The 10 Pancake Commandments

published Feb 9, 2016
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(Image credit: Hali Bey Ramdene)

Here we are on Shrove Tuesday (aka Pancake Day), a high holy day for those devoted to pancakes. I’ve got more than four decades of dedication to the griddle under my belt, so I’m sharing my 10 Pancake Commandments to help steer you to some of the best pancakes on the planet.

Along the way you might find deep satisfaction. Knowing how to make a quick, hot meal like pancakes is very rewarding. As my 12-year-old said this morning, “I’m so proud of my pile of partially burnt pancakes!” Now I just need to teach him that extra browning is called caramelization.

1. Love thy ingredients.

Use the best things you can find: eggs with the sunniest yolks, full-fat yogurt and milk, excellent baking powder, and fresh flour. These components will be working together to make your cakes shine. Fresh, stone-ground whole-grain flours have loads of flavors, and those flavors fade, or even go rancid over time. Fresh flours have vibrant tastes that can really build excellent pancakes. Look for great stuff at natural food stores, and ask your favorite artisan bread baker where they get their stone-ground whole-grain flour. Maybe they will share a cup of their favorite stuff for your breakfast! (Stranger things have happened.) Do not grab the ancient bag of flour or outdated can of baking powder in the back of the cupboard! Old griddles are okay, but old ingredients are not.

The laws of leaveners.

Buy a good brand of double-acting baking powder. It’s designed to work twice — once when the liquids hit the baking powder, and a second time, when the batter hits the heat.

Make sure it is fresh. Buy only as much as you’ll use within the date stamped on the container. Some companies make this easy for occasional bakers by selling smaller containers.

Do not use too much (one teaspoon baking powder per cup of flour). Extra just tastes like extra. It doesn’t give your flour any more oomph as it’s trying to rise up off the griddle.

If you are going to use baking soda as your only rising agent, beware — it is easy to get too metallic with baking soda. I can’t give you numbers on this, except to say that baking soda was invented in 1840, and baking powder has been with us since 1865. I prefer the calculated muscle of baking powder, which is actually a combination of baking soda and phosphoric acid. By comparison, combining baking soda with acids — such as cream of tartar, buttermilk, yogurt, apple cider, etc. — is far less controlled. The acidity of your liquid/acid can vary, and so can the loft and taste of your final product.

I do like to add a little bit of yogurt to kick in some tang; the baking soda I use in my recipe — 1/4 teaspoon per cup — only balances the sourness of the yogurt, and keeps the baking powder on track.

Remember this: If soda, then sour. If you skip the souring agent — buttermilk, yogurt, milk with vinegar or lemon juice, or even cider — skip the soda, and just let that muscular baking powder get to work on your batter.

2. Thou shalt not overmix.

Resist the urge to build up your biceps. Use a whisk, and remember that this is not exercise — this is breakfast! While you do want to make sure there are no islands of dry ingredients lurking, this is easily achieved by mixing the liquids and dry ingredients separately, and then adding the dry on top of the liquids. Whisk rather quickly and not too thoroughly, because you do not want to develop the gluten as you would in a bread dough. You are introducing the ingredients to each other — not making them disco dance.

3. Thou shalt let the batter rest.

Now that you’ve introduced the ingredients, let them get to know one another, and have a drink! Making terrific pancakes means allowing the flour to absorb the liquids, and letting the leaveners do a little work. Five minutes minimum is required by pancake law. If you’ve taken your pancake driving license test, you know that 10 minutes is ideal. But if you get busy and start doing something else and remember you are starved a half an hour later, the batter will be in good shape, too. However, do not stir that batter once you rediscover it! This will destroy all of the good business the leavening (baking soda and baking powder) has done.

4. Thou shalt not fear the butter.

Pancakes love butter like winter loves scarves. Butter is a beautiful thing; it will make a good pancake taste better, and it’s the only thing I’ll use to grease my griddle. Oils break down in high heat, so that’s no good, and besides, you have to deal with the flavor that oil gives the pancake. Butter goes with every pancake I make, so it’s my safety fat.

Plus. you know that test of making water dance on the griddle before you add a pancake? It works even better with butter. When the butter melts, and just barely begins to brown, spoon a nice spoonful of batter on the griddle. Think tawny bubbling butter.

You’ll get this by giving the griddle time to heat. Medium heat is the rule, or, if you are measuring on an electric griddle — or with a heat gun, go for 350 to 375°F. This will take about two to four minutes of heating, depending on your heat source.

But do not put butter in the batter. I never add fat to the batter; I don’t love oil, and I don’t think that the cakes need butter inside them to be perfect. About 15 years ago I decided that incorporating melted butter is just an extra step that might interfere with my desire to have pancakes as often as possible.

5. Thou shalt use good tools.

The best griddles were made from cast aluminum before the advent of nonstick surfaces. (I only want butter on the skin of my cakes, and don’t like worrying whether nonstick surfaces are leeching or peeling, and getting into my food.)

Cast aluminum distributes heat far more reliably than cast iron pans, or stainless steel ones. While I have had success with other pans at other people’s houses, I now always carry a good griddle with me so that I don’t have to wonder how to work with a new-to-me pan.

Familiarity with a griddle and heat source — propane, natural gas. and electric all work differently — will facilitate ease at the stove, and soon you’ll be standing there feeling ready to navigate any pancake: savory or sweet, gluten-free or gluten-full.

