James Beard, the late dean of American cooking, once wrote that “every miner, every prospector, every pioneer who trekked across the land, practically every child, could mix up a mess of flapjack batter.”
Today, pancakes are more apt to be made from a box, poured out of a carton or popped from freezer to microwave oven than whipped up from scratch. It’s a sad truth that even some of the legendary pancake houses turn to mixes.
Marion Cunningham, author of “The Breakfast Book,” wonders whether pancake-making is becoming a lost art.
“People aren’t making them from scratch much anymore,” she says. “I guess a reasonable proof is that if all those boxes are in the supermarket, people are looking for a helping hand with pancakes.”
Making pancakes is simple. Just about every recipe has a short list of ingredients and quick cooking time, both of which should encourage cooks. But Cunningham says bad recipes abound and that one round of leaden pancakes can turn cooks off homemade for good.
“They used to be called flannel cakes and that’s exactly what they taste like if the recipe isn’t good,” she says. “They’re floppy, and instead of being tender, they’re just plain heavy.”
Pancakes are kin to muffins and quick breads and therein lies an important clue to making them. Ronni Lundy, author of “Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken,” writes that “like a good mule, (pancake batter) works better the less you beat it.” No less an authority than the “Joy of Cooking” advises that, unlike gravy or mashed potatoes, a few lumps in pancake batter are quite all right.
Lundy suggests that as soon as the batter is just moistened, you should plop it in the pan.
A heavy griddle or skillet works best. Lundy prefers cast iron, although anodized aluminum and good stainless steel make some pretty mean cakes, too.
Lundy writes of a helpful tradition: making the first cake “for the pan,” which “helps you determine whether the batter is the right consistency and the pan the proper temperature” (Lundy suggests medium-high heat). It also acts like a spongecake, sopping up extra oil so that subsequent cakes are light rather than leaden.
It’s best to turn pancakes only once, and only when the top is nicely pocked with little bubbles. After turning them, judge the second side with a gentle tap with your finger. If the cake feels wet and squishy, it needs more time.
So what makes a great pancake? Opinions abound, but fluffy is a word that’s heard over and over.
Ina Pinkney, owner of Ina’s Kitchen in Chicago, offered a pancake recipe that she describes as fluffy as well as foolproof. It’s mercifully free of warnings, cautions and careful steps that sneak into some recipes, making them seem more like haute cuisine than simple flapjacks. And as Pinkney promised, the recipe worked like a charm.
But, one cook wondered, why does it use buttermilk instead of regular milk?
Good question. We tried the foolproof recipe again, substituting milk and baking powder for buttermilk and baking soda. The buttermilk cake was the uncontested favorite, thanks to its light-as-a-feather texture and good, simple pancake taste.
Then we couldn’t stop experimenting. We tried the foolproof recipe more than 20 times, rejiggering proportions, ingredients and cooking methods. Our final recipe varies somewhat from the one Pinkney shared, but it is just about the best pancake ever.
Some lessons learned along the way:
Sweet milk: Using whole milk instead of buttermilk also requires a switch in the leavening, from baking soda to baking powder. These pancakes are half the height of the buttermilk version (read: less fluffy). With buttermilk, the pancakes are about 5/8-inch high. With milk, they’re 1/4-inch.
Yogurt instead of buttermilk: This produces a thicker batter. Thinning it out with an extra 2 tablespoons milk helps, although the pancakes aren’t as tender or fluffy. However, if it’s yogurt you have in the house, use it in a pinch.
Dry buttermilk powder works very well unless you make a side-by-side taste comparison with fresh buttermilk. We also tried souring milk with vinegar, which often is cited as a substitute for buttermilk, but the pancakes aren’t as fluffy or light and have a somewhat more sour taste.
Sugar: We upped the sugar to a tablespoon, which is overkill; the pancakes are too sweet. A teaspoon brings balance but still allows the perfect play between savory cake and sweet syrup.
Standing time: It doesn’t make much difference if the batter sits 30 minutes before cooking. Overnight, however, produces a slightly more compact cake. The batter is so easy to make that there’s no real advantage to doing it ahead of time. But if you want to cook a few cakes each morning throughout the week, the batter will hold up just fine.
Separately beaten egg white: This produces a somewhat lighter pancake but not enough to justify the extra effort.
