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Pancake Mixes

By Cook's Illustrated Published December 2010

How we tested

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*