If you’re like me, your first pancakes came from a griddle manned by your dad on the weekends. My father as chef was a special breed, one whose culinary skills — as with many men of the Boomer generation — were limited to summertime barbeque and Sunday breakfast. Indeed, pancakes likely became “Dad’s specialty” due to one of their finer selling points: They’re extraordinarily simple to make from scratch.
“There’s no need to use a mix when it’s so easy to make them,” marvels Maryana Vollstedt, author of The Big Book of Breakfast. “It’s just about as fast as mixing up a mix.”
The typical American hotcake is soft, spongy and golden brown, with the slightest of crispiness at the edges, and getting there takes mastering the three tenets of pancake cookery: Batter, griddle, and flipping.
The secret to good batter is getting it smooth without overmixing, which can create a chewy cake. One trick to smooth batter, says Gunn Nesse, is to take things slow.
“Put the flour in gradually, instead of all at once,” says Nesse, who’s served her mother’s thin Norwegian pancakes at a monthly, standing-room-only pancake breakfast in Edmonds, Wash. since 1991. If you’re aiming for fluffier pancakes, it pays to use buttermilk — the extra fat helps plump up the batter — but restrained mixing with a flat whisk can help, too, since it adds a little air.
If you’re aching for fruit in your cakes, be choosy about what you use. “Some fruits are so juicy, they give juice off in the batter, and they get soggy and it won’t cook,” cautions Doug Grina, co-owner of Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis, a tiny diner with a national reputation for pancakes. Blueberries, with solid skins, work well, as do minced apples or bananas; anything bigger or juicier should be added once the cake is on the grill, not beforehand.
The trickiest part? “Matching the batter to grill heat,” says Grina. “It’s a delicate dance.” So delicate, in fact, that even a pro like Grina uses an electric griddle at home, set around 375-380 degrees F. For heavier batters, such as buckwheat, you’ll want to set the temperature as much as 10 degrees lower — otherwise the cake's outside will begin to burn before the center has cooked.
If you’re cooking on a stove, measure temperature the way your grandmother did: Flick a few droplets of water onto the griddle. If they bounce around, you’re at a good temperature. (If it evaporates immediately, it’s too hot, and if it sits there it’s too cold.)
Once you’ve got your batter ready and the griddle hot (and, if it’s not nonstick, lightly oiled with a high burning-point oil such as canola or soybean), it’s time to get down to business. For regular-sized pancakes, use either 1/4 or 1/3 measuring cup to scoop out batter, and pour it from a height of about 3” above the griddle — that will help ensure you get a round, good-sized cake that will be easy to flip.
The best gauge of temperature is to do one or two test pancakes first. A cake is beginning to cook when the edges dry, and should be ready to flip once you see dry-edged bubbles holding shape on top. Once they appear, check the underside, and if it’s golden brown, it’s time to flip — a move you should only do once — and get that same golden color on the other side. (If bubbles are dry-edged, but the underside is pale, your griddle is too cool; if the underside is very dark, the griddle is too hot.)
Once both sides have achieved the color of honey, you’re ready to serve — and you’d best do it quick. Though plenty of cooks like to stack their cakes in the oven to keep them warm, it’s difficult to keep them from getting either dried out from too much heat, or soggy from sweating.
Your best bet? Aim for a family, weekend-breakfast feel: Butter, syrup, and fruit on the table, ready to soak into a steady stream of cakes and feed to an eager crew. Dad would be proud.
Best Plain Pancake Recipe
- 1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
- 3 T sugar
- 2 t baking powder
- 1/2 t salt
- 1/2 t baking soda if using buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- 1 1/2 c milk or buttermilk (see baking soda, above, if using buttermilk)
- 3 T melted butter or margarine, or 3 T vegetable or canola oil
- 1/2 t vanilla
- 1/2 c add-ins: blueberries, minced apple, chopped nuts, diced banana
- Toppings: Butter, maple syrup, honey, jam, fresh fruit, lemon.
DIRECTIONS1. Crack eggs into small bowl and whisk until foamy.
2. Whisk in milk or buttermilk, vanilla, and melted butter.
3. Place flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda in medium bowl and stir together.
4. Gradually add dry ingredients, whisking briefly after each addition, just until smooth. Do not overmix.
5. Stir in fruit, nuts etc. if desired
6. Heat griddle. If using electric, aim for 375; if using stove, heat until water flicked on surface bounces but does not evaporate immediately.
7. Brush griddle with oil that has a high burning point; vegetable or canola will work well.
8. Using 1/4 cup measure for small pancakes, 1/3 cup measure for larger, scoop batter out of bowl.
9. From about 3” above griddle, pour batter in solid stream onto griddle.
10. If batter is a little thick, spread it out so that cake is roughly 1/4" tall
11. Watch cake closely; once edges are dry, and a few dry-edged bubbles have formed on top, check the cake’s underside. It should be roughly the color of honey.
12. Flip cake, cook until golden brown.
13. Serve immediately with butter, sugar, maple syrup, honey, warmed jam, lemon.
Gunn Nesse’s Norwegian Pancakes Makes 16 large, thin pancakes
- 4 eggs
- 1 3/4 c milk (any percentage fat is fine)
- 1 1/2 c baking flour
- 1/2 c butter or margarine (i.e. 1 stick), MELTED
- 1 t salt
- 1 T sugar
DIRECTIONS1. Beat eggs in small bowl.
2. Beat in milk.
3. Put a little of the flour into a medium-sized bowl. Beat in a little of the milk and egg mixture, just until lumps disappear. Repeat, alternating ingredients, until all is mixed.
4. Beat in melted butter or margarine, just until mixed.
5. Stir in salt and sugar. Batter should be thin.
6. Heat small-medium skillet on stove over medium-low heat.
7. If skillet is not nonstick, brush with oil.
8. Pour enough batter to cover 1/2-3/4 of the pan; tilt and rotate pan until it is covered with a thin layer of batter.
9. Watch pancake; when edges get dry and crispy, and you see bubbles on top, check underside. If it is golden brown, flip.
10. Once underside turns brown, you can serve the pancake.
11. Serve with butter, jam, cream, sugar, syrup and/or citrus zest.
Leftover Fruit Topping This is a great way to get rid of extra fruits you have that are almost ready for the garbage can — and have a delicious topping besides. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week
- 2 c chopped apple, banana, and/or pear
- 2-3 T butter or margarine
- 1 c apple juice
- 1 cinnamon stick or 1/4 t ground cinnamon
DIRECTIONS1. Melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat.
2. Add fruit, stirring frequently, until apples become translucent
3. Add juice and cinnamon and bring to a boil.
4. Turn heat to low and let sauce thicken as desired.
5. Remove from heat, discard cinnamon stick.
6. Spoon over pancakes, waffles etc.
7. If kept in the refrigerator, warm on the stove or in the microwave before serving.
Tracie McMillan is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers food and social issues.