Fun fact: I actually didn’t like pancakes growing up. I far preferred my dad’s homemade crepes to the spongy, limp Krusteaz mix pancakes we made with the industrial-sized bag from Costco. (Lest you think I’m a snob, it wasn’t some artisan pancake that eventually changed my mind about pancakes–it was a pile of thick, cakey pancakes my friend’s mom served at a sleepover…made from Bisquick).
For all the hundreds of pancakes I’ve made over the years, I’ve never been able to recreate some of my favorite restaurant pancakes. A few that come to mind include the golden, cakey pancake at Baby Barnaby’s, the baked, ultra-crispy griddle cakes at Kraftsmen Cafe, and the uber-fluffy ricotta pancakes from Top Paddock. So, the purpose of this bake off (or cook off) was to make a bunch of pancakes side by side to test out some different pancake techniques and see which my tasters liked the best.
All pancakes were made fresh, delivered straight to the plate of each taster. Nine friends came over to taste and rank for the below scores. Each taster ranked each pancake on a scale of 1-10 for taste and texture, and then answered whether they would like to eat the pancake again. Last, they had to arrange each pancake in order from favorite (1) to least favorite (9) (although we omitted these scores from the below chart for simplicity’s sake–the results were nearly identical to the average overall rankings).
Ingredients: We used Gold Medal flour, Kroger sugar, Land O Lakes butter, full-fat buttermilk, McCormick vanilla extract and Diamond kosher salt. I used 2 pans to make the pancakes, one nonstick and one cast iron (I didn’t notice a difference between the two pans except that after awhile, the nonstick got much hotter (which led to some scorched pancakes) while the cast iron seemed to remain fairly evenly heated).
Recipe selection: There are what feels like millions of pancake recipes on the web. I focused on “buttermilk pancakes” (or basically plain, buttermilk-style pancakes, since some recipes didn’t use buttermilk) for the most part (rather than whole wheat pancakes, ricotta pancakes, etc. which I will save for future standalone comparisons). I also tried to pick recipes that showcased distinct ingredients or techniques–for a full list of the pancake finalists I considered (you can see how similar/different many recipes are), you can view my Google Spreadsheet. Here are the ones I tested:
- Smitten Kitchen’s Tall, Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes: intended to be the “control” pancake with a fairly typical ratio of flour, sugar, butter and egg (although it does omit baking powder, which was slightly unusual).
- Ruth Reichl: Uses high ratio of butter and salt.
- Pioneer Woman’s Edna Mae Pancakes: Uses high ratio of sour cream.
- Clinton Street Baking: Uses separated, whipped egg whites.
- America’s Test Kitchen’s Best Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes: Uses a small amount of sour cream (and encompasses ATK’s rigorous testing).
- The Kitchn Lofty Buttermilk Pancakes: Uses a separated (unwhipped) egg and slightly higher ratio of butter.
- Mel’s Kitchen Cafe Overnight Pancakes: Uses yeast and an overnight rest in addition to regular leaveners.
- Shelby’s Cakey Cinnamon Pancakes: Uses powdered sugar.
- King Arthur Flour’s Simply Perfect Pancakes: Uses malted milk powder.
After the tasting, I also tried Martha Stewart’s Best Buttermilk Pancakes (which was popularly recommended when I put out the call on Instagram) and Epicurious’
Diner-Style Buttermilk Pancakes (which use seltzer) out of curiosity, which I will discuss at the end.
I was worried all the pancakes were going to taste the same, but this turned out to be far from the truth! People had some very distinct opinions on these pancakes. Here’s how the final scoring from the 9 tasters (plus me) shook out:
The “Make This” Version Summary
- Most universally crowd-pleasing pancakes: Ruth Reichl or Shelby’s Cakey Cinnamon
- Best pancakes for the least effort: Shelby’s Cakey Cinnamon or Ruth Reichl
- Best classic pancakes: The Kitchn’s Lofty Buttermilk pancakes
- Thickest pancakes: Smitten Kitchen’s Tall and Fluffy Buttermilk pancakes
And now, for the extended discussion:
Shelby’s Cakey Cinnamon Pancakes (8.20 flavor/7.5 texture):My friend Shelby gave me this recipe years ago when I first started blogging and I haven’t since found another recipe that uses powdered sugar. I loved this recipe as soon as I made it due to the cakey texture that results from the cornstarch in the powdered sugar. Most other tasters loved it too—I do think this recipe got an unfair leg up since it used cinnamon (no other recipe called for spices), but aside from liking the cinnamon, tasters liked the dense, thicker texture. If you like cakey pancakes (as I do), this is the one for you. It is slightly sweet, very crispy on the edges, and has a very tight, even crumb. 100% of the tasters would eat this again, though that might just be because they all love cinnamon. It is, at least, a BREEZE to whip up, which is a win in my book.
