As a surgeon, I have a deep appreciation for human anatomy and the important roles that different organ systems provide to overall function of the body as a whole. When I started medical school, we spent eight long but exciting weeks in the anatomy cadaver lab learning every little detail of the human anatomy. Then for the rest of the first two years of medical school, we learned every painstaking detail of biochemistry, histology, pathology, pharmacology, and other torture inducing subjects that mainly served to force us to forget everything we learned about anatomy. Of course this is from a surgeon’s perspective – others may have found these subjects more interesting.
Later, during the third year of medical school during our surgery rotation, we had to re-learn all the anatomy in order get the most out of the rotation. During my time in my orthopedic surgical residency training program after medical school, we had to learn every detailed step of many common orthopedic procedures. I quickly learned that if I focused on mastering the anatomy surrounding each procedure, the steps became more intuitive and easier to remember. As a practicing surgeon, I appreciate the importance of mastering the anatomy to a ever greater level. If you become a master of the anatomy, you are not restricted to memorizing the steps to the procedure, instead it becomes apparent what the next step is.
As I started my journey to become a “pancake master” I realized i needed to understand the purpose of each ingredient. Once, I finally understood the “anatomy” of the pancake, I was able to develop a better understanding on what each core ingredient is providing to the pancake as a whole. There are eight core ingredients to a pancake. The eight core ingredients to the pancake are as follows:
- Leavening Agents
Flour is the skeleton of the pancake anatomy. It gives the pancake support and structure. Flour is made of starch and gluten. The gluten is a protein molecule that forms a web like lattice when it is activated by water. Air pockets form between the gluten particles which help give the batter its shape. For best results, use all purpose flour.
Can you use gluten-free flour or low carb options such as almond flour? Absolutely! Just keep in mind, you won’t have the benefit of the gluten to provide that important structure to the pancake. Therefore, you are going to have to provide the structure with another ingredient in addition to the flour.
Keeping our pancake anatomy analogy alive, leavening agents are the “lungs” of the pancake. The leavening agents allow air bubbles to enter the batter and help make the pancake light and fluffy. The two most common leavening agents are baking soda and baking powder. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. It needs an acid to activate it. When activated, it forms carbon dioxide air bubbles. These bubbles get trapped with the gluten “web” which allows the pancake batter to rise and become light and fluffy.
Baking powder is baking soda mixed with an acid such as cream of tartar. The cream of tartar is in its salt form and thus doesn’t activate with the baking soda until water is added. Most baking powders are double acting, which means they react when mixed with water and then again when heat is added.
How much baking powder should you add in the recipe? I have found that 1 tablespoon (3 teaspoons) per 1 cup of flour seems to be the sweet spot. For baking soda, use about 1/3 to 1/6 of what you used for baking powder. So for one 1 tablespoon of baking powder, use one teaspoon of baking soda as a maximum amount and 1/2 teaspoon as a minimum. This is based on a recipe that calls for 1 cup of flour. If your making a double batch, double the amount.
Sugar’s most obvious function is to provide sweetness to the pancakes. However, it does more than this. The granulated sugar particles become crystalized when they come into contact with the hot pan. This creates a nice crispy edge to the pancakes.
White sugar is a classic option, but other sugars can be used. Brown sugar is one of my personal favorites. It creates a nice robust flavor and helps you get those nice golden brown pancakes when it crystalizes on the hot skillet.
For healthy pancakes other granulated sweeteners with a lower glycemic index can be used such as coconut sugar. If liquid sweeteners are used in place of granulated sugar, the pancakes will not be quite as crispy but still may taste great.
How much sugar should you add to the batter? Add at least one tablespoon sugar for best results. For sweeter, more classic pancakes, you can add up to 1/4 of a cup (4 tablespoons) of sugar. If you are making whole wheat pancakes, consider adding a bit more sugar to help bring out some sweetness.
