Kitchen Science: Perfect Pancakes

Ah, pancake day. You have to love a day that encourages you to eat pancakes for every available meal of the day. Personally I’m aiming for at least breakfast and dinner. I don’t have access to pancake making facilities at work so I might have to forgo lunch pancakes. Unless I find some way to transport pancakes in my handbag, which probably isn’t a great plan.

Anyway, my personal pancake orgy plans aside, pancakes are quite amazing. So few ingredients for such a spectacularly yummy outcome. And there are hundreds upon thousands of recipes out there for the perfect pancake, many of which I’ve tried. This is mainly because, for some reason, batter-based baking remains something that I cannot get the hang of. I think it’s partly the speed of the reaction, but I never feel quite in control of what I’m doing. So, this year I decided to try and understand the science behind pancakes, so that I can get a grip on what’s actually happening and hopefully avoid the yearly ritual of ending up with pancake mix splashed around the kitchen with me wailing a series of four letter words, scraping batter splodges off the frying pan and covering them with enough Nutella than people don’t notice how wrong it all went (although to be fair, I’ve never actually had any complaints about this strategy).

As is so often the case with baking, one of the key structures involved in perfect pancakes is gluten. Gluten is formed from two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, which most of the time co-exist fairly sensibly. However, when they get wet, in this case due to the addition of egg and milk, and are mixed together to help loosen them up, they become suddenly very attracted to one another. Moisture and a bit of movement are a serious aphrodisiac to these proteins. They begin to glue themselves together wherever possible, forming the sticky web we know as gluten.

Gluten hardens when it’s heated, and the thing that hardened gluten is best at, really, is trapping air bubbles. However, for this to work, you of course need to MAKE air bubbles. You can do this by beating the living daylights out of your mixture, which will only incorporate a relatively small number of weeny air bubbles. This basic pancake mixture, eggs, flour and milk, will make traditional pancakes, fairly flat but pleasantly fluffy. It’s quite important not to beat the mixture TOO hard, however, otherwise you create a gluten web so tight that no air can actually get in. You want to loosen up the proteins enough that they start throwing themselves at each other, but not so much that they stick together with no room for any air to join the party.

This pancake batter benefits from 30 minutes to an hour standing around. In this time, gluten is relaxing slightly, which it needs to do after all that over-excited bonding together. It’s calming down now, loosening some of its bonds, the frenzy is over, and this period of relaxation gives your pancakes a lighter and less chewy texture. The other thing that happens during this time is that starch in the mixture absorbs liquid from the surrounding batter, causing it to become slightly thicker and creamier, for that perfect pancake texture.

Delicious pillowy blueberry pancakes, as made for me by my husband, who can cope with batter without panicking.

Delicious pillowy blueberry pancakes, as made for me by my husband, who can cope with batter without panicking.

So that’s the perfect English pancake. Then, of course, there are American style pancakes, which are thicker and bouncier. This is because they have a lot more air in them. The way this air is added is by using a super cool and speedy chemical reaction: very simply, you mix an acid and an alkali to make salt, water and carbon dioxide, which come out as glorious fizzy bubbles. You can create this chemical reaction in two ways, you can either add bicarbonate of soda (alkaline) and buttermilk (acidic) to get the bubbly party started, or you can cheat and add baking powder, which is bicarbonate of soda, plus powdered acid. The two don’t react until they get wet, so it’s a foam party by any other name, really.

Now, with American pancakes, because you’ve created so many pockets of air, you don’t want to let them escape. This means it’s better to fry American pancake batter pretty much as soon as you’ve made it, trapping all the air and keeping your pancakes like little fluffy, delicious pillows. Sometimes with added blueberries. Blueberry pillows. If you sat your batter to rest, the air bubbles would start to escape and the pancakes would end up sad and flat, not springy and fluffy.

And that’s that, the science of perfect pancakes. Now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be making an enormous and delicious mess with batter. Happy Pancake Day, folks!

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