For many Americans, pancakes evoke a certain kind of nostalgia. People make pancakes because they’re delicious, crowd-pleasing, and easy. Well, sort of easy. There are a few crucial mistakes that home chefs commonly make when cooking this classic morning dish. We chatted with senior associate food editor Claire Saffitz and test kitchen contributor Alfia Muzio about pancakes woes, and how to avoid them.
1. Using Crappy/Old Flour, Butter, Etc.
For something as subtle as pancakes, the quality of your ingredients is extremely important—even the baking soda, which is responsible for making pancakes fluffy. Your baking soda should be less than 6 months old—or else it won’t do its job, which is to increase the volume of the pancake when it hits the hot pan. For wet ingredients, we love buttermilk. Its acids react with the baking soda, giving your pancakes even more lift and imparting a subtle tang. If you only have milk at your disposal, add a squeeze of lemon to it before mixing into your dry ingredients—the acidity is important in balancing your pancakes’ flavors.
2. Trying to Get Out Every Last Lump from Your Batter
Lumps are actually okay! Stir your batter until the dry and wet ingredients are just incorporated. That means mixing until the flour streaks have disappeared, but leaving the pesky lumps. If you over-mix, the gluten will develop from the flour in your batter, making your pancakes chewy instead of fluffy.
3. Making the Batter in Advance
No! You can’t make your batter the night before, or even an hour before you make your pancakes. It all goes back to those leavening agents: They start doing their job as soon as they come into contact with the wet ingredients, and will get less and less effective the longer you wait to ladle the batter into the pan. Griddling your pancakes right away will yield much lighter, fluffier pancakes.
4. Frying In a Sauté Pan
In pancake making, the sloped sides of a pan are not your friends. If you have a griddle, definitely use it. Otherwise, use a wide heavy-bottomed pan—if your pan is too thin, your pancakes will burn. The width is pretty important, too. You want there to be enough room to flip your pancakes without any messy business. (More on flipping later!)
5. Cooking with Butter, Not Oil
Here’s the thing about butter: It’s really easy to burn. Especially when your pan is on medium heat for an extended period of time. The milk solids are what causes butter to burn, so when you’re cooking your pancakes, use clarified butter (in which the milk solids have already been separated). Otherwise, use vegetable oil (really!) or regular butter, and wipe your pan off after every two batches or so.
6. Adding Too Many Berries, Chocolate, and What-Not
This is all based on personal preference, but here’s our take: Chocolate and berries will burn against the heat of the pan in the time it takes to cook your pancakes. If you absolutely MUST add mix-ins, first pour your batter into the pan, then add berries or chocolate chips. Bananas, however, will caramelize as the pancakes cook—so adding them is definitely a “do.”
7. Flipping Too Early
This common mistake is a tip that almost every home pancake-maker knows—but it’s not true. You should not flip when you see bubbles, but you should flip when those bubbles pop and form holes that stay open on the surface of the pancake. If a bubble comes to the surface, pops, but is filled in by more pancake batter, hold off on flipping. Make sure your pancakes are hole-y!
8. Being a Sloppy Flipper
Chances are, you’ve probably smeared pancake batter because of a sloppy flip. That’s because you were probably using your whole arm for what should be a quick, subtle motion. Here’s how to do it: Slide a thin spatula (we like to use fish spatulas) under your pancake, lift about three inches, and then briskly turn your wrist. Your pancake will land right where you picked it up, no smear in sight.
9. Skipping the “Test Run” Batch
Treat your first few pancakes as a test batch. Use them to gauge the heat, practice your flipping method, and become aware of any hot or cold spots on the pan. If there are hot spots, don’t be afraid to rotate the pan while you cook your ‘cakes to get them all a gorgeous golden brown.
10. Using Fake Syrup
Okay, you’ve put a lot of thought into making these perfectly fluffy pancakes. Please, respect the cakes by drizzling 100% maple syrup over them, not that translucent brown-colored “pancake syrup” that comes in a plastic bottle. We’re begging you. Oh, and a pat of butter to melt on top is not a bad idea, either. Just remember to invite us over to test it out.