Make this if: You like cinnamon and cakey pancakes.
The Kitchn Lofty Buttermilk Pancakes (7.22 flavor/7.89 texture): I included this pancake because it had a higher ratio of butter than the average recipe (though not as high as Ruth’s) and because it incorporates the egg separation technique that my previous favorite buttermilk pancake recipe uses—you mix the egg yolk in with all the wet ingredients, and stir the white (no whipping required) in at the end. I don’t know why it works, but it always seemed to make for a superior pancake. I didn’t expect such rave reviews, but people LOVED this pancake. It had a slightly close-crumbed texture that still managed to be fluffy and soft with crisp edges (definitely fluffier than the cakey cinnamon pancakes, which probably accounts for the Kitchn’s slightly higher texture rating). The flavor reminded me of the Clinton Street pancake, but with a superior texture. I would 100% make this again.
Make this if: You’re looking for the perfect, typical buttermilk pancake! This has all the loft, fluffiness and flavor of a great pancake.
Ruth Reichl (7.40 flavor/7.0 texture): I think I first heard Ruth Reichl’s name from Molly Yeh, but I had never actually made any of her recipes up until this cook off—I decided to put her recipe in the running given its high ratio of butter and salt and relatively small amount of flour. YOU GUYS. Her pancakes were ridiculously good, like, an expletive erupted involuntarily from my mouth upon my first bite. The edges of this very flat pancake were perfectly golden and crispy; the interior was buttery and salty and custardy. I don’t even like thin pancakes, but I LOVED this one. When I reheated one of the pancakes, it literally fried itself in the retained butter. I’d always wondered if adding more butter to a pancake would make it even better (and closer to my dream restaurant pancake) or just straight up greasy. In this case, the additional butter meant great flavor and dreamily crispy edges (and yes, a slightly greasier pancake, but not terribly so), though it didn’t necessarily contribute to the thick, close crumb of my ideal pancake. Would I recommend eating these every day? For health reasons, probably not. Are they worth making every once in awhile? ABSOLUTELY (and they are super easy to make)!
Make this if: You’re ready to splurge on some rich, buttery flapjacks.
Clinton Street Baking (6.90 flavor/5.30 texture): This recipe comes from the famed pancake purveyor in New York City. I’ve tried their pancakes at the restaurant and while they are admittedly extraordinarily pillowy and fluffy, they didn’t rank among my all-time favorites. Still, I figured their recipe would be interesting to compare. Ultimately, tasters (including me) loved the slightly sweet, vanilla-laced flavor and the beautifully crisp edges of this pancake. However, the whipped egg whites didn’t seem to do much for the pancake in terms of texture–they turned out fairly flat and not particularly fluffy, and many commented that it tasted eggy. I personally would eat it again for the flavor (as would most other tasters), though my ideal pancake would be thicker and softer.
Make this if: You are a die-hard Clinton Street fan and don’t mind whipping egg whites.
Mel’s Kitchen Cafe Overnight Pancakes (4.80 flavor/7.40 texture): These overnight pancakes rely on both yeast and the typical leaveners to get its rise. After an overnight rest in the fridge (you can rest these for up to 24 hours), these pancakes cooked up tall and fluffy—tasters oohed as they came out of the pan. However, although flavors loved the extraordinarily fluffy texture (reminiscent of a good, fluffy diner pancake), most were disappointed in the lack of flavor. The faintest scent of yeast lent it a bready aroma, but the body lacked any sweetness. After cooling a bit, the fluffiness quickly transformed into sponginess; this was a pancake that peaked straight out of the pan. With a bit of added sweetness (more sugar and some vanilla), I think this pancake could be really delicious. I don’t think it’s necessarily worth the overnight rest, but it’s a great option if you want a make-ahead recipe.
Make these if: I would either tweak this recipe or try overnight pancake technique with your favorite pancake recipe. Or try these overnight pancakes that I also had my eye on (which use only yeast as a leavener).
America’s Test Kitchen’s Best Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes (6.0 flavor/5.60 texture): Finally, an ATK recipe that isn’t too complicated! This recipe stood out 1) because many people wanted to see it tested and 2) because it uses just 2 tablespoons of sour cream. Interestingly (compared to the Pioneer Woman’s pancake which uses a far higher ratio of sour cream), many commenters picked up on the slight tang in this pancake, which likely came from the sour cream. Although I thought the flavor was kind of addictive, many were unimpressed by the slightly mushy interior. It reminded a couple tasters of nostalgic pancakes from their youth, like the ones from Cracker Barrel or McDonald’s. Although I liked this pancake, I again wished it was thicker (and that the inside was slightly drier).
Make this if: You’re nostalgic for Cracker Barrel pancakes (just kidding). I would make these again if I had just a little sour cream on hand to use up, but they wouldn’t be my first choice.
