Published December 1, 2010. From Cook's Country.
What’s the secret to the best from-the-box pancakes? Here’s a hint: They don’t mix with water.
Homemade pancakes have a high effort-to-satisfaction ratio: They’re fast and easy to make, and they’re far tastier than flapjacks from a mix. But sales figures don’t lie, and they tell us (courtesy of the Symphony IRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm) that Americans spend more than $250 million a year on pancake mixes. For those occasions when a mix is essential—while camping, say, or cooking for 79 of your closest relatives—you should know which one to buy.
To figure that out, we rounded up 16 nationally available pancake mixes (choosing buttermilk flavor when possible) and pretasted our way down to the final seven. We also threw in a pancake mix that’s sprayed from a can, because, frankly, we were curious. (We’ve been reading a lot about it on the Internet.) We prepared the pancakes according to package instructions and served them plain, with syrup on the side, to 22 cooks and editors from America’s Test Kitchen.
Not surprisingly, our tasters liked pancakes with a flavorful balance of sweetness and tang—that is, pancakes that were well seasoned with sugar and salt (our two winning mixes contain the most sodium per serving). But texture proved just as important as flavor, maybe even more so: Tasters preferred light, fluffy pancakes. Squat, tough pancakes with little height and fluff were downgraded substantially. Interestingly, only one mix in our lineup (one of our winners) included rice flour, which contributes softness to baked goods.
What’s the secret to the best texture for these pancakes? Our top two mixes are the only ones that require the addition of vegetable oil (along with milk and egg) to reconstitute the batter. Oil affects texture by helping to govern how the air bubbles (from the leavener) are retained during cooking. Mixes that don’t require oil either call for butter (flavorful, but greasy) or compensate with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which creates pancakes so soft that they fail to “hold” the leavening, making a fluffy texture impossible.
A gourmet mix was the surprise loser in this tasting. Despite its credentials (this brand won our brownie mix tasting), it came in last. Whatever the mix is using for leavening clearly isn’t up to the task.