To Upgrade Your Pancakes, Turn on Your Oven
In my career as a recipe developer, I’ve experimented with French toast, Dutch babies, Belgian waffles, and even gravity-defying Japanese soufflé pancakes, but the all-American fluffy flapjack has my heart for reasons of nostalgia, mostly, but also the ease with which they are made. Perhaps it’s that desire for the familiar, or just the need to feel like weekends are truly weekends these days, that leads to me taking up pancake-making as a weekend morning ritual. Each time they got better, as I figured out the keys to the best flavor and texture. At this point, I’ve landed on my very own master recipe, with some unexpected twists that make them extra special. Here are my top tips for perfect pancakes that exceed expectations.
Brown the Butter
Toasting the milk proteins in butter brings out a complex, nutty flavor that will make virtually any baked good so much better. For next-level flavor, I brown the butter in my chocolate chip cookies, crusts, and cakes; pancakes are no different. Is this an extra step? Yes. Does it make an amazing batter that’s good enough to eat from the bowl? Also yes.
Get the Perfect Rise
Baking soda, baking powder, or both? I add both because, while baking powder does the job to leaven pancakes all on its own with a more balanced, less acrid alkaline taste, that alkalinity of baking soda does increase the browning. Some swear by separating the eggs that go into the batter in order to whip the whites for the ultimate rise, but I find the subtle difference it makes doesn’t justify the extra fuss involved for an easy-like-Sunday-morning pancake. (However, I do find the added lift does wonders for special pancakes with dense additions, like pumpkin puree or bananas, so try whipping the whites to stiff peaks when you are making those variations.)
Make Your Mix
It is possible to make your own pancake dry mix for super-quick pancake preparations. Just scale up the dry ingredients—flour, granulated sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt—and store the mix in a jar with a tight lid in your cupboard for up to a few months. Then for every batch of pancakes, just measure out 2 1/2 cups of your DIY pancake mix and proceed with the recipe as usual. This trick makes it that much easier to make pancakes, which is a habit I think we can all get behind!
Don’t Be Afraid to Play
I rarely have buttermilk on hand, so I started substituting a blend of 75% milk and 25% sour cream (yogurt works, too) in my wet ingredients. The tartness is what you’re after for flavor, and the acid helps to balance the taste of the baking soda (it helps activate the leavening power of the baking soda, too). The thickness of sour cream also aids in making the pancakes lofty and light versus thin and dense.
Although it requires washing an extra bowl, it is a good idea to first mix the dry ingredients and wet ingredients in separate bowls to limit the amount of stirring you have to do once they are combined. When the flour begins hydrating, that’s when gluten, i.e. toughness, develops. Since we’re going for utter tenderness, the most important thing you can do is not over-mix the batter at this stage. Err on the side of just barely mixing it together, and stop at the point when you don’t see any loose powdery flour; the pancake batter will be very, very lumpy. If you don’t trust yourself to have the self-discipline to stop at that point, it’s better to use a rubber spatula or wooden spoon versus a whisk. Though a whisk gets the job done faster, it’s too easy to overdo it.
Give Yourself a Break
When it comes to storing pancake batter, there is a tradeoff between flavor and rise. I often let my batter rest for 10 minutes or so before making the pancakes, and I think the flavor is better. That said, food science experts say that reduces the amount of rise and can lead to denser pancakes. But I’ll go ahead and admit that I’ve been known to mix up a batch of batter on a Saturday, make half the pancakes, and refrigerate the rest until Sunday morning. I find the flavor in the next-day batch even better, and they still rise… just not as much.
This Syrup Is Over-the-Top
Now that you’ve got your go-to technique, don’t overlook how your pancakes are topped. Drizzle them with real-deal pure maple syrup (never the corn syrup kind), or make your own fruit syrup before you start cooking your pancakes. I’ve recently come up with a new favorite way of making fruit syrups by tossing fresh or frozen berries, rhubarb, or stone fruit in brown sugar and lemon zest and juice and spreading the mixture on a rimmed baking sheet to roast in the oven until it all melts together, making a vibrant and delicious hot fruit syrup. The visuals are stunning, and it’s ridiculously easy and delicious.
Get Ready to Sizzle
Whether you’re using an electric tabletop griddle or a cast-iron skillet, maintaining consistent heat while cooking the pancakes is key. Test its readiness with a splash of water; if it sizzles on contact, it’s pancake time. Be sure to slick the griddle with plenty of fat. I use butter for double-brown-butter flavor, because it inevitably will brown in the hot pan, but bacon fat is delicious, too. Duck fat is fancy for savory pancakes, and vegetable oil yields crispier edges. Speaking of which, the more fat you use, the crispier the edges of your pancakes will get. When there’s a puddle of fat at the edges they are basically frying in the fat, which is delicious if that’s the effect you’re going for. For lighter, fluffier cakes, use just enough fat to keep them from sticking and they’ll develop a nice golden-brown surface.
Don’t Flip Too Soon
Invest in a decent heat-resistant offset pancake turner with a large surface area for maximum control. Assuming your griddle is at a good moderate heat, look for bubbles covering the surface of each pancake, and then slightly dry-looking edges come next. Use the turner to lift up an edge of the pancake to take a peek at what’s going on underneath; if the bubbles are there but the underside is still pale, the griddle isn’t hot enough. When they look ready, flip with confidence. Some batter may splatter out, or you may flip the edge of the pancake onto another. It’s fine. If it gets a little crazy, just use the pancake turner to quickly scrape the batter back underneath the edge of the cake or reposition them as needed.
Get the Recipe: Brown-Butter Pancakes With Sheet-Pan Berry Syrup