Saturday, December 17, 2011

Oma's Buttermilk Pancakes: pure food chemistry

There are dozens of recipes for pancakes floating around on the web, but few that explain the chemistry of a perfect pancake. We often trust the wisdom of ages ("grandma's pancakes") without understanding why certain pancake recipes work better than others. By the way, this actually is an old family recipe, just in case anyone wondered about the truth of the title.

Sodium bicarbonate is the real magic behind a fluffy pancake. It leavens pancake batter by reacting with an acid to produce carbon dioxide bubbles. Baking powder (sodium bicarbonate + phosphate + corn starch) is a kind of all-in-one way to create this leavening reaction. Phosphates are a type of acid. One common type of phosphate found in baking powder is sodium aluminum sulfate, which creates a tinny aftertaste. However, if no other acid is present in a pancake recipe, it is necessary to use baking powder to create a fluffy cake.

Buttermilk pancakes do not require the use of baking powder. Baking soda, which is just pure sodium bicarbonate with no added phosphates, can be used instead. Lactic acid in the buttermilk will react with baking soda to leaven the batter. Do note -- buttermilk is not milk with butter in it. Most commonly available buttermilk is regular milk that has been cultured and fermented. Its flavor is reminiscent of plain yogurt.

Why use oil instead of butter in pancake batter? Pancakes should be cooked on a hot pan for optimum texture, and butter burns quickly at high temperature. Blackened pancakes are a disaster in anyone's book! Oil will not burn, and helps create a nicely browned cake that doesn't stick to the pan.

This batter yields a lightly sweet, fluffy pancake. I call for a tablespoon of sugar, but two may be used for a sweeter cake. Top these cakes with whipped cream and fresh fruit, nutella, fruit preserves, or maple syrup and butter. As written, this recipe makes enough pancakes for our family of two plus a little one. Double it for a family of four. Enjoy on a lazy weekend morning.


1 cup flour
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
 1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 tsp vanilla extract


1.  Turn the oven on low (200F). In a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, and baking soda and stir thoroughly.

2.  In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork, then add buttermilk, vegetable oil, and vanilla extract. Stir to combine.

3.  Make a small well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour the wet ingredients into the well and stir until completely combined to make the batter.

4.  Cook the pancakes in batches on a hot fry pan. When the bubbles pop and leave a small hole that does not close again, it's time to flip.

5.  Keep cooked pancakes warm in the oven while you cook the others.


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