The pancake is the most literal of breakfasts.
“It’s making an individual cake in a pan,” says Neil Kleinberg, owner and chef at celebrated Clinton St. Baking Company.
From the first American flapjack fried up by colonial cooks aiming to refashion old corn mush into a new meal, pancake ingredients have coincided with your basic cake-baking ingredients: grain, liquid, and a leavening agent. (At first that was cornmeal, molasses and milk; now it’s more likely white flour, baking powder, milk, and eggs.) Instead of slinging that batter into the oven, cooks doled cupfuls right into a pan on the stove.
It was tasty and functional and had cousins all over the world, in dishes as far flung as latkes, okonomiyaki, and lefse. If you combine ingredients and cook them on the stovetop, flat in an oiled pan, you probably have a pancake.
There’s rich history to the pancake as well, from the development of light and thin crepes by the French, to the emergence of a religious holiday built for pancake-eating—Shrove Tuesday, when Catholics eat tons of flapjacks before Lent.
Thomas Jefferson’s French chef Etienne Lemaire added cream and whipped egg whites to his batter, elevating the mundane johnnycake into a “pannequaique,” back in the 18th century. Later, Kleinberg, who worked with a French chef in the early days at the Water Club, pioneered a pancake inspired by soufflé techniques. That’s the one that eventually brought the hungry hoards to Clinton St. and made him an unexpected pancake king—and the one that will elevate your at-home flapjack game.
So move over iHop. Just in time for February 17th’s Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a., Mardi Gras), we’re flipping pancakes off our own griddles. Here’s how it’s done:
1. Dry ingredients
You’ll want to start with all-purpose flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt—all ingredients you have in your pantry if you’ve ever done any baking, ever. And that’s all you really need. To feed four, start with 2 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and a ½ teaspoon salt. I keep the sugar down to 4 tablespoons per cup, to leave an appetite for tons of maple syrup, but you can up it to 6, which is how Kleinberg does it, if you’re a sweet tooth. You want to measure these four out into one bowl and whisk them together so that the salt and baking powder are evenly distributed in the flour.
Beyond that, well, there are a lot of tweaks you could make to the recipe: add whole wheat/spelt/gluten-free/seven-grain flour, or throw in some yeast for an overnight rise. “That’s nice and stuff,” Kleinberg says. “But that’s not really what a pancake is.” Better to get creative where it matters—later, with toppings.
2. Wet ingredients
Again with the cake inspiration: the wet ingredient list for your pancake looks a lot like the rundown for any muffin, cake, or quick bread. For 2 cups of flour, figure between 1½ and 2 cups of milk (the former’s for fluffy, the latter for denser and crepe-like), ½ teaspoon of vanilla extracted, 4 to 6 tablespoons of cooled melted butter, and 2 to 3 eggs. I’m going to tell you more about egg separation and egg white beating in the next step, but if all that sounds like just too much, scroll back up here and add two whole eggs in with the milk and whisk away.
In either case, make absolute sure your butter’s not hot; otherwise, it’ll start scrambling the egg.
Separating the eggs is the defining step in Kleinberg’s pancake process, so if you’re up for it, use the shells to remove the yolks from the whites. Put the yolks in with the other liquids. Put the whites in another bowl and set that aside.
Many recipes call for buttermilk, but Kleinberg doesn’t think it’s necessary—it’s heavy, after all, and these pancakes are meant to be light. On the other hand, almost any decent-tasting, dairy-free milk will turn out a good pancake. Coconut milk, unlike rice, almond, or soy, provides a similarly delicious fat content to whole cow’s milk.
To understand the magic moment here, you should know that what makes most pancakes rise is a standard leavener—baking powder, usually, and sometimes baking soda, too. Pancakes have a larger dash of the stuff than many baked goods, so that they rise up quickly. Instead of relying only on the powdered leavener, though, Kleinberg’s method takes a cue from the soufflé, using beaten egg whites to add more lightness and lift. (Kleinberg: “I wanted to do a phenom pancake. It was [the French chef’s] idea of a soufflé and my idea of how a pancake should look and feel.”
Once your egg whites are separated from the yolks, start beating them with a whisk. After a couple of minutes of adding air to the bowl, the whites will become fluffy and so strong they can hold a peak when you lift the whisk out. A few clues for success: Make sure the bowl is clean and dry. Don’t get any yolk in the white; if you do, save that white for making omelets and crack a new egg. Room-temperature eggs whip up way more quickly than cold ones, which means pancakes will be on the table quicker and your arm won’t be sore tomorrow.
4. The Batter
Now that you’ve got your dry ingredients, your wet, and your cloud-like egg whites, you’re going to combine the three in just the right way to end up with tender and light cakes. First, pour the wet ingredients over the dry and use a spatula to fold together. Don’t overmix—that’ll make the pancakes tough, and any lumps will smooth out during cooking.
Next, do the same thing with half of the egg whites (if you’ve whipped them), scooping them on top of the batter and folding them in. Add the second half, and this time fold them with even more excruciating gentleness. Don’t worry if they’re not integrated into the batter. “Leave streaks of white,” Kleinberg says. “So when they hit the griddle, they’ll rise up beautifully.”
