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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

I Tried 6 Methods for Cooking Pancakes and I Have a New Forever Favorite

updated Jun 4, 2021
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Pancakes were a Sunday morning staple of my childhood. My mom made a tradition out of whisking up a bowl of Krusteaz pancake batter, swiping her cast iron skillet with lots of butter, and turning out thick, fluffy pancakes topped with lots of maple syrup. While I don’t stick to the same Sunday tradition, pancakes are also a regular at my family table — I’m a big fan of serving pancakes as dinner, as well as making big batches on the weekends and freezing them for quick weekday breakfasts. 

Recently, I got in a big text debate about pancakes with my sister-in-law. She contends that for pancake-making, a well-seasoned cast iron skillet can’t compare to her favorite electric griddle. She’s also a parent who has relied on pancakes to boost morale (or just pass as dinner) a lot in the last year, so I know she speaks from experience.

To settle this debate, I knew there was just one solution: Conduct one of our skills showdowns. This weekend, I made a triple batch of Kitchn’s easy pancake recipe and put six popular pancake cooking techniques to the test. The results have changed how I will cook pancakes forever. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Notes on Methodology  

To create consistency across the cooking methods, I landed on Kitchn’s easy homemade pancake recipe for my batter. It’s made with pantry staples, doesn’t require any beaten egg whites, and is pretty comparable to pancake mix in thickness when mixed and rested. 

I did my best to do as many of the methods side-by-side as possible while also cooking at least three batches of three to six pancakes at a time. Alas, my stovetop only has four burners, which meant that the griddle method and the electric griddle methods were tested immediately after the stovetop methods. Another trick for consistency was to make three separate batches of the batter so that the resting time was close to the same for each method. 

I taste tested each method as it came out of the pan as well as side by side with syrup and butter with my family (my husband, two kids, and my brother, who grew up on the same Sunday morning pancake ritual I did). We judged each pancake on browning and flavor. Here’s what we found. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Pancake Method: Nonstick Pan with Butter

  • Rating: 3/10

A nonstick pan feels like a no-brainer for pancake cookery — namely for the fact that pancake batter is sticky and this pan promises to brown without much fat. Most recipes call for adding butter to nonstick pans for flavor and to help with browning.

Right out of the gate, there were some issues with this combination. First, the nonstick pan seems to take longer than other pans to heat up, so the first round of pancakes was a bit pale and not quite browned. In between batches, I was tempted to wipe out the pan (some recipes suggest this), but I decided against it. Shouldn’t the best method for cooking pancakes not require fussy between-batch wiping and wasting a lot of paper towels? As I suspected, the leftover butter from the first round burned a bit during the second batch, even though I added more butter.

My entire family ranked this method dead last. While we loved the buttery flavor, the results were really inconsistent from batch to batch — some pale, some golden-brown and perfect, and even more pancakes had very browned, nearly burnt bits of butter. If your only option is a nonstick pan, try oil or, even better, skip the fat altogether.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Pancake Method: Nonstick Pan with Oil

  • Rating: 4/10

Testing the two nonstick methods side by side — one with butter and one with oil — was incredibly eye-opening. Not only is the oil easier to dose out and refresh between batches, but it also quickly revealed how much butter, even the little bit used for cooking, impacts flavor. 

I am lucky enough to have two identical nonstick skillets (this one from Made In that I really love), so I heated them on parallel burners on my electric cooktop. The oil-cooked pancakes seemed to brown better from the beginning, which I believe was a result of not having to wait, even just 30 seconds in some cases, for the butter melt before adding the batter. The first batch of pancakes browned beautifully, but also got soggy and greasy after resting for just a few minutes on their serving plate. In subsequent batches, I dialed back on the oil to help prevent this and those pancakes had a delightfully crisp exterior. 

