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The Secrets to Making Great Pancakes

Pancakes are best served piping hot. Have the butter and syrup warm, too.

by Kathleen Stewart

fromFine Cooking
Issue 34

While good pancakes are easy to make, flawless flapjacks require some attention to the critical steps: mixing the batter, getting the heat right, cooking, and flipping. Although the techniques I cover below are appropriate for all pancakes, I do have a favorite kind—buttermilk. Deliciously airy, tender yet filling, their flavor has more personality thanks to the slight tang of the buttermilk.

Mix lightly and give the batter a rest

While that other great breakfast food, bread, is kneaded to develop the gluten in the flour, pancakes are mixed minimally to avoid forming toughening gluten. There are a few ways to ensure that you mix pancake batter well without overmixing it.

Have all your ingredients at room temperature. Mix cold buttermilk and eggs with melted butter and you get clumps of butter—not the end of the world, but not optimal for even distribution. Conversely, butter that’s piping hot can cook the eggs.

If you don’t want to get up early to take the ingredients out of the fridge, here are a couple of shortcuts: Place cold eggs in a bowl of warm (not boiling) water for a minute or so. Microwave cold milk for 30 seconds or heat it in a double boiler for a few minutes. You’ll also want to let the melted butter cool a bit.

  • Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl and the wet in a medium bowl. Combine each set of ingredients thoroughly now to avoid overmixing later.
  • Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, as opposed to dry into wet. This way gives you more control, and less flour flies about.

Mix the wet and the dry ingredients separately before combining. This separation allows you to thoroughly and evenly combine most of the ingredients with impunity because the gluten in the flour develops only after the flour is moistened. Your goal when combining the wet with the dry is to do so with as few strokes as possible. The batter’s consistency at this point should resemble a slightly thick, still-lumpy cake batter.

Give the batter a rest before cooking. A rest of at least five minutes allows for the even hydration of the batter and also allows the gluten you created—which will develop even with careful, minimal mixing—to relax. The lumps will smooth out somewhat during this rest.

  • Mix with just a few strokes until the batter is evenly moistened. Ignore the lumps.
  • Let the batter rest for at least 5 minutes. You’ll see a difference in the batter after it rests. Oil the pan lightly and let it get hot. Water droplets that dance briefly before disappearing mean the heat is right.
Maybe "griddlecake" is more accurate

For a deliciously browned exterior and an even shape, pancakes need hot, even heat. You can use a pan, but a griddle will give you more room to maneuver and let you cook more pancakes at one time.  

I often use a well-seasoned cast-iron griddle, one that straddles two burners. I recently tried an electric griddle, and—to my surprise—I liked it a lot. It let me cook ten pancakes at once, and the temperature remained steady.

Minimal greasing is best: pancakes aren’t supposed to be fried. Rub on a little vegetable oil with a paper towel. Butter is also good, but take care that it doesn’t burn.

Get the griddle nice and hot before you start. To test the temperature of the cooking surface, throw a few drops of cold water on it. The drops should sizzle immediately yet dance around before they disappear. If they evaporate immediately, the pan is too hot; if they just sit there without sizzling, the pan is too cool and your pancakes won’t get that lovely browned exterior.

Take a test run
Pour the batter from the tip of a spoon. Use the spoon to gently spread this fairly thick batter.

How your batter spreads depends on its consistency, which can vary from batch to batch. A very thin batter will spread unevenly and result in flat pancakes, while a too-thick one won’t spread much at all. Until you can gauge how a batter will act, it’s a good idea make one test pancake. This test will also let you know how much space to leave between the pancakes.

I like mine on the thick side and large enough to make an impressive stack. For my batter, two tablespoons should yield a four-inch-wide pancake. To get a well-rounded shape, choose a spoon that will hold about that much batter. Hold the spoon just above the surface of the griddle and let the batter pour slowly from the tip of the spoon. With this rather thick batter, you may also need to spread the batter into a round with the spoon. If you need to thin the batter, add more buttermilk or water, a bit at a time; thicken it with a quick addition of more flour.

Flip the pancakes when they’re covered in bubbles. Check the underside to be sure it’s nicely browned, flip, and cook the other side for about half as long.

Cook until bubbles cover the surface; flip before they all break. Before you flip, take a peek at the underside to be sure it’s nicely browned. Turn each pancake carefully with a spatula. Bake the second side about half as long as the first. Don’t flatten the pancakes with the spatula or they’ll become leaden.

Serve ’em as you make ’em. Pancakes taste best right off the griddle. This can be a drag if you want to eat with the crowd, but if you really love pancakes, it’s worth the sacrifice. Take turns playing short-order cook or have a couple of griddles going at once so you can cook a lot of pancakes simultaneously. If you must, you can keep pancakes in a 200°F oven, spread on a baking sheet lined with a kitchen towel. Don’t stack or even overlap them or the resulting steam will make them flabby.

Have everything else warm. Cold, rock-hard butter is a sad sight sitting on a pancake. For best eating, have the butter, the syrup, and even the plates at room temperature or, even better, slightly warm.

Although I like my pancakes best simply adorned with syrup and sweet butter, sliced fruit or homemade jam can tempt me. Fruit should be very ripe and also at room temperature. You can add nuts or very soft or cooked fruit right to the batter or sprinkle them onto the pancakes when they first hit the griddle—a good idea if you want a variety of flavors or if some folks like them plain.

Photos, except where noted: Scott Phillips

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