Salt crystals also help provide a crispy edge to the pancakes and help neutralize the sweetness of the sugar. A little salt goes a long way.
How much salt should you add? Even of “pinch” of salt can add a great deal of flavor to the pancakes. Most recipes call for anywhere from a pinch of salt to 1/4 teaspoon per 1 cup of flour. I have seen some recipes with 1/2 teaspoon. Any more than this and the pancakes will probably taste too salty.
Milk adds water to the pancake but also adds in fat and protein. Other liquids can be used, but milk is the most common and most predictable. Buttermilk is the classic liquid for pancakes. The acidity in buttermilk reacts with the baking soda which helps the pancakes rise. Any left over acidity give you that nice tangy flavor. Whole milk also works great. If you use whole milk without adding an acid such as citrus juice or vinegar, you may want to skip the baking soda in leau of baking powder since the baking soda won’t have an acid to react with.
Are you lactose intolerant or vegan? Not a problem at all! Plant based milks can work great for pancakes as well. My favorite is cashew milk since is slightly thicker and creamier than other nut milks such as almond milk. Oat milk also works great.
The ratio of milk to flour is very important. If other liquids are added into the batter (such as citrus juices), this must be calculated into the ratio. The highest ratio of milk (plus any other liquids) to flour is 1 cup milk for 1 cup flour. Any more than this, and your pancakes will be too thin and runny and won’t fluff up when you place them on the pan.
The lowest ratio should be 3/4 cup of milk to one cup of flour. If you use less then this, your pancakes will be to dry. You may have to experiment to find what works for you. For a thick batter, keep the ratio of milk to flour lower. For a slightly thinner pancake that is more moist and flavorful, add a little extra milk.
If buttermilk is not used, you will want to add an acid to react with the baking soda. Vanilla extract is a classic acid that adds flavor to the pancake and serves as an acid to react to the baking soda.
Citrus juices such as freshly squeezed lemons, limes, or oranges work great. Vinegar also works great. You want to add the acid to the milk and let it sit for a few minutes to “curdle” before mixing the rest of the wet ingredients in.
Eggs provide structure to the pancake and help hold it together. When the whites are separated from the yolks and “folded in” at the very last step in mixing, they provide an extra level of fluffiness to the pancakes.
How many eggs should you use? One or two eggs per 1 cup of flour works well. When traditional all-purpose white flour is used, one large egg is enough. For gluten free recipes, 2 eggs can help the batter can help make up for the lack of gluten in providing structure to the pancakes.
What if you are on a vegan or other plant based diet? Can I still make great pancakes? Absolutely! However, the pancakes will turn out best if something is substituted for the eggs to help provide structure to the pancake. Common substitutes are mashed banana, a small amount of pumpkin or sweet potato puree, or flax seed.
Fat provides a richness in flavor to the pancakes. The classic fat is melted butter but other fats can be used. I recommend unsalted butter so it doesn’t affect your amount of salt you put in the recipe.
Coconut oil also works great and is a great option for those on vegan diets that still want to get that rich “buttery” pancake flavor.
Nut oils with high melting points such as walnut oil and almond oil also work well but will change the flavor and consistency of the pancake a bit. My favorite nut oil is walnut oil. It can be used in the recipe as a reliable substitute for butter and it also works well as a butter substitute for greasing the pan.
How much fat should you use? Typical amounts range from 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, melted butter, or coconut oil to 4 tablespoons. More fat will result in a richer flavor to the pancakes.
The next time you make homemade pancakes, pay attention to the “pancake anatomy” and make sure you incorporate all 8 core ingredients. Keep an ingredient checklist to make sure you have all eight ingredients covered. As described in this articles, substitutions can be made for each area as needed in order to keep true to your chosen diet. I wish you the best in your journey to making those perfect pancakes that your whole family will enjoy!
For techniques on making the tastiest, fluffiest pancakes, go to my post entitled “Best techniques to get fluffy delicious pancakes every time”.