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What’s the secret to the best from-the-box pancakes? Here’s a hint: They don’t mix with water.
Published Dec. 1, 2010. Appears in Cook's Country December/January 2011, Cook's Country TV Season 5: Breakfast Breads
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What You Need To Know
Homemade pancakes have a high effort-to-satisfaction ratio: They’re fast and easy to make, and they’re far tastier than flapjacks from a mix. But sales figures don’t lie, and they tell us (courtesy of the Symphony IRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm) that Americans spend more than $250 million a year on pancake mixes. For those occasions when a mix is essential—while camping, say, or cooking for 79 of your closest relatives—you should know which one to buy.
To figure that out, we rounded up 16 nationally available pancake mixes (choosing buttermilk flavor when possible) and pretasted our way down to the final seven. We also threw in a pancake mix that’s sprayed from a can, because, frankly, we were curious. (We’ve been reading a lot about it on the Internet.) We prepared the pancakes according to package instructions and served them plain, with syrup on the side, to 22 cooks and editors from America’s Test Kitchen.
Not surprisingly, our tasters liked pancakes with a flavorful balance of sweetness and tang—that is, pancakes that were well seasoned with sugar and salt (our two winning mixes contain the most sodium per serving). But texture proved just as important as flavor, maybe even more so: Tasters preferred light, fluffy pancakes. Squat, tough pancakes with little height and fluff were downgraded substantially. Interestingly, only one mix in our lineup (one of our winners) included rice flour, which contributes softness to baked goods.
What’s the secret to the best texture for these pancakes? Our top two mixes are the only ones that require the addition of vegetable oil (along with milk and egg) to reconstitute the batter. Oil affects texture by helping to govern how the air bubbles (from the leavener) are retained during cooking. Mixes that don’t require oil either call for butter (flavorful, but greasy) or compensate with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which creates pancakes so soft that they fail to “hold” the leavening, making a fluffy texture impossible.
A gourmet mix was the surprise loser in this tasting. Despite its credentials (this brand won our brownie mix tasting), it came in last. Whatever the mix is using for leavening clearly isn’t up to the task.
Everything We Tested
Tasters practically leaped out of their chairs to praise the “extra fluffy” and “wonderful, thick, light” texture. Said one: “Looks and tastes like a dream of a homemade pancake.” For flavor, it scored just behind our runner-up, Aunt Jemima.
The industry-leading brand edged out Hungry Jack by a hair for flavor (but ranked second for texture). This mix includes more sugar and salt than any other manufacturer—to its advantage. “Are you sure this came from a box?”
Recommended with reservations
Astute tasters picked up on the pleasant “malt” and “cornmeal” flavors and were generally pleased with how these cakes tasted (even though they contain no sugar). Tasters weren’t as fond of the “flat, gummy, and dense” texture.
Our tasters enjoyed the “slightly sweet,” “mild” flavor of these pancakes, which have the third most sodium and second most sugar of all mixes in the lineup. But texture—which tasters panned as “dense and dry” and “rubbery”—pushed Krusteaz down our rankings.
Tasters knocked the artificial aroma of these pancakes, comparing it to “vanilla candles” and “pancake-scented Febreze.” They described the flavor as “very sweet” and “like marshmallows.” The “high-rising,” “fluffy” texture was a plus.
These “exceptionally bland” pancakes scored no better than average across the board. Tasters couldn’t muster any strong feelings about either flavor or texture, with one commenting, “It could be a lot worse.”
Batter Blaster failed to live up to its online buzz. Tasters found the pancakes “sour.” They tasted of “baking powder” or, worse, “cardboard.” A few tasters likened them to “microwave” or “cafeteria” pancakes—never good comparisons.
Given the pleasing ingredient list, we had high hopes, but “flat,” “squat,” and “greasy, greasy, greasy,” our tasters lamented. “Tastes like it was cooked in a dirty pan,” said one (it wasn’t). This mix scored dead last for both flavor and texture. “Only seems homemade if your mom’s a bad cook.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.