Diner Pancakes at home, SVP?
December 20, 2010 8:32 AM   Subscribe

What's the secret to good, diner-style pancakes? As in, big, slightly puffy, and buttery and buttermilky tasting?

So, this morning I ate out at IHOP, and remembered how good their pancakes are relative to mine of that style.

I consider myself a good cook (I make creme brulee, stained glass jello cake and smoked turkey with the best of 'em!), and can whip up a quick batch of thin, light pancakes about the size of an english muffin fairly easily, using a Joy of Cooking recipe my family has altered beyond recognition. But that's not what I always want.

Sometimes, though, I want the big, thick pancakes that they serve at diners, with a nice butter and buttermilk flavor. But whenever I attempt at that, the result is kind of leaden or otherwise mediocre.

Some info about my kitchen: I tend to use unbleached flour, up to date baking powder, large eggs, unsalted real butter, cultured part-skim buttermilk and usually skim milk (it's what my mom and sister drink, even though I know whole is best for cooking). I cook on either a nonstick skillet, or a nonstick griddle, treated with a thin layer of pam, and then lightly brushed with melted butter (too much keeps the pancakes from forming a good golden brown soft crust, I've found). I also have a cast iron skillet, which has a decent seasoning, but not enough that I feel like I can trust an entire batch of pancakes not to stick. I could pick up a cast iron griddle, if necessary, and justify the purchase since I could also use it for bacon, eggs, and sausage. I portion pancake batter with a ladle, which is about half a cup, which is easier than using a measuring cup (messy!), and more precise than pouring directly from the bowl.

Pancakes are usually a spur of the moment decision for me, so I don't like letting the batter rest and haven't noticed much of a change when I have done it, but maybe that's where I'm going wrong. I also don't see much point in making a homemade mix, because measuring isn't what takes the most time, it's the making/cleanup.

Thoughts? Tips? Recipes?
posted by mccarty.tim to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 85 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: PS: I also just stir until the batter comes together, so I don't think I'm overmixing.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:33 AM on December 20, 2010

Are you adding skim milk to your pancake batter? My recipe is all buttermilk, plus a fair bit of melted butter, as well.
posted by deadmessenger at 8:35 AM on December 20, 2010

This is, according to everyone who has tasted it*, the best pancake recipe ever.

1 cup flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup buttermilk (or make your own)
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg -- separated
2 tablespoons unsalted butter -- melted

Mix dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Pour buttermilk and milk into a 2 cup measuring cup. Whisk in egg white. Mix yolk with melted butter, then stir into milk mixture. Dump wet ingredients into dry ingredients all at once. Whisk until just mixed.

Meanwhile, heat griddle or large skillet over strong medium-high heat. Brush griddle generously with vegetable oil. When water splashed on surface confidently sizzles, pour batter, about 1/4 cup at a time, onto griddle, making sure not to overcrowd. When pancake bottoms are brown and top surface starts to bubble, 2 to 3 minutes, flip cakes and cook remaining side until browned, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Re-oil skillet and repeat for next batch.

I often add bananas or raspberries to it. The batter is very thick, but it is supposed to be.

* Except one sister, who prefers Eggo frozen pancakes because she is a philistine.
posted by jeather at 8:38 AM on December 20, 2010 [83 favorites]

lots of baking powder will give you lots of fluffy. Try doubling the baking powder in your current recipie.
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:38 AM on December 20, 2010

Separate the eggs, beat the whites, and fold them in rather than just conventionally breaking the egg into the bowl.

Try them made with eggnog!
posted by jgirl at 8:40 AM on December 20, 2010

I'm pretty sure that IHOP's not using butter, but rather some sort of oil blend, most likely with coconut oil as one of the ingredients. Most commercial places also use a flour mix that includes dough conditioners. (I'm not a fan of IHOP pancakes, to be honest.)

Their buttermilk might be fresh, but it also could be powdered. And if you add 1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice and a few dashes of baking soda to any pancake batter, the results will be light and fluffy.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:41 AM on December 20, 2010

How much baking soda are you using?

I hated pancakes in general until I started adding some baking soda and sugar to my mix. This seemed to tenderize and fluff up the pancakes and not make them rubbery.

I use Bisquick though.
posted by royalsong at 8:42 AM on December 20, 2010

Ack, I didn't mean baking soda! I meant Baking powder.
posted by royalsong at 8:44 AM on December 20, 2010

In addition to what's been specified already, make your batter fresh - preferably cook the pancakes within 15 minutes of making the batter. If you leave the batter out too long, the baking soda will finish its reactions and the batter will go flat.
posted by saeculorum at 8:44 AM on December 20, 2010

Seconding beating the whites separately and folding them in to the mixture.
posted by jonnyploy at 8:45 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a similar problem -- the pancakes I make are delicious and fluffy, but they're thick and kind of "rigid" (I could pick an entire pancake up by the edge without the pancake flopping over) and blotchily-browned, instead of thin and floppy and uniformly smooth and brown like diner pancakes. And sometimes you just want big floppy diner pancakes, y'know?