Shop for an old griddle at yard sales and thrift shops. While hunting, keep your eyes peeled for a handy spatula. A good pancake spatula has a grip that feels right in your hand. The working end of the spatula will be thin and flexible, to get under the thin cake without fuss. You don’t want a wide spatula — just something slender that can navigate the edge of the pancake and flip it over. These days I’m experimenting with thin cake/pie servers. I really like the way they work with pancakes.

Nicely carved wooden pancake spatulas are beautiful because anything specifically built for pancakes is fun as heck, and also because they do a terrific job at flipping.

6. Thou shalt not flip at the wrong second.

Making pancakes requires your attention. I have the patience of an untamed flea, so if I can hang around the griddle and wait about 45 seconds or a minute for the right moment to flip, anyone else in the entire universe can, too.

The key to knowing when to flip depends on knowing your griddle and heat (see above) and on the flour you use. White flour pancakes are ready when bubbles form and start to break on the surface of the batter. Whole-grain batters are ready sooner. This is because of the maillard reaction; compounds in whole-grain flours brown sooner than white flours. Either way, the pancake will puff up, and the shiny batter will start to look a little bit matte. If matte, then flip.

Flip once and only once. That’s just a rule you have to follow. (Unless you have a child who is excited about pancakes, yet too young to navigate a flip on her own. You may let her do the second flip. This term was coined by a friend whose daughter is convinced she was born in the wrong household because they do not have pancakes every morning.)

7. Thou shalt not pat the pancake.

Please don’t ever affectionately pat a pancake once you’ve flipped it. A pancake is nothing like a hamburger. It doesn’t need anything pushed out its sides. The only thing you’ll achieve by patting the pancake is squishing down some of the beautiful height that mechanics, chemistry, and heat have produced.

8. Thou shalt not whip the eggs.

There is no need to separate the eggs and whip the whites. To do so will just tax your patience, and keep you from enjoying the simplest of breakfasts as often as possible. If you use very good baking powder, and don’t compulsively stir down a nicely risen batter, you will achieve incredible loft without going to the extra trouble of beating the eggs.

I am insistent on this because pancakes are a pedestrian food — a staple for who knows how long in human history. I want them to be practical and simple and frequent in your life — not something you only have time for on occasion. Watching a little cake rise on the griddle in the morning should be a perky thing, like a cup of coffee to help you roll into the whirlwind of your days.

9. Thou shalt dot thy pancakes with blueberries.

When incorporating extra ingredients, the rule is to get the batter on the griddle and then put the apples or berries or cheese on top. Making a beautiful pattern is not required, but it won’t do you any good to mix these extras into your batter. In the case of berries, the juice will bleed into the batter, changing the color and texture of the final cake. And, any extra ingredient is going to taste extra good if it hits the hot pan itself, encouraging some of those maillard reactions to happen. You’ll get some caramelization of the sugars from an apple or other fruit, and melting cheese ups the game of any cake very handily!

The exception to this commandment is corn. When you are making cornmeal pancakes with corn kernels, as you should about once a month if you love life, mix those kernels right in as you are blending together the liquid and dry ingredients. You can use canned corn, or leftover corn cut off the cob. You want to let frozen corn thaw a little so it won’t cool down the batter.

10. Thou shalt not marry maple syrup.

There are a million different ways to top a pancake. Yes, butter on a pancake is beautiful. Yes, maple is lovely if you like it — but I don’t. I like yogurt and applesauce, cut fruit, and sometimes just butter. I like salami and cheese pancakes, with the meat and cheese all crispy from the griddle — they need no topping. I like pancakes at two in the afternoon, cold and sandwiching peanut butter and jelly. Same as bread, pancakes are just a platform for anything else. In my case, pancakes are the platform to build the rest of my life.

The first meal I made the man I married was corn pancakes. The stakes were high, and I wanted to show him everything I could do at the griddle. So I made some savory, and served these with salsa, fried onions, and cheese. When he went to the pantry and took a ruby red Cornelian cherry syrup he’d made off the shelf, I knew I’d found a man who could help me make a home. His syrup went magically well with the sweet cornmeal cakes I’d made.

Bonus commandment: Thou shalt not fret.

These are pancakes. This isn’t athletic cooking — just practical feeding that is entirely fun! Gather your ingredients and tools, plan to get risky, and see how everything comes together. If things fail, you will still have a baked good slathered with butter. Problem? No.

Follow my guidelines and recipe, and let your imagination go. People have been pancaking long before pancake mix and (egads!) frozen pancakes. Put a puddle of gruel on a hot rock and voila — there was the first pancake. Yours can be very tasty if you get some flavorful flours, put your heart into the batter, and go.

Side benefit of everyday pancakes: they sit round on your round griddle, and ask you to stand still for the time it takes for the first side to be ready to flip. Stand still for half a minute — what else asks you to meditate? I’m asking you to try this out. On a weekend, get your gear together and get in gear, learning how you want your batter, perfecting your flipping chops. Then get into weekday breakfasts, and ah, you’ll be sighing at the mandala-like fat patterns the butter makes on the cakes, and be happy at the little loft you’ll find at the griddle. I’m a doctor of pancake-o-logy, and I prescribe this for you: your daily pancake.