start to rise. (More about the later.)

Eggs and butter are also essential ingredients to building the perfect pancake. Their respective amounts also vary widely from recipe to recipe. With both ingredients, a little goes a long way. Eggs help to lift your cakes and provide substance and richness. Too many, and your cakes will take on an yolky taste.  You’ll generally find you need one egg for every 3-4 ounces of flour, approximately ¾ cup.

Butter adds richness and flavor, but there comes a point of over-saturation. Too much butter can weigh your cakes down. Less is actually better. If you want more buttery flavor on your hot pancakes, spread some on top. You’ll taste more of it that way than by putting it into the batter. For additional taste and flavor, I add a little sugar, salt and vanilla to our basic recipe.

The Mixing Method

When combining the ingredients, we use the muffin method. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the muffin method simply means we will combine the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet ingredients in another bowl, and then we’ll stir the wet into the dry. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

The secret to thick, fluffy pancakes is to not over mix the dry and wet ingredients. Believe it or not, you’ll want a very lumpy mix. This may seem counter-intuitive, but over mixing creates more gluten and leads to chewier pancakes. Gently fold the wet ingredients into the dry with a spatula or wooden spoon just enough to remove any large pockets of dry ingredients, then set the bowl aside and allow the mix to set for at least five minutes. During that time, the baking soda will react with the acids in the buttermilk to form large air bubbles that will break-up those lumps and lift the batter until it almost resembles a sponge.

Resting the batter for 5 minutes allows large pockets of air to form.

Cooking Your Cakes

A high heat ensures a light and airy crumb and a deep, golden brown exterior, but you must not leave the cakes unattended for too long or they will burn. An electric griddle is the best option. It’s easier to regulate the temperature, and you’ll probably be able to fit more cakes on a griddle than in a pan. A cast iron fry pan, heavy bottom skillet, or flat stove top griddle will work nicely too, though you need to regulate the heat frequently. Unless you intend to serve you’re hot cakes as soon as their cooked, it’s a good idea to pre-heat your oven to 200º F to keep things warm until you’re ready to site down an enjoy them.

Whichever method you use, it’s important the cooking surface be nice and hot. If using an electric griddle, set the temperate to between 375º-400º F, or about 200ºC. For a stove top, this would be about medium heat. To determine if your pan is hot enough, place a small drop or two of water onto the cooking surface. The drops should dance and evaporate in a matter of seconds.

The perfect color for a pancake is anywhere from a golden brown or a deeper chestnut brown, as demonstrated in the color palette below. This usually takes about 2-3 minutes for the first side, and another 1-2 minutes for the second side. To monitor progress, peek at the underside now and again. If the cakes seem to be cooking too slow or too fast moderate the temperature as needed. Its time to flip your pancake when you see the desired color, the edges have set and begin to dry out, and the batter is bubbling across the top. Allow the second side to heat until slightly browned and the cake springs back when gently pressed with your finger.

The Perfect Pancake Color Palette

A Word About Add-Ins

Many recipes call for folding add-ins, such as blueberries, chocolate chips and bananas, into the batter after combining the wet and dry ingredients. I’m not a fan of this, as I think it tends to over mix the batter. For me, it all depends on the ingredient I’m adding in. For chocolate chips, I stir those directly into the dry ingredients before combining with the wet. With blueberries, I like to add them directly into each individual cake right after spooning the batter onto the hot griddle. This way I can evenly distribute the berries. For wetter ingredients like sliced bananas or strawberries, I fold those into the wet ingredients before combining with the dry. Alternatively, you could just serve your pancakes with fresh sliced bananas and/or strawberries on top. Just keep in mind that add-ins like fruits and berries add more moisture and will require increased cooking times.

Going Gluten-Free

If you are gluten sensitive or intolerant, you can easily substitute 1½ cups of buckwheat flour for all purpose flour. In the absence of gluten, the cakes will actually turn out lighter and fluffier, but they will cook faster. So keep a close watch on the griddle.

To Top of It All Off

After going to the trouble of making you and your loved ones the perfect pancakes, take care with the ingredients you put on top. Don’t wait until you sit down to pull the butter out of the fridge. Pull it out a good 20-30 minutes before you eat. That way it’s sure to melt. And don’t bother with cheap syrup with artificial maple taste. Make sure the syrup you buy has only one ingredient: pure maple syrup. Or skip the syrup all together and top your cakes with a homemade fruit compote. After all, perfection has it’s rewards.


Thick & Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes

Recipe by David EllisDifficulty: Easy
Servings

8

5-inch pancakes
Total time

20

minutes

A spongey, airy batter makes for pancakes that are thick but light and fluffy, perfect for soaking up lots of butter and maple syrup. There are two things to keep in mind. First, don’t over mix the batter. When combining the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients, stir just enough to eliminate large pockets of dry flour. Don’t worry about the lumps. Second, let the batter rest for at least 5 minutes. This allows the baking soda time to react to the acids in the buttermilk and form air pockets.

For a gluten-free version, replace the all-purpose flour with 1½ cups of buckwheat flour.

Ingredients

  • 3 tbsp butter, unsalted

  • 1½ cups (200g) all purpose flour

  • 3 tbsp granulated sugar

  • 1½ tsp baking powder

  • ½ tsp baking soda

  • ½ tsp salt

  • 2 eggs large or extra large

  • 1½ cups buttermilk

  • 1 tsp good quality vanilla extract

  • ½ tsp vegetable oil

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 200ºF/93ºC. In a small sauce pan, melt butter over low heat. Set aside to cool.
  • In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt until well combined. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk eggs thoroughly. Add buttermilk, cooled butter and vanilla and whisked until combined.
  • Pour the wet ingredients over the dry, and gently fold together until most of the dry mix is combined. Do not over mix. Batter should be very lumpy with several small pockets of dry mix. Set the bowl aside and allow batter to rest, undisturbed, for five minutes.
  • Preheat griddle or pan until a drop of water placed on top dances and evaporates in seconds. Unless your using a non-stick pan, it may be necessary to grease the cooking surface. To do this heat, vegetable oil until shimmering and swirl the oil around the pan.
  • Spoon a heaping ⅓ cup batter onto griddle or pan and spread evenly into a 3- to 4-inch circle. Cook until edges have set, batter is bubbling and the underside is lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes. Flip with spatula and cook the other side until lightly browned and the cake springs back after gently pressing it with your finger, an additional 1-2 minutes.
  • As you work in batches, place finished cakes onto serving platter and keep warm in the oven. Serve immediately with room temperature butter and good quality maple syrup.

Notes

  • 3/25/2022 – I’ve updated the metric amount of all-purpose flour from 180g to 200g after reading about the differences in weight depending on flour brand and how the flour is measured. I have great results with King Arthur Organic All-Purpose Flour and the “fluff & scoop” method with a one and a one-half dry measuring cup. – Dave