Apparently "Top Secret Recipes" has published an IHOP pancakes recipe, and as Ideefixe suggests, it uses oil rather than butter. I'll have to try this sometime.
posted by pluckemin at 8:47 AM on December 20, 2010

The main thing that I changed which led to super-fluffy pancakes; was to separate eggs, put the yolks into the main "batter" part of the fixture; and whisk the whites until fluffy and gently fold them in at the end.

(It's what the waffle recipe I usually use asks for; and it turns out that it improves pancakes (: )
posted by ambilevous at 8:52 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I could pick up a cast iron griddle

And season the hell out of it. Most good diners have a griddle that is as smooth as butter, the benefit from years and years of cooking.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:52 AM on December 20, 2010

If I don't have any buttermilk, I add a couple Ts of yogurt to the batter.
posted by keener_sounds at 8:55 AM on December 20, 2010

Letting the batter rest a couple of minutes is important, the mix thickens and fluffs up as the liquid is absorbed and the baking powder does its job. Gives higher loft and the pancakes won't bleed into one another.
posted by lizbunny at 8:56 AM on December 20, 2010

To get a less runny batter for thicker pancakes are you just leaving out some of the liquid or using the same recipe? I get light fluffy pancakes with Michael Ruhlman's ratio of 2 parts liquid : 2 parts flour: 1/2 part fat (melted butter in my case) : 1 part egg.
posted by tangaroo at 8:56 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

King Arthur Flour's Simply Perfect Pancakes have been a big hit at my house.

The first (imperfect) pancake always goes to the dog. The rest are fought over by the kids. We use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, and throw a little bit of salted butter in it.

King Arthur Flour blog notes that: "Malt, rather than sugar, is what sweetens most food-service (i.e., restaurant/hotel) pancake mixes. For that typical "diner" taste, try malt in your pancakes instead of sugar. "
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:57 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

it's not a quick impulsive thing, but i bet bittman's overnight waffle recipe would make an awesome pancake.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:02 AM on December 20, 2010

I strongly suspect that the folks at IHOP probably use some proprietary version of that Bisquick stuff that comes in a squeeze bottle. I mean, it's a glorified fast food restaurant. Probably what makes it taste so good is some horrid fake ingredient that you would never stoop to use in your home kitchen. I would be willing to bet that the reason they taste so "buttermilky" is that they use a buttermilk flavoring.

Most diners I've eaten in (not sure about IHOP specifically) don't use a cast iron griddle for pancakes. They use the same stainless steel grill that everything else gets cooked on. Which might be the secret to the large size: I have a feeling they cook more like a crepe and less like homemade pancakes that absolutely require flipping. In fact, I'm wondering if the heat of your pan isn't part of the issue here. Maybe your pancakes aren't cooking fast enough?

Another aspect of the size issue is also technique. In decades of making piles of pancakes for a posse of hungry kids, my mom got really good at making those huge ones like you get in diners.

(Also, ricotta is the secret to The Fluffiest Pancakes Ever.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:08 AM on December 20, 2010

Nthing: malt sweetener + buttermilk + overnight rest in the fridge (what makes the batter "relax").

Beaten egg whites if you want extra fluff, but the overnight rest might counteract them.
posted by mneekadon at 9:15 AM on December 20, 2010

The egg white thing is my secret, too. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, and fold them into the batter very gently as the last thing you do before cooking the pancakes.
posted by not that girl at 9:19 AM on December 20, 2010

I'm not sure overnight rest would counteract the fluffiness of egg whites, since French macaron recipes suggest that you allow your separated egg whites to rest overnight for prime fluffiness. I'm not sure how being already mixed with the rest of the pancake batter ingredients affects that, though.
posted by Sara C. at 9:21 AM on December 20, 2010

Don't--whatever you do--just add lots of extra baking powder (sorry cosmicbandito). You'll add a really unpleasant metallic taste to the batter and might just create so many bubbles that the pancakes actually collapse before they cook through.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:39 AM on December 20, 2010

Response by poster: Hmm, I never suspected malt was the secret to that taste! Also, I'll try making them with all-buttermilk next time. I've whipped the eggwhites before, with mixed results, (sometimes the center was a bit underdone), but I'll give it a shot again.

I didn't cite IHOP as the perfect pancake, but more as a readily available pancake of the style I was thinking of. They could stand to have better butter flavor, I admit. And maybe be a tiny bit more tender.

Also, I love Bittman's overnight waffles. Not sure if they'd work that great for pancakes, but next time I make waffles, I'll have to save a cup or two for pancakin'.