My 9-year-old described this batch as “missing something,” and I have to agree. The buttery flavor of pancakes is paramount, even if you plan to add it as a topping along with syrup. As a final follow-up, I cooked a single batch of pancakes in the nonstick skillet without any fat. Those pancakes had some of the most even browning outside the electric skillet test, but there was no crispness at the edges. Does a nonstick skillet make a bad pancake? No. Does it make the kind of pancake we all crave? Also no. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Pancake Method: Stovetop Griddle with Oil

  • Rating: 5/10

My dream kitchen would have a luxe stovetop with a built-in griddle so I could be an at-home diner cook, flipping pancakes, frying eggs, and smashing burgers all day long. Until then, a stovetop griddle gives me similar thrills for about 50 bucks. You can find stovetop griddles that double as grill pans too, like this one from Lodge

Griddles have almost twice as much cooking surface as even the largest cast iron skillet, allowing you to cook more than three pancakes at a time. The downside? A griddle needs to sit across two burners, which means that even a cast iron griddle has cold spots in the area between the burners. Because of that, only some of the pancakes get as golden-brown as you’d expect. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Pancake Method: Cast Iron Skillet with Oil

  • Rating: 6/10

In the cast-iron-skillet-is-best camp, where I live and which started this showdown, almost every recipe calls for either butter or oil. Having been scorched by the burned butter in the nonstick skillet face-off, I wanted to start with oil in the cast iron. 

Basic canola or vegetable oil is all you need for cooking pancakes in a cast iron skillet. You preheat the skillet over medium heat, then add the oil followed directly by the batter. A 12-inch skillet can easily fit three 3-inch pancakes at once, or more if you like smaller, silver-dollar-sized pancakes. The oil gets hot quickly and you get a very satisfying sizzle as the batter hits the pan. 

Oil-cooked pancakes are fantastic — they brown evenly and they get a thin, crisp outer edge with lacy bits of batter that fry up as the flipped pancakes splash a bit in the pan. They are incredibly even in brownness from batch to batch. Because the oil doesn’t burn in between batches, there’s no need to wipe out the pan — even after several rounds of pancaking. Still, these pancakes didn’t have the buttery flavor both my kids (and my kid brother) really wanted at the breakfast table. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Pancake Method: Nonstick Electric Griddle

Rating: 9/10

My sister-in-law swears that she cannot make pancakes without her trusty electric griddle. The dialable temperature control and nonstick surface all but guarantee picture-perfect pancakes. Plus, you can cook 6 to 8 pancakes at a time — no cold spots or burner straddling required. Lots of recipe sources recommend oil or butter for cooking on an electric griddle, but I knew from my stovetop tests (and from advice from my sister-in-law) that the nonstick surface didn’t need any fat.

This method truly makes the most beautiful pancakes on the planet! With just a little care, you can make pancakes that look like they were cooked in a factory, if you like that kind of thing. For me, these pancakes were too perfect and lacked the texture and flavor of some of the other cooking methods. Plus, I hate storing the griddle and dragging it out every time I want to make pancakes. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Pancake Method: Cast Iron Skillet with Clarified Butter 

Rating: 9.5/10

To avoid the burning butter problem but also keep the buttery flavor, I wondered if clarified butter might be the key. Clarified butter is butter without the water and milk solids, which means that it won’t burn at high temperatures like regular butter can. You can make your own at home or use store-bought instead. It gives you the deliciousness of butter with the cooking power of oil. 

I’d forgotten what a joy cooking with clarified butter really is — especially in the cast iron skillet. Over medium heat, the clarified butter melts quickly and the cooking pancakes smell heavenly. They also brown beautifully with the same lacy edges as oil-cooked pancakes, but are full of buttery flavor. For everyday pancakes, this is my new favorite method.

Final Takeaways 

As a frequent pancake maker, I felt like I knew a lot about this topic, but this showdown surprised me. First of all, I realized that pancake recipe language might be letting us down. Many recipes call for something along the lines of: “Heat a nonstick pan or heavy cast iron skillet (or use an electric griddle) over medium-high heat, then add butter or oil.” My tests reminded me how that direction leaves a lot of room for interpretation — and also seems like bad, or at least incomplete, advice.

While oil does a decent job of browning, it brings nothing to the cooking process in terms of flavor. And for all its deliciousness, butter burns after a single batch of pancakes, leaving a bad taste and leading to uneven browning. When cooking in a nonstick skillet or griddle, skip the fat altogether and just pour in the batter. For brilliantly browned pancakes, you might want to consider investing in an electric griddle, if you have the storage space.

But for me, it’s all about the clarified butter. It’s readily available in most supermarkets (and ahem, you can also make it yourself, so why not keep it on hand for cooking? It’s great for more than just pancakes.) So, this weekend, mix up a batch of your favorite batter, let it rest for a bit, then heat up a cast iron skillet, slather it with clarified butter, and see if your pancake cooking isn’t changed forever.