Thursday, March 13, 2014

They Call Me "Mister Pancake"


Uncle Stretch was the first person to hip me to the possibility of a yeasted, sourdough pancake.

At that point I understood the basics of pancake chemistry: it was a batter that was leavened through the congress of acidic and alkaloid compounds and heat to create gas which would then be trapped in lovely light bubbles, surrounded by a net of starch and protein.

I've learned some new tricks since then. For instance, if you are familiar with the no knead bread recipe you know that simply mixing water and flour and leaving this mixture alone for several hours or days will result in stretchy nets of gluten forming "spontaneously."

Of course the gluten doesn't form by mere fiat, but through the interaction of compounds on the molecular level. If you don't own Harold McGee's brilliant On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen then stop what you are doing immediately and order it.

So, in a round-about way to answer a question posed by a friend of mine when talking about a recent ad-hoc batch of pancakes using a sourdough poolish, "how do you prevent gluten from forming?"

You don't.

I hear tale of folks using cake flour (with an average protein content of between 7-9%) instead of all-purpose flour (9-11% protein). Bread flour is usually at 12.5%-13.5%

I've always found using cake flour an odd choice but I think I understand why: most folks will beat pancake batter within an inch of it's life but will not allow enough time for the batter to hydrate.

Consider that the last few pancakes are often lighter than the first few (and everyone knows that the first pancake is for the chef or the dog because it almost never comes out right).

I've come up with a system for making perfect pancakes and I'm going to share it with you:

  1. Wait until the last minute to add any chemical leaveners - as soon as you add any alkaloids to a batter which is naturally acidic you start a chain-reaction between the acid and the alkaloids which stops when the alkaloids are all consumed. So wait until a few minutes before you begin grilling pancakes to mix in baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).
  2. Make your dough the previous night if you can - the longer you let a batter sit the better the starches in the flour absorb liquid, the more evenly the fats in the dough distribute and you will get better development of long, relaxed chains of gluten.
  3. Culture club - If you can use kefir, yogurt, crême fraìche or even buttermilk in lieu of regular milk (or cream you dirty, filthy geniuses), do it. If you are using a sourdough poolish, cut back on your milk and flour by 1/4-1/3rd. I like my batter consistency to be between Greek yogurt and heavy cream.
  4. Standardize your pancake - Use a 1/4 cup or 1/3 measure to scoop batter out, using a rubber spatula to scrape out the dough as you invert your measuring cup onto a griddle.
  5. Casting iron before swine - If you don't have a professional (or pseudo-professional) range-top griddle - over gas heat! - then you should buy a large enough cast-iron pan to grill pancakes with. This can't be emphasized enough: part of what drives all pancake cooks mad is temperature control, so using a dense hunk of metal that can retain heat but heats up slowly is key to getting to your pancake sweet-spot. Allow time between cakes for the surface of the pan to come back up to temperature. A well seasoned cast-iron pan will not need to be oiled between each pancake (although if you love your kids, spouse or hungover friends, you will give them a little extra butter each time).
  6. Respect the ratio - Ruhlman has the ratio for pancakes listed as 4 parts flour, 4 parts liquid (eg, milk or yogurt), 2 parts egg and 1 part butter. That translates roughly to 1 1/2 cups of flour (8 ounces by weight), half a pint of milk, half a stick of butter melted. That sounds about right, I usually start off with a straight 1:1:1 ratio of milk to eggs to flour then adjust flour and milk until I reach the right consistency. Try substituting olive oil for butter, or if you are using a full-fat cream or yogurt, skip the butter altogether.
So that's it, basically. Perfect pancakes every time. Goes great with a drizzling of Bixbie's Best Maple Syrup.

The key points: don't over work your batter, let it rest, wait until the last minute to add baking soda and cook on a cast iron.


Pancake party tonight!