I've had good luck with every King Arthur Flour recipe I've tried, so I might give it a shot, too. I don't eat that many carbs except on Saturdays, but I'll give some of these suggestions a shot then, and report back if I remember to do so!

Same with Jeather's recipe. In fact, I might just print out all the recipes here, and make a queue for each Saturday, take notes on the final products, and otherwise geek out.

And maybe use some Christmas money to get a cast iron griddle. Just because cast iron is awesome.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:40 AM on December 20, 2010

Not to toot my own horn, but I've never had anything but compliments for this pancake recipe. They're not quite as hugely fluffy as restaurant-style, but the flavor is definitely there (according to those who've had them):

1 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 egg
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla

Mix together and grill.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:42 AM on December 20, 2010

Go big. I triple this recipe.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:51 AM on December 20, 2010

I'm going to support the malt argument, at least in terms of flavor. Malted waffles are so popular that many diners actually advertise them, "Carbon's Malted Waffles (tm)!" A little malt really adds a kind of ethereal rich flavor that's hard to identify, but missed when it's absent. You can buy Carbon's pancake and waffle flour online.
posted by ViolaGrinder at 10:11 AM on December 20, 2010

also, butter and temperature is important,

lots of butter and a high temperature to cook on... i find the best looking and tasting pancakes are normally when the temperature is the hottest (second or third batch) and after the butter has worked it's way into the pan...
posted by fozzie33 at 10:13 AM on December 20, 2010

Vinegar + milk, left to sour for a few minutes is a great alternative to buttermilk.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:15 AM on December 20, 2010

so where do you get malt? do you just find this in the grocery store?

Mark Bittman's pancake primer
posted by canine epigram at 10:23 AM on December 20, 2010

Also you could give this a whirl (as the purists in this thread collectively have a heart attack).
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:26 AM on December 20, 2010

i substitute maple syrup for sugar in my mix, and often use combinations of whole wheat, white whole wheat and buck wheat flours as tickles my fancy at the moment. half and half replaces whole milk and you mix well with a hand mixer, then let set. with the baking powder and the rest of the simple incredient list i always use a variation of, even whole wheat pancakes float off the griddle.
posted by chosemerveilleux at 12:18 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I use the recipe in The Best Recipe and am very happy with it.
posted by Mom at 1:48 PM on December 20, 2010

On runnyness: the older the buttermilk in my fridge, the thicker the pancake batter. You can safely keep buttermilk for maybe 3 months, and in my opinion it makes the flavor of baked goods improve over time. If anything, I've run into too thick batter as a result - I thin it out with milk or water to compensate.
posted by deludingmyself at 4:35 PM on December 20, 2010

Start here.

Added to this, I have discovered in the last year or so, that cream is the most fabulous additive to pancake batter. If you want SOFT and fluffy pancakes, it's the ticket. I use half-fat cream (I am not sure if Swiss "halbfett" is the same as "half-and-half" or not). About 1/8 cup cream to 7/8 milk. (play with that ratio. Remember: "It's breakfast, not rocket science.")

Some above put a bunch of salt in their batter. Don't do that, it adds nothing. Butter is fine in the batter, but I think most people enjoy it better when they add it to taste, at the table.

Non-stick pans used to bother me. I would never by a non-stick griddle again. However, for convenience, I've used a t-fall pan for individual pancakes, and had success. (it helps that I'm now using an inductive stove) But I use quite a bit of oil in the pan. The oil adds a bit of crust/texture. I do not in any way seek to create a perfectly even, flat, brown pancake. I think that appearance is an illusion of perfection.

I have done batters with beating egg whites separately, and folding them in. I saw nothing remarkably different to justify the effort. Not even when doing it with Brussels waffles. I do prefer beating whole eggs separately, then beating in the milk and fat, before adding to the flour mixture.

The main difference in pancakes apart from whether you use a sour milk or not, is weight. And if you want a heavier pancake, use a higher dry/wet ratio than 1:1.

Sunday, I was throwing together some fast pancakes (baking powder instead of yeast) when I discovered I had no milk! I ended up making them with sour cream and cream, and just adding water until it was thin enough. Lots of mixing! But shazam, with all that cream, OMG, I ended up with some very thick, soft, fluffy pancakes. Quite tasty! Hate to think how fat they were, though. Glad I'm taking statins.
posted by Goofyy at 11:38 PM on December 20, 2010

Response by poster: Tried the King Arthur Flour recipe, with malted milk and vegetable oil (because I suspected my use of butter might be an issue, since butter never seems to fully integrate for me D-:). It's pretty good! The malt makes it mildly sweet, and the pancakes had a soft texture and a moist but not raw interior. I wrote down my notes and might make a miniblog or a post on the Grey about this when I'm done.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:32 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Holy Hannah, jeather's recipe is amazing. I have for the first time in my life made pancakes that don't suck.
posted by Jairus at 8:05 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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