I've been wondering lately about pancakes.
Why, for instance, do the majority of Americans use box mixes when homemade pancakes are almost as fast and easy to make?
Why do most people think the first pancake is inedible and should be thrown out?
And why do people press on their pancakes when they're making them?
An inquiring mind wants to know.
I should clarify that when I say pancakes, I mean the traditional American variety that is usually served with maple syrup. Baked apple pancakes and lacy Swedish pancakes are noteworthy, but are not on today's agenda. No, when I crave pancakes, I want good old American flapjacks.
Why you should ditch the box mix
Pancakes-- also known as flapjacks, hot cakes and griddle cakes -- are part of the quintessential American morning meal. They're made in diners, fire houses, home kitchens, school cafeterias, and most other places serving breakfast throughout the country. But if they're so beloved, why do most people resort to using box mixes? I realize these mixes are supposed to be faster and easier than cooking up a batch of homemade pancakes, but honestly, from-scratch pancakes just taste much better than anything you can make from a box mix. They are also easy to whip up and take only about a minute longer to prepare than "quick" mix pancakes.
Yes. One minute more. That's it. I’m not lying. Although you can make super fancy pancakes -- the kind where you need to separate eggs and then fold beaten egg whites into a luscious thick batter -- these extra steps are in no way necessary for mouth-wateringly good pancakes. You also don't necessarily need buttermilk to make your pancakes. Sure, buttermilk gives the pancakes a tangy flavor that is worth the effort of buying a carton of the stuff, but if you're deciding to use a box mix simply because you don't have buttermilk on hand, then just use regular milk. Another option is to let a teaspoon of lemon juice sit in your milk for a few minutes to mimic the buttermilk flavor. It's surely better then the water most mixes require as a wet ingredient.
In addition to the usual preservatives and hydrogenated fats you find in most boxed mixes, what you're paying for is really just flour, baking powder, and a little salt. You can easily toss these together in that minute I was talking about earlier (or less time). After that you just mix in eggs and milk or buttermilk and your batter is ready to go. That's it. Easy peasy. Oh, and far cheaper than buying anything premade.
And, if you feel you really need something premade for hectic mornings, just mix up and a big batch of the dry ingredients in a Ziplock bag so you only have to add egg and milk when preparing later.
Why the first pancake can be delicious
Now for the idea that you need to toss out the first pancake: ridiculous. For some reason people assume the first pancake will not live up to your pancake expectations and so should be thrown away. In Pieces of April -- that 2003 film starring a young Katie Holmes looking pretty edgy for the future Mrs. Cruise -- Katie (a.k.a. April) refers to herself as the first pancake, which alludes to her feelings that she doesn't think her mother loves her as much as her younger siblings.
Poor sad sack Katie, I mean April, is so so wrong about first pancakes. Maybe her mother (the amazing Patricia Clarkson) made a soggy first pancake, but that's probably because she didn't preheat or own a seasoned cast iron pan. If you use one of these (or a cast-iron griddle) and simply heat the thing to make sure it's nice and hot before you pour in your batter, you should have a wonderful first pancake.
Preheating is really the key here, although using cast iron also helps. Most other types of pans don't regulate heat as well as cast iron and also aren't as flat on the bottom. Cast iron, however, radiates heat beautifully and so creates the perfect atmosphere for batter to crisp up and cook perfectly. If you don't have a cast iron pan, you can purchase one almost anywhere (from Williams-Sonoma to Target or Ace Hardware) for around $30 and you can use it to cook pretty much everything from pancakes to stews and even cakes.
Tips and Tricks to Making Pancakes
The first general rule is please, oh please, don't press on your pancakes after flipping. I am always amazed when people do this. Why press on something when you want it to be fluffy? It also doesn't make it cook any faster. Leave the spatula alone and just hold on for a minute or two while the pancakes cook. You'll have fluffier and airier pancakes with a little patience.
Don't over mix your batter. Although leaving small lumps may make you a bit uncomfortable at first, stirring or whisking too much will make your pancakes rubbery. Stir just until ingredients are incorporated and then stop. Smooth batter equals bad pancakes.
Grease your pan with butter, which gives the pancakes a crisp buttery finish. Be sure not to add more than a thin coating of butter to the pan, however, as you simply want to prevent sticking. Too much butter or oil can make the pancakes soggy.
Wait until the air bubbles are mostly popped before you flip your flapjacks. Once you pour the batter into your hot and greased pan, the pancakes will start to cook from the underside up, causing air bubbles to form in the cakes. You can tell when to flip by just watching the air bubbles. If they are evenly popping all over the pancake, you can flip. If not, then you may end up with a bit of a batter disaster in your pan.
For consistently-sized pancakes, use a ladle to scoop the batter out. If you don’t care if some flapjacks are larger than others, you can use an acrylic bowl with a pouring spout (which is what I use).
Cast iron pans can get pretty hot over time, so be sure to lower the heat if your pancakes seem to be getting darker than golden brown.
Try not to use overly thick batter, which usually results in a slightly burnt outside and underdone inside. If your batter seems too thick, just thin with a little milk until your batter pours easily from the ladle or bowl.
Playing with your pancakes
As great as pancakes are, it's fun and yummy to spice things up a bit. Here are some alternate serving and cooking ideas for making pancakes that you might like:
The most obvious here are blueberries. Mix them in and cook. Yum.
Cut bananas or apples into 1/4-inch pieces and mix into the batter.
Add chocolate chips to each pancake. I like to add these once the batter is in the pan as they can sometimes clump up in the batter. Plus you can make happy faces with them this way.
Add a bit more milk to the batter than normal so you can make crepe-like pancakes. Spread jam inside and roll up. Top with powdered sugar.
Cook berries in a pot with some sugar and spoon onto pancakes instead of syrup.
Cook bananas or apples in a pan with butter, sugar, and cinnamon and serve on top of the pancakes.
Add a tablespoon or two of pureed pumpkin plus a little extra sugar to the batter for pumpkin pancakes.
If you're in the mood for something savory, add some crumbled bacon to the batter and then top with maple syrup when they're done. Bacon with syrup is a great combination.
However you make them, resist the box.
Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes
Makes: Enough for four people
Note: If you don't have white whole wheat flour, just use 1 cup white unbleached flour
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour (I like the King Arthur brand)
1/2 cup white unbleached flour
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk (or one cup regular milk with a teaspoon of lemon juice if you don't have buttermilk)
1/2 cup whole milk (omit if using regular milk instead of buttermilk)
1. Mix your dry ingredients in a bowl.
2. Whisk your egg into your buttermilk and/or milk and then mix into the dry ingredients being sure not to overmix (leave it a bit lumpy).
3. Heat a cast iron pan or griddle on medium heat and wait until the pan is nice and hot.
4. Add enough butter to the pan to lightly grease the surface (don't add too much. You can always add more butter to your pancakes later).
5. Pour in enough pancake batter to make3-inch round.
6. Wait until the bubbles in the batter are popping throughout the pancake.
7. Flip the pancake and cook for another minute.
8. Gently set pancake on plate and serve with whatever you want.
Easy Buttermilk Pancakes -- I've used this recipe numerous times. You can easily make only 1/3 of the recipe (i.e., 1 cup flour, 1 Tbsp sugar, etc.) for a small week-day morning breakfast).
Fancy Weekend Pancake recipe -- This recipe takes more time as you need to separate the eggs and then fold the egg whites into the batter. The process makes the pancakes incredibly fluffy with a nice crispy exterior, so it's worth the trouble if you have a leisurely weekend morning.