Flippin' perfect Pancake Tuesday: Here is the secret to creating a batch of perfect pancakes
Finding the best recipe is only the start — the secret of perfect batter that gives beautiful results is all in the technique, writes Katy McGuinness
If you’ve determined this is the year you crack the art of the perfect pancake, rather than succumb to those convenient but dispiriting, rubbery, pre-made pancakes in the supermarket, you’ll need to arm yourself with a good recipe.
You could of course shake things up with Moroccan-style msemen, Dutch babies, fluffy Japanese souffle pancakes, Korean hotteok or the blintzes and palatschinke favoured in Eastern Europe, but if you fear a revolt if you offer up anything other than the traditional crepe, and if you don’t have your dad’s or granny’s handwritten instructions tucked away between the pages of a collapsing Home Economics text book, then a quick search for Darina or Delia’s take online will deliver.
Both can be relied upon to supply a no-frills, tried-and-tested recipe when it comes to the traditional pancake.
But for the science underpinning the art of the perfect pancake, who better to turn to than Harold McGee, the father of modern food science, whose authoritative work McGee on Food & Cooking: An Encyclopaedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture (first published in 1984, and updated in 2004) is to be found in the library of any chef or serious home cook work their salt.
Having studied physics and astronomy, McGee has made his name writing about the chemistry of food and cooking, and the science of everyday life. He has worked with some of the world’s most innovative chefs including, of course, the ultimate kitchen geek, Heston Blumenthal.
McGee explains that the thin batter from which pancakes are made is — unlike the dough used to make bread — too fluid and elusive to hold, develop and sculpt by hand so it must be contained in a bowl and mixed by battering from within, that is, by stirring. The batter needs to be cooked in a container — a pan — to give it form.
Batters contain up to four times more water than dough, and the high liquid content means that the gluten proteins in the flour are so widely dispersed that they form only a very loose, fluid network.
“When we cook a batter,” explains McGee, “the starch granules absorb much of the water, swell, gelate, leak amylose [stay with me], stick to each other, and thus turn the fluid into a solid but tender, moist structure.”
The gluten, continues McGee, plays a secondary role providing underlying cohesiveness and preventing the batter from becoming crumbly, but if it is overdeveloped it makes the batter elastic and chewy, something exacerbated by egg proteins when they coagulate in cooking heat — exactly what pancake-eaters don’t want.
If we want our pancakes to be delicate and tender, McGee offers some suggestions as to how the desired texture can be achieved, by minimising the impact of gluten.
1. Reduce the concentration of gluten by making sure you use pastry flour — often sold here as cream flour, rather than a flour with more raising agents, or low- or no-gluten flours such as buckwheat (which gives a delicious, nutty, French flavour), rice or oat.
2. Limit gluten development by keeping stirring to a minimum.
3. Allow the batter to stand for an hour or more to allow the proteins to absorb water, and air bubbles to rise and escape.
You could also, says McGee, consider a recipe that uses buttermilk or yoghurt in place of milk or water. Either will make the batter more tender thanks to their thick consistency, meaning less flour is needed.
By following Mr McGee’s tips you should have a scientifically calibrated batter, but how do you turn that into a perfect, thin, golden-brown pancake?
The word crepe comes from the Latin crispus, meaning curly or wavy, and refers to the curling of the edge as it dries during cooking. The delicacy of traditional crepes — defined as thin unleavened pancakes cooked on a shallow pan and folded over a filling, whether simple lemon and sugar, chocolate and hazelnut spread, or more complex savoury combinations — comes from their thinness.
But why, even when you have followed all McGee’s tips — the low-gluten flour, minimal stirring and resting — for perfect batter, is the first pancake often a thick, unevenly cooked mess?
There are two principal reasons for this. Firstly, in order to produce perfectly golden-brown pancakes, the pan needs to be evenly heated across its entire surface, and secondly, the fat used also needs to be heated and distributed evenly across the pan, a process known as seasoning.
Too much fat and you’ll be frying the batter. (This, of course, may be to your liking as it guarantees enhanced crispness, but it is not strictly correct.)
To get an even, golden brown you want to use just enough butter or seasoning to prevent the pancake from sticking, which is why it’s a good idea to wipe the pan with kitchen roll after adding and melting additional butter between pancakes.
Even if the first pancake doesn’t turn out brilliantly, never mind, because the second is all but guaranteed to be better. And as the pancake chef, you’ll get to scoff the failures.
Once you’ve made the pancakes, how do you make them look appetising? Not a problem in most households where people will fall on them as soon as they come out of the pan, but just in case you need to encourage anyone with a modest appetite, another scientist, Prof Charles Spence, an expert in how neuroscience, psychology and design can influence how we experience food, has some tips.
In his book Gastrophysics, The New Science of Eating (2017), Spence explains how the shape and colour of the plate on which you serve the pancake can influence how it is perceived.
So, depending on whether you want to encourage the people you are cooking for to eat more or fewer pancakes, you might think about serving them on round plates — which make food appear sweeter and more attractive — or angular plates, which have the opposite effect.
Spence’s research shows that enhancing the visual contrast on the plate increases consumption substantially, so serve those pancakes on a white/beige/pale yellow plate and people will eat fewer than if you serve them on a blue plate.
If, despite following the scientists’ advice to a tee, your pancakes are still a disaster, don’t throw them in the bin, because the Austrians have the answer.
Food historian Annie Gray writes that Kaiserschmarren — unevenly cooked, misshapen or overly thick pancakes chopped up or pulled apart, so that they look like scrambled eggs — taste like heaven, proving that there is a solution to every cooking failure.
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