Whether thick and fluffy or thin and crispy around the edges, every household has a favorite type of pancake this Shrove Tuesday.
But whatever your preference, it’s not just a matter of mixing flour, eggs and milk and pouring the mixture into a saucepan.
Science tells us that different additions to the batter and a few key prep tips produce the most mouth-watering results.
Adding both an acid and a base to your batter is essential if you want fluffy pancakes, while butter will help create a delicious browning reaction – but don’t over beat your batter or the result will be too chewy.
London experts have already used AI to identify the ultimate pancake recipe with seven ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, milk, butter and eggs.
If you want thick, fluffy pancakes, the trick is to add both an acid (such as lemon juice or buttermilk) and an alkali (sodium bicarbonate) – but don’t over beat the batter and keep it in lumps
According to Dr. Simon Cottona senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Birmingham, the trick to making thick, fluffy pancakes is to add both an acid (such as lemon juice or buttermilk) and an alkali (sodium bicarbonate).
Scientific tips for the perfect pancake
– Add both acid (lemon) and alkali (sodium bicarbonate) if you want airy pancakes
– Butter or extra baking soda will cause Maillard browning
– Don’t beat the batter too long, otherwise the pancakes will be too tough
– Adding more milk to the batter protects a ‘vapor barrier’ against the pan and ensures even cooking
When these acids and bases meet and react, they produce bubbles of carbon dioxide gas that become trapped in the batter.
Those bubbles expand until the batter around them boils and solidifies — creating a cloud-like fluffiness and thickness.
Meanwhile, baking power contains a powered form of both acid and alkali and can also be added to boost the reaction.
“Thicker pancakes need a leavening agent that naturally produces carbon dioxide when heated,” says Dr Cotton.
‘This is typically sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) or baking soda, which is a mixture of sodium bicarbonate with a weak acid such as cream of tartar.
“You may remember from school chemistry lessons that if you mix an acid with a carbonate, you get an effervescent effect – this is the carbon dioxide gas.”
For those who want thinner French-style pancakes, it’s best to avoid mixing bicarb with acid to prevent CO2 bubbles and keep the pancakes flat.
American-style pancakes are usually smaller in diameter, but thicker and fluffier than English-style pancakes (pictured), which are perfect for rolling into a cylinder
In any case, over-beating the batter should be avoided as this will lead to too much gluten development and overly chewy pancakes.
Too much agitation encourages the gluten strands in the flour to connect and form a network, making them too strong, resulting in rubbery or chewy pancakes.
Clumping the batter is therefore better than beating until all lumps have disappeared.
According to scientists at the American Chemical Society (ACS), pancakes provide two crucial ingredients: lemon juice and melted butter.
They recommend adding a tablespoon of lemon juice for every cup of milk, as well as a pinch of baking soda, which react to produce the CO2 bubbles.
Butter and a little extra baking soda also cause the pancakes to brown — a process known as the Maillard reaction.
The Maillard reaction takes place between amino acids and reducing sugars and gives foods a distinctive caramelized or roasted taste.
The reaction takes place at temperatures between 280-330°F (140-165°C) and creates a range of mouth-watering aromas and flavors.
While most recipes suggest just a quarter cup of butter for every two cups of milk, the scientists encourage cooks to experiment with this.
Research at University College London has also found that the appearance of pancakes depends on how the water escapes from the batter mixture during cooking.
History of Shrove Tuesday
Shrove Tuesday is traditionally celebrated by many Christians on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
It marks the last day of indulgence before Lent begins, and is also known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras, along with many different names around the world.
The name comes from the word ‘shrivel’, which means to forgive sins.
With the onset of Lent, fasting and other religious obligations are performed until Easter.
Besides the consumption of pancakes, Shrove Tuesday is also usually a time for festivities.
Adding more milk to the batter gives it more water, which acts as a buffer and prevents the pancake from burning.
In terms of preparation, moderate heat and not too much oil seems to be the best option.
“The pan needs to be hot enough to brown the pancake in less than a minute, but not so hot that the batter ‘solidifies’ when you put it on the pan, before it has time to spread,” said Dr. .Cotton.
‘But everyone seems to agree that it’s important to have the right pan: a nice heavy, flat pan that retains the heat well.’
Scientists at Imperial College London previously turned to artificial intelligence (AI) to find out the best method for making pancakes.
They used a machine learning model to compare the most popular pancake recipes and create the ultimate method of preparation.
They identified the ultimate combination of ingredients: 210 grams of flour, 48 grams of sugar, 14 grams of baking powder, six grams of salt, two eggs, 256 grams of milk and 25 grams of butter.
And while you may be tempted to go for multiple flips, the AI found that it only takes one throw to ensure perfect pancakes.
The AI’s ultimate method produces the fluffiest American-style pancakes, but it’s not suitable for making the more traditional English-style version.
A style of pancake that is gaining popularity thanks to internet video tutorials is the Japanese soufflé pancake.
The Japanese pancakes are so light that its texture has been compared to soufflé, with one reviewer saying it was like eating a cloud
This invention, like a cross between a soufflé and a pancake, gives thicker but lighter results thanks to the addition of whipped egg whites.
For Japanese soufflé pancakes to hold their shape, the egg whites should be whipped to stiff peaks like a meringue before being incorporated into the batter.
Mixing too long or too rigorously will not only cause gluten to over-develop, but it will also knock all the air out of your whipped egg whites, making the pancakes flat.
Japanese soufflé pancakes are usually cooked in a lidded skillet with a few teaspoons of water added so that the steam helps them cook – but they still need to be flipped once to brown the other side.
Brown pancakes and Maillard
Having just a little bit of baking soda that isn’t neutralized by acid helps pancakes develop color and flavor, researchers have found.
This is based on the Maillard reaction, the reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned foods a distinctive taste.
It happens between 140 and 165°C (280 to 330°F) and creates a range of aromas and flavors.
From steak to fries to bacon, each type of food has its own distinct set of flavorings created during the Maillard reaction, which has also been used to create artificial flavors.
It is accelerated in an alkaline environment, which is why the baking soda speeds it up.
The Maillard reaction was first reported in 1912 by the French physician Louis-Camille Maillard, who described that a yellow-brown color was produced when sugars and amino acids in water were gently heated.