Pancake vs. Pancake

Either way, I’m getting pancakes. Lots of pancakes.

I am currently in a tiny cabin in coastal Maine*, where I have learned that the term “kitchenette” means two electric burners, a mini-fridge, and a toaster. There is no oven, which is hard for me given my semi-obsessive relationship with baking. (For example: I bought my KitchenAid stand mixer at the factory, which I toured. Twice.) At home, I measure flour to the nearest half-gram with a kitchen scale. Here, I don’t even have a measuring cup.

It’s a rainy Maine morning and I need to assuage my oven-related anguish, so I’m thinking pancakes. It’s a simple, flexible recipe that requires minimal equipment, making it a perfect bare-bones Science Fare experiment. A few months ago, I took a basic pancake recipe and modified it to use buttermilk instead of plain milk. Those pancakes were awesome: tall and fluffy and really delicious.

So how do you turn a plain pancake into a buttermilk pancake, and are they really better?

Pancakes are pretty simple beasts: the essentials are flour, dairy, egg, and leavening (baking soda or powder). Beyond that, you can pretty much go nuts with variations on the theme. In terms of dairy alone, I’ve seen recipes calling for plain milk, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, and ricotta. But here’s the key to successful substitution: dairy and leavening are partners in creating pancake fluffiness. I discussed this at length in the context of muffins, and pancakes are pretty much just pan-fried muffins.**

How to make a muffin (or a pancake): add wet to dry, don’t overmix. If experimental, do it twice to maximize dirty dishes.

Here’s what’s happening under the hood: a chemical reaction between baking soda and an acidic ingredient creates bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. These bubble form throughout the pancake, and are trapped as the batter cooks and solidifies. So instead of a leaden disk, you get a light and fluffy pancake honeycombed with tiny air pockets.***

Plain milk is only slightly acidic, so plain pancake recipes will call for baking powder. Why baking powder? It’s a complete chemical reaction in a can: a mix of baking soda and a powdered acid that creates carbon dioxide bubbles as soon as it gets wet. It doesn’t have to rely on the milk for help, which is good, since milk isn’t bringing much acidity to the table.

In contrast, buttermilk is already pretty acidic. You could use baking powder to leaven buttermilk pancakes, but the extra acid will make the batter really acidic and might leave you with sour-tasting pancakes. Instead, straight baking soda is usually used, since the buttermilk has plenty of acidity to contribute to the bubble-making process.

Dairy face-off

So this is how I made a plain pancake into a buttermilk pancake: swapped buttermilk for milk in a 1:1 ratio, and swapped baking soda for baking powder in a 1:4 ratio. (Baking powder is only about ¼ baking soda: the rest is the powdered acid and cornstarch, which prevents it from caking in humid areas.)

I made both batches of pancakes with the same recipe, except for the dairy/leavening substitutions. Since I don’t have any real measuring cups or spoons at my disposal, I used a porcelain teacup as my one cup measure, and a spoon for measuring out loose tea as my one teaspoon measure. Don’t believe the glossy kitchen catalogs: you can improvise almost anything and still come up with a delicious outcome.

Tall stack of plain pancakes on right, taller stack of buttermilk pancakes on left.

The batter for both pancakes came out pretty thick, and had to be scooped rather than poured into the pan. Thick batter resulted in thick pancakes, whether with plain milk or buttermilk. When stacked side-by-side, though, the buttermilk pancakes were taller—possibly because buttermilk is thicker than plain milk, and traps air bubbles more effectively. (Three plain pancakes measured up at about 51 mm high, while three buttermilk pancakes loomed over them at about 62 mm.)

Cross-sectional view. Buttermilk on top, plain below.

Both kinds of pancake were good, but the buttermilk were my favorites. Their added height came from extra fluffiness and they had a little more depth of flavor than the plain pancakes. Basically, they tasted a little more buttery. And as we, and the divine Julia Child, have firmly established, more butter = more deliciousness.

Also, the kitchenette totally came through for me. No oven, no measuring cups, no problem. I wonder if I can make chocolate-chip cookies on the stovetop? And if that’s a disaster, I know chocolate-chip buttermilk pancakes will always be there for me.


*For science. Grad school can be rough, you know?

**I owe the idea of pancakes as muffins to Alton Brown and his philosophy of baking, as presented in his excellent cookbook, I’m Just Here for More Food.

***My mother tells a story about her college dining halls, apparently adherents of the “leaden disk” school of pancake-making. This was in the peace & love era, and students would collect the pancakes, paint peace signs on them, and hang them around their necks on strings. This unsung movement was known as “Pancakes for Peace”.

About Carolyn Tepolt

As a PhD student in Biology at Stanford University, Carolyn studies adaptation in invasive marine crabs. As part of her degree, she drove 5,000 miles from Newfoundland to California, stopping only for sleep, tea, and Carhenge. For special occasions, she bakes ridiculously elaborate, deeply nerdy cakes. Carolyn is an editor for Science Fare.

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3 Responses to Pancake vs. Pancake

  1. streetnz August 16, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

    Sound science there mate, haha. Do you normally add salt to your pancakes? I reckon it adds a good bit of flavour. If you do and just didn’t for this experiement then all good. Though perhaps it may have been good to see. Sodium can react differently with acids so maybe it would have changed things.

    Cool post though. I like the stack off.

    • Carolyn Tepolt August 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

      I do normally add salt to nearly all baked goods, for the same reason: it enhances the flavor so much. For this experiment, I added a generous pinch to both pancake batters, I just didn’t mention it.

      I know salt can affect gluten formation & yeast fermentation, but I hadn’t thought of it reacting with acidic ingredients. Have you had this happen in baked goods before? I’m intrigued. I’ll look into it further, but if you read this comment, do let me know more specifics, especially if you’re thinking of a specific effect and/or a particular type of recipe. Maybe fodder for a future experiment…


  1. Can you over-mix pancakes? « Science Fare - December 14, 2011

    [...] I’ve always had something of an inferiority complex about pancakes (not helped at all by the delicious-looking flapjacks in Carolyn’s recent post). [...]

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