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Everything You Need to Know to Make the Perfect Pancakes

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

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Disorganized gluten, carbon dioxide formation, and timing is everything for the fluffiest pancakes possible.

There’s nothing better than a piping hot stack of pancakes. They're a weekend family crowd-pleaser, the perfect dish to serve a lucky breakfast-eater in bed, and the most delightful anytime snack. However, while there’s nothing better than these griddled cakes, there’s also nothing worse than messing them up. Here, we present our recipe for pancake success.

Mix the Batter Lightly

There are two factors that promote fluffiness in pancake batter, underdeveloped gluten and dissolved baking soda. Gluten is a mix of very long proteins that are disorganized in structure. Once gluten is dissolved in water, these proteins can more easily rearrange their structure. Kneading or mixing gluten elongates the proteins and somewhat organizes them, an action similar to combing the strands of your hair. As the proteins start to lie more or less parallel to each other, the dough becomes elastic and less tender. By reducing the mixing time of your batter, you give the gluten less opportunity to organize.

Baking soda (either on its own or as part of the baking powder formula) creates the bubbles that make pancakes rise. When baking soda encounters an acid, carbon dioxide is formed to produce the bubbles in the batter. The stirring of the pancake batter speeds bubble formation by moving the baking soda and acid together. Unfortunately, stirring also causes the release of carbon dioxide gas by bringing formed bubbles to the surface of the mixture. Just a little too much stirring and the bubble-forming capacity of the baking soda will be quickly exhausted. To make the fluffiest pancakes possible, then, you should stir the batter until the ingredients are just incorporated—and not one stir more!

Use the Batter Within an Hour

Use the Batter Within an Hour

To determine how far in advance we could make pancake batter, we mixed up a few batches of basic pancake batter and held them for different lengths of time before cooking: one hour, two hours, and three hours. Holding the batter for one hour had no detrimental effect on the pancakes. After two and three hours, however, the batter spread out too easily, producing thin, floppy cakes that were much less appealing than the ones made from fresh batter. Here’s why: In fresh pancake batter, baking powder reacts quickly, releasing most of its gas in a short period of time. The longer the batter sits, the fewer bubbles there are left when it’s time to cook, increasing the likelihood of flat flapjacks.

At first we thought we could add a bit more baking powder to the batter to provide some extra lift, but this merely lent an unpleasant chemical taste to the pancakes. Next, we tried adding a stiffly beaten egg white to the batter. The resulting pancakes were not quite as fluffy as those from fresh batter, but the egg white added a good amount of height. So the next time you find yourself with pancake batter past its prime, simply add a stiffly beaten egg white.

Heat the Pan Properly

Heat the Pan Properly

The best way to determine when the skillet is ready is to make a test pancake the size of a half-dollar (use 1 tablespoon of batter). If after one minute the pancake is golden brown, the pan is ready. If the bottom of the pancake remains blond—or is close to burning—adjust the heat accordingly.

Serve Them as Soon as Possible

Serve Them as Soon as Possible

We tried several methods to determine how to hold pancakes before serving, from stacking up the pancakes on a heated plate, to covering them with foil, or to placing the plate of stacked pancakes in a warm oven. All of these methods did the job as far as keeping the pancakes warm. Even by the last batch of pancakes, the temperature reading would hit somewhere between 145 and 150 degrees. But these pancakes were compressed from being stacked, and they steamed from the heat and became very rubbery.

We found the best method was to spread the pancakes on a large cooling rack placed on a sheet pan. (Be sure to spray the cooling rack with vegetable cooking spray to save yourself from sticking pancakes). Place the pan and the rack in a 200-degree oven and place your pancakes on the rack in a single layer, uncovered, for up to 20 minutes (or be warned-they will start to dry out.) The warm oven keeps the pancakes hot enough to melt a pat of butter, and leaving the pancakes uncovered keeps them from becoming soggy.

Best Buttermilk Pancakes

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Best Buttermilk Pancakes

To create a buttermilk pancake recipe with a tangy flavor and fluffy texture, we added sour cream for flavor and cut back on leaveners to keep the pancakes from rising too high and then collapsing.

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