More butter/less butter: Butter tenderizes the batter. With less, the cakes are coarser; using more thins the batter, causing it to lose some of its fluff. Tradition suggests using butter in the batter, but vegetable oil works just as well. If a subtle taste of butter is missing, you can put a little pat atop the stack.
Softened butter versus melted butter: Unless it was smeary soft, the butter did not mix well into the batter. It’s easier to melt the butter.
Nonstick, stainless, or cast iron: We instinctively grabbed a nonstick skillet, figuring we’d be able to use less oil to cook the pancakes. This was the case, but it was almost impossible to get the perfect look - a uniform, tawny brown color. Oil tends to collect in puddles instead of creating a film over the entire surface, making the pancakes a mottled brown. The cast-iron and stainless-steel pans give picture-perfect looks as well as great taste.
Cooking fat: Butter adds a nice taste, but it burns. Nonstick spray smells awful. Vegetable oil (not olive oil) doesn’t burn as easily but adds nothing to the taste. This is OK, though. The pancakes stand on their own.
It’s best to cook them in a surprisingly scant amount of fat, just a thin film. Give it a swipe with a paper towel to distribute it evenly over the inside of the pan.
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon EACH baking soda, salt
1 large egg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil for cooking
Combine all ingredients (through butter) in a mixing bowl and whisk lightly. It’s OK if there are small lumps and streaks.
Heat 2 teaspoons vegetable oil in a 10-inch skillet over high heat. When it is hot, use a paper towel to wipe away the excess oil, leaving a thin film on the entire surface. Reduce the heat to medium-high and add 1/4 cup batter for each of 3 pancakes. Cook until there are bubbles at the edges. Turn with a metal turner and cook the other side.
Continue to cook remaining batter, adding more oil as necessary.
Yield: 10 (3-inch) pancakes.
Nutrition information per pancake: 85 calories, 3 grams fat (32 percent fat calories), 30 milligrams cholesterol, 11 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 200 milligrams sodium.
Whole-wheat pancakes: Decrease flour to 3/4 cup and add 1/4 cup whole-wheat flour.
Blueberry: Fold 3/4 cup berries into batter.
Banana: Slice 1 ripe banana into batter.
Pecan: Add 2/3 cup chopped toasted pecans to the batter.
Bridge Creek Heavenly Hots
Yes, this recipe from “The Breakfast Book” by Marion Cunningham is correct as written, with lots of sour cream and practically no flour. The resulting pancakes are ineffably light and utterly delicious, especially when topped with a drizzle of warm syrup. Don’t be tempted to lighten the recipe by using nonfat sour cream or egg substitutes.
4 large eggs
1/4 cup cake flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon EACH salt, baking soda
2 cups sour cream
Vegetable oil for cooking
Put eggs in a mixing bowl and whisk until blended. Add flour, sugar, salt and baking soda. Mix well. Add sour cream and mix lightly, just to combine.
Heat a thin film of oil in a large skillet or griddle. Spoon 1 tablespoon batter for each cake onto griddle (do not try to make them larger; they will not hold their shape). Cook until top of each cake is bubbly. Turn and cook the other side. Serve hot.
Yield: 48 small pancakes (12 servings).
Nutrition information per serving: 125 calories, 10 grams fat (72 percent fat calories), 90 milligrams cholesterol, 7 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 185 milligrams sodium.
Overnight Sourdough Pancakes
This recipe, adapted from “Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken” by Ronni Lundy, brings tangy, light sourdough flapjacks to the table without the usual sourdough starter. In its place is an overnight version that starts with whole-wheat bread.
2 cups buttermilk, divided use
3 slices dry whole-wheat bread
1 packet active dry yeast
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon melted butter or vegetable oil
Vegetable oil for cooking
Heat 1 cup buttermilk to lukewarm. Break the bread into pieces and place in a large mixing bowl; sprinkle with yeast. Pour the heated buttermilk over, cover and let stand at room temperature 12 hours or overnight.
The next morning, sift together flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add to bread mixture. Add eggs, remaining 1 cup buttermilk and melted butter; mix well.
Heat a thin film of oil in a heavy skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. Make pancakes, using 1/4 cup batter for each. Cook, turning once, until golden on both sides. Serve hot.
Yield: 15 pancakes.
Nutrition information per pancake: 85 calories, 2 grams fat (21 percent fat calories), 30 milligrams cholesterol, 12 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 305 milligrams sodium.