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Practicing the basics: pancakes

Pancakes are the ultimate breakfast comfort food, another great American tradition borrowed from other cultures (in one form or another, there is something resembling a pancake in most cuisines of the world). Pancakes are not just for breakfast though: beyond the “breakfast any time of day” ethic, pancakes can be lunch or dinner; in fact, while I love a good IHOP, some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had were served for dinner at a Dutch pancake house in Amsterdam.

Pancakes are a form of “quick bread” that is cooked on the stovetop instead of in the oven. We use baking powder and eggs to give them a rise as they cook.

I like to think of pancakes as “bread omelets.” They are forgiving, self-repairing to some extent, good for any meal, and you can add a wide variety of fillings and extra ingredients. You can also make them whatever size you want: serve up a tall stack of small ones, or one enormous one.

Suggested reading:

Time required: Prep time: 5 minutes. Cook time: about 4-5 minutes per pancake.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups milk (any kind of cow’s milk will do; see notes below for other substitutions)
  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. In a small bowl, beat the two eggs for 1 minute, then, stir in the milk. We’re following the classic baking advice: mix all the dry ingredients together, and separately all the wet ingredients together, then combine them. This is the best way to ensure that the ingredients are consistent throughout the batter.

Add the melted butter to the dry ingredients, and stir to evenly distribute. Adding the melted butter into the cold wet ingredients would have caused it to cool quickly and start hardening up again, leaving clumps in the batter.

Pour the milk/eggs mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until just combined and there are no pockets of dry ingredients left. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl to ensure that all the dry ingredients have been mixed in. It’s ok if the batter has lumps; in this case, we want to minimize how much we work the batter so that we don’t generate a lot of gluten that would make the pancakes tough.

Heat pan or griddle to medium low. You want it well pre-heated before you start cooking pancakes. You can test it by dripping a couple of small drops of water on the surface; if they sizzle and evaporate within a few seconds, you’re good to go.

Melt a small amount of butter or margarine on the cooking surface and spread it around. Or you can use a small amount of oil. You’re better off using small amounts and repeating between batches than adding a lot at the beginning; it won’t burn, and it won’t all get soaked up by the first batch.

Ladle batter onto the grill to whatever size you want your pancakes to be. Leave enough space between pancakes so that you can pick them up with a spatula and flip them. Also, don’t make them so much bigger than your spatula that you can’t flip them without them falling apart (though you can use two spatulas to flip a really big pancake).

Let the pancakes cook on the first side until bubbles rise up through the center and pop, then using a spatula flip the pancake onto its other side. Pancakes cook bottom to top and from the edge to the center. The bubbles coming up through the center is a signal that the middle is cooked enough to be flippable; and the second side will cook faster because the batter has warmed up . How long this takes will depend upon how much milk is in your batter and how hot your pan or griddle is. If you’re concerned about over-cooking, you can use a spatula to peek underneath. You can always flip it more than once to even out the browning on both sides.

Once the second side has browned, remove from the pan and place on a plate or serving tray. Serve immediately, or cover to keep warm. Stacking the pancakes also helps to keep them warm. If you place them on an oven-safe plate or baking sheet, then you can keep them warm in an oven set on its lowest temperature setting, usually around 160-200 degrees.

Tips and suggestions:

  • The batter will thicken up over time, even over the course of 15-20 minutes as you make several batches. You can thin it out by adding more milk, 1-2 tablespoons at a time.
  • If you’re serving them for breakfast (or breakfast any time of the day), you can provide a range of toppings: the classic butter and maple syrup; other flavored syrups; berries; powdered sugar, honey, or anything else that sounds good.
  • You can also add fillings while the pancake is cooking (add about 30 seconds in, before the first flip and before the top sets. Pretty much anything you might add to an omelet you can add to a pancake to make a savory version: meat, sausage, cheese, herbs, etc. You can also add fruit (think slices of apple work great), chopped nuts, or chocolate chips. You can also add flavorings to the batter – and food coloring.
  • If you keep the batter on the thicker side, you can accomplish some pretty amazing “pancake art” with a little practice. Smiley faces are usually a big hit. You can also make block letters, such as your kid’s initials.
  • There are tons of variations on basic pancakes. A common, hearty one is buckwheat pancakes: substitute one cup of buckwheat flour in place of one cup of all-purpose flour in the recipe above (you might need to vary the amount of milk). Feel free to try other flours, particularly gluten-free ones since we’re not really trying to generate a gluten network in our pancakes (the eggs will provide all the supporting structure we need).
  • Make a small pancake first as a test, and assume you’re going to throw it away (or eat it while you cook the rest of the pancakes). There’s something about the nature of pancakes that the first one never turns out quite right: the batter isn’t the right thickness, the pan or griddle isn’t fully pre-heated, or you flip it at the wrong time. You might as well just plan to sacrifice the first one – it’ll still be edible, it just won’t look beautiful.