Forget bad batter and incompetent crepes – the key to great pancakes is understanding the science behind them. To make sure your pancakes are flippin’ good, follow food scientists Melanie Loades’ and Richard Marshall’s six scientific steps to the perfect pancake.
1. Keep the mix fine and light
It’s important to separate out all the fine flour particles and add as much air into the mix as possible, to give the pancake an even structure when cooking, so sift any lumps and bumps out of the flour before you start mixing it with the eggs. Melanie says, ‘Because the aim is for the pancake to be as thin as possible, whilst staying in one piece, the smaller the particles the better, as they will provide a more even frame for the pancake. Large particles disrupt the structure and that is what causes it to break when cooking.’
2. Smooth consistency
‘The final mix should be like single cream, in order to give the perfect thickness when cooking,’ says Melanie. ‘So, whisk well, allowing the carbohydrates and proteins from the flour and egg to blend. This helps the two ingredients to mix together, by stretching and wrapping around one another and the small air bubbles.’ Richard Marshall explains the importance of beating the mixture well: ‘It’s essential to get the thickness of the mixture right – too much milk and the batter will be too runny and the pancakes too thin with a risk of burning; too little milk and the egg proteins won’t be diluted enough so the pancakes will tend to be heavy.’
3. Hot stuff
For a perfect pancake aim to have a slightly crisp outside with a soft inside, whilst keeping it as thin as possible. Like with all good experiments, a test run works well, so be prepared to sacrifice your first pancake in order to get it right. Melanie says, ‘The pan should be hot to evaporate the water and to set your protein and carbohydrate mix on the outside of the pancake quickly. Add a small amount of butter to the pan to give a thin even coating. Then place a droplet of water in the pan, which should skitter across the pan quickly when it is at the right temperature. It is now time to add the pancake mix. With the pan at this temperature the pancake will rapidly evaporate its liquid when it hits the pan, almost ‘floating’ on a layer of steam for a few moments whilst the mix sets, which lessens the likelihood of burning. Cooking at a higher temperature also means less fat will be absorbed into the pancake, making it crispier and less greasy.’
4. Flip – (flop?)
You will know when the pancake is ready to turn as it will move freely when you jiggle the pan a little which shows that the outer surface has set. Melanie says, ‘Don’t cook it any longer as the liquid will be driven off from inside the pancake making it brittle, and more likely to break.’ Richard adds, ‘Physics shows that the pancake should be close to the far side of the pan and then it takes just a little flip into the air, a half spin and catch it up the other way!’
5. Don’t overcook it
The final colour of the pancake should be an even gold with a few darker spots. Richard explains, ‘Some of the colour comes from the egg yolk but the rest is a reaction between the milk sugar lactose and the proteins of the egg, flour and milk. This reaction is called the Maillard reaction, after the French scientist who first studied it.’ Lactose is what’s known as a reducing sugar, which can react with certain amino acids in proteins and form a series of brown-coloured compounds. Richard adds, ‘If the cooking goes on too long, this reaction produces bitter-tasting products which spoil the taste of the pancakes, so make sure they’re not over-cooked.’
6. The perfect pancake accessory
Of course there are many potential combinations of ingredients you can add to your pancake, but Richard suggests, ‘Serve your pancakes with lemon juice and a little sugar. The lemon juice not only has a nice clean, sharp flavour but the citric acid in it stimulates our taste buds on our tongue which whets our appetite. The sweetness of the sugar is another desirable characteristic. As with salt, we are primed to identify sweet foods because the sugar is a readily available, easily digestible source of energy.’
Food scientist Melanie Loades’ recipe for the perfect pancake
Makes about 12
1. Sift the plain flour well into a clean mixing bowl, making sure that you get rid of any lumps and bumps, to give your pancake an even structure when cooking.
2. Add a pinch of salt.
3. Make a well in the flour and add in two eggs.
4. Whisk together well, so the properties of the ingredients can bind with small air bubbles, to give a good consistency.
5. Gradually add in a mixture of water and milk a little at a time, continuously mixing to ensure that there are no lumps. The mix should end up so fine and light, that it resembles single cream. This is the best texture and consistency for pancakes.
6. Add a small knob of butter into the pan, and warm the pan so that the heat can set the pancake mix and avoid greasy tasting pancakes. Make sure that the pan is evenly coated with the butter to stop the pancake sticking.
7. Place a small amount of mix into the pan. When it can move freely in the pan, the outer pancake has set.
8. Flip the pancake, allowing it to cook well on both sides.
9. Repeat steps 6 and 7 accordingly.
10. Fill the pancakes with ingredients of your choice, eat and enjoy.
Tip – Adding a tablespoon of melted butter at the end of mixing also works well. If you are going to do this, add in another 10g flour at step 1.