“The most important thing is, whatever pan you’re using, you have to heat it first,” says Kleinberg. If you skip that step and ladle batter onto a cold pan or warm pan, your pancakes will stick to the pan. You might give up on cooking them.
Instead, set a heavy pan or cast-iron griddle over medium-low heat a full 10 minutes before you plan to start cooking. Here are a couple of Kleinberg’s rules of thumb for knowing when the pan’s ready for its batter: “The touch of your thumb should be hot. Droplets of water will dance on the griddle.” Once the pan is hot, you can always turn it down. But you can’t make it hotter. “The cakes won’t spring back,” he says.
Then, grease the surface. The best grease is ghee or clarified butter, which can get very hot without burning. But if you don’t have any, just use butter and watch it carefully. When it starts foaming, that’s when you should add the batter. Make the pancakes whatever size you like, but use a measuring cup if you’re serious about getting them even.
To get that golden ring around the edge of each pancake, “while they start to set, you put the butter around the edges. Don’t spare the butter.” This also adds a serious buttery taste to each bite, even if you’ve started with ghee.
As that first side of the pancake cooks, you’ll see dozens of bubbles form across the surface of the pancake and notice that that the cake has puffed a bit at the center. “You can see the cake evolving,” is how Kleinberg puts it. That’s the precise moment when the pancake’s bottom should be golden. Time to flip. The second side often needs less time on the griddle, since most of the cooking is done. When the second side releases easily and is golden, your pancake is done.
Here’s the thing, though: If you cook enough pancakes, you’ll start to just know when they’re ready to flip and ready to turn out onto a plate. That knowledge will lead to real consistency, and you won’t suffer the first pancake problem, wherein the initial glop of batter is more or less a waste. You might even gain some pancake-making swagger. “I make it a point to make the first on the best one,” says Kleinberg.
Add a little extra butter to the pan between batches.
Though simple, pancake batter is delicate. Contrary to your imagination, which just ran wild with ingredient possibilities when you read “add-ins,” you want to add barely anything at all to your pancake batter to preserve its perfect texture.
In fact, any add-ins shouldn’t be mixed in, but rather placed evenly on the uncooked pancake’s surface just before you flip it. Thin slices of banana, a sprinkling of chocolate chips, slivers of apple or pear, fresh blueberries, bits of pineapple—these all work. Crazily, not much else does. Most ingredients are best added to your pancakes in the form of post-cooking top-ins, especially strawberries and other juicy fruits, which grow watery when cooked.
For both toppings and add-ins, Kleinberg skips the savories. “I know you see a lot of bacon, sea salt, pulled pork,” he says. “I don’t ever want to cross that line with a pancake. If want to get savory, I’ll have a side of bacon and eggs.”
Since add-in application must be so selective, toppings—the nuts and fruits and even candy that crown a finished stack—are where the creativity can come into play. You can riff on a theme, concoct a tropical fruit salad, or scatter candied nuts with all the generosity of your pancake-making heart. Here are some ideas: Mango and pistachios. Fried plantains or bananas to complement the slices already in your pancakes. Cherry compote and toasted almonds. Lemon curd and ricotta dollops. Pomegranates and passionfruit. Strawberries and chocolate. Roasted apples and Bavarian cream. Anything delicious goes.
February is pancake month at Clinton St. Baking Company, and you’ll likely find inspiration in their daily menu of topping ideas. Whatever you choose, have all ingredients prepped and ready so that you can take a bite of your pancakes hot off the griddle.
8. Syrups and Sweets
The only syrup your pancakes should soak in is real maple. The grade matters less than the reality that your syrup came from maple sap. Unless you carry the strongest allegiance to Aunt Jemima, skip the fake stuff entirely.
On the other hand, you can find liquid sweeteners like honey, sorghum syrup (for Southern-style cakes), or maple butter (Clinton St.’s profoundly brilliant emulsion of syrup and butter) that’ll take the place of syrup without faking anything at all. Use those if they suit your fancy.
9. Crepes and Large-Format Pancakes
Pancakes are wonderful and all, but if you’re cooking for a crowd, flipping cake after cake will turn you from a host to a short-order cook. That’s when you want large-format pancakes like Dutch babies (make a batter without baking powder, pour it into a cast-iron pan, and cook in a hot oven; here’s a good recipe).
Crepes, also made without baking powder as leavener, are wide and thin French pancakes that reheat much better than their American counterparts. You can cook up a pile in advance, reheat each, then fill them with butter, sugar, and lemon juice.
Pancakes taste best hot from the griddle, and leftovers, by contrast, taste kind of sad—unless you’ve “poured enough maple butter on.” Instead, save any extra batter before you cook it. It’ll keep for a few days in a sealed container in the fridge.
You don’t have to save that batter til the next morning, though. Pancakes are a pinnacle of breakfast for dinner, which Clinton St. added to the menu a long time ago, when the spot started staying open really late at night. “We were giving people what they wanted,” Kleinberg explains. Everyone wants breakfast for dinner. Consider pairing dinner pancakes with substantial accompaniments, like bacon and eggs.