Tall, fluffy texture
Everyone loves sitting down to a plate of fluffy, golden, flavorful pancakes, but making them is another matter. Nobody wants to run out for buttermilk or sour cream before the first meal of the day, never mind haul out (and then clean) their stand mixer to whip egg whites. That's where box mixes come in, but their convenience is hardly worth the results they deliver: rubbery pancakes with a Styrofoam-like flavor that no amount of butter or syrup can hide. Besides, most prefab products still require you to add milk and eggs to the dry mix, so at that point, why not throw together a batter of your own?
So that's exactly what I set out to do. I limited myself to basic ingredients—no buttermilk or sour cream—and no appliances and spent a few weeks as a short-order cook.
I started with an approach that was as simple and pantry-friendly as possible. Dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt) went in one bowl, wet (eggs, milk, and vegetable oil) in another. Then I stirred together the wet and dry components. I didn't bother to leave lumps, as almost all pancake recipes instruct, since we found while developing a crêpe recipe that the batter is liquid-y enough that thorough mixing won't develop too much gluten and make the pancakes tough.
I portioned the batter into an oiled, preheated skillet. When bubbles appeared on the surface of the pancakes, I flipped them and cooked them until golden brown. But they weren't good. In fact, they weren't much better than the box-mix kind—thin, splotchy, and, without the tang of buttermilk or sour cream, somewhat bland.
At least the flavors would be easy to fix, I thought as I mixed up another batch with vanilla extract and a dash more salt. I also made a point of beating the eggs with the oil before combining them with the milk and vanilla, which was less messy than whisking all the liquid ingredients together at once. These pancakes tasted more complex, but there was still room for improvement. So for the next round I upped the amount of sugar from 2 tablespoons to three. I also added a little baking soda, which plays a more important role in the flavor of baked goods than you might think: Many pancakes, biscuits, and quick breads rely on its saline tang and are noticeably flat-tasting without it. A mere ½ teaspoon did the trick here; it also helped the pancakes brown more deeply (baking soda increases the pH of the batter, which speeds browning reactions) and rise higher. But they were by no means tall or fluffy.
Soda versus Powder
A quick baking soda and baking powder refresher: Baking powder reacts and creates carbon dioxide both when it comes into contact with moisture and when it’s heated, making it a more reliable and forgiving leavener than baking soda, which reacts only when it comes into contact with acid. Many pancake recipes, including ours, call for both.
Through Thick and Thin
One way to increase lift was to add more leavener. I tested increasing amounts of baking powder until I settled on 4 teaspoons—at least double the amount per cup of flour compared with other recipes—but the pancakes were still thin. Next, I thickened the batter by reducing the milk from 2 cups to 1½ cups. This improved the rise—but not enough.
I couldn't further increase the leavener without making the pancakes taste soapy, nor could I further reduce the liquid without producing dry, cottony results. But there was one more variable: the mixing method. A lumpy batter is thicker than a smooth batter since the lumps prevent water from flowing and the mixture from spreading. What if I went back and followed the usual pancake protocol and barely mixed the batter so that lots of lumps remained?
I gently stirred together another batch so that there were still lumpy pockets of flour. I also let the batter rest briefly, another common step that allows the unmixed flour pockets to hydrate slightly. The batter now fell from my whisk in clumps rather than streaming down in thin ribbons. And the pancakes themselves—even when raw in the skillet—were gorgeously tall.
Leave It Lumpy—but Not for the Reason You Think
The common wisdom around mixing pancake batter is that stirring out all the lumps will develop too much gluten and result in tough, rubbery cakes. But pancake batter is liquid-y enough that thorough mixing can’t actually develop too much gluten. That said, we still recommend leaving the batter lumpy.
We made 2 sets of batter with the same ingredients. We stirred one batter until smooth and left lumps in the other, and found that the degree to which we stirred dramatically impacted their consistencies. With less stirring, the lumpy batter was noticeably thicker because lumps obstructed the flow of free water. The lumpy batter was also better able to hold on to the air bubbles formed during cooking, producing taller, more leavened pancakes.
Lesson learned: If I wanted tall, fluffy pancakes, leaving lumps in the batter was key. I also realized that the amount of oil I added to the skillet and even the method I used to flip the pancakes affected their appearance.
The pancakes now looked and tasted so good that folks were grabbing them off the griddle and eating them plain out of hand. But for the occasions that they did make it to the table, I wanted to jazz them up a bit. Stirring blueberries or chocolate chips directly into the batter didn't work well because that required mixing the batter more thoroughly—counterproductive to creating a thick batter. Instead, I mixed up some simple flavored butters while the batter rested. I even figured out a way to make them perfectly soft for spreading: Stir cold butter and flavorings—such as citrus zest, honey, grated ginger, or warm spices—into a smaller portion of melted butter. Voilà: a spreadable topping with no need to wait for butter to soften on the counter.
I was really happy with where things stood, but I wanted to run one more test, pitting my easy recipe against a more complicated one. Good news: Tasters were unable to distinguish these pancakes from a more traditional buttermilk type. That means you can now make and enjoy a great pancake breakfast even before your morning coffee wakes you up.
Keys to Success
Simple recipeWe skip ingredients such as buttermilk or sour cream and any appliances to create a recipe that calls for only pantry staples and basic kitchen tools.
Tall, fluffy textureDecreasing the amount of milk, increasing the leavening, and undermixing keeps our batter thick, producing tall, airy pancakes.
Balanced flavorThe right combination of salt, sugar, baking soda, and vanilla produces well-rounded flavor that's not too sweet.