King Arthur Flour’s Simply Perfect Pancakes (5.11 flavor/5.56 texture): King Arthur Flour includes malted milk powder in this recipe as a way to imitate that “diner” flavor since most food-service pancake mixes use malt rather than sugar. Unfortunately, no one detected the malt (although it vaguely tasted like a more commercial pancake to me) and we found the overall texture to be bland and generic. So maybe we achieved the aim of the recipe? The recipe has great reviews on the King Arthur site, but unfortunately, no one in our group was really wowed.
Make this if: Unfortunately, I would not make this recipe again.
Smitten Kitchen’s Tall, Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes (4.0 flavor/6.14 texture): I included this pancake due to Deb’s monstrous popularity but also originally as a benchmark for the average pancake (1 egg, 1 cup of flour, etc. etc.) the only difference between her recipe and Martha Stewart’s popular buttermilk pancake recipe is the leavening and significantly less buttermilk…but I figured the result would be similar enough. I was wrong. This pancake was SO INCREDIBLY, UNUSUALLY THICK. “Omg, I made biscuits,” I yelled from the stove. Almost breadlike, with a powdery bite, they were pretty much my ideal texture, though I agreed with everyone else that the flavor was sorely lacking. The flavor was slightly salty, but were otherwise very bland, and thus received the lowest overall score for flavor (though they shot up to fifth for texture!). I did use the smaller suggested amount of buttermilk, so maybe these would have turned out better had I added a little more milk. In any case, I’m curious to try them again with additional sweetener and some vanilla.
Make these if: You want extra-thick and cakey pancakes that are not very sweet and almost like stovetop biscuits.
Pioneer Woman’s Edna Mae Pancakes: This pancake stood out for its super high ratio of sour cream and rose to beautifully tall, puffy heights. However, tasters decried this pancake for its chewy texture (I may have overblended the flour mixture, so this could be be user error) and eggy yet bland flavor. It was all around kind of meh.
Make these if: I mean, it’s a great way to get rid of sour cream.
As an addendum, after the official tasting (there were only so many pancakes I could make in one day), I tried two additional recipes:
Martha Stewart’s Best Buttermilk Pancakes: I made these twice because I was bewildered by the first batch. Similar to America’s Test Kitchen, these pancakes were relatively spongy, verging on tasting undercooked on the inside. However, after making them twice, I think this is just the nature of these pancakes–on the plus side, they are dependably moist. On the downside, they are thinner than my ideal pancakes, the flavor was a bit bland, and I personally don’t love a super moist interior.
Make these if: If you tend to like thinner, spongier pancakes, I’d give these or ATK’s recipe a try!
Epicurious’ Diner-Style Buttermilk Pancakes (sorry, forgot to take a picture!): I’d always been curious to try using seltzer in a pancake recipe since I heard that it made for fluffier pancakes. The pancakes certainly were light, delicate and had great flavor (I think from the vanilla and generous amount of salt), but they weren’t very tall. If you are a fan of thinner, moist pancakes, I would try this recipe. If you have seltzer on hand, I’d try adding it to your favorite pancake recipe but I can’t say that I think it made a ton of difference–we couldn’t tell a huge difference in texture between these and Martha’s pancakes except that the interior was not as moist and spongy.
Make these if: You love thin and delicate pancakes. I think these would be most analogous to a lower-fat version of Ruth Reichl’s pancakes (less crispy edges and less buttery, but still thin and moist) or a better version of Martha’s pancakes.
Here are a few things I noted for the future:
- Whipping egg whites: In the past, I’ve never found this technique to be worth the time and effort of getting out my electric mixer and after this pancake test, I stand by this statement. You can easily get taller pancakes simply by reducing the liquid to dry ingredient ratio. Whipping egg whites in the Clinton St. pancakes didn’t lead to fluffier pancakes compared to pancakes with non-whipped egg whites (and even if I am folding in the whipped egg whites incorrectly, you can still get super fluffy pancakes without whipped egg whites!).
- Separated egg: I do, however, stand by the separated egg theory. I would give this a try with whatever pancake recipe you’re using–simply whisk the yolk in with the regular wet ingredients, and gently whisk the egg white into the batter until just combined at the end.
- I noted this above, but The Kitchn recommends this overnight pancake technique, which I am very curious to try in the future. Anecdotally, I’ve left pancake batter in the fridge overnight (including leavening) and loved the results the next day. I need to further test this theory, but let me know if you try it out!
- Buttermilk makes a big difference: Because dairy and I have a love-hate relationship, I almost always swap out buttermilk in pancake recipes for an almond milk + vinegar “buttermilk” mixture. I definitely noticed a difference when using full-fat, real-deal buttermilk, and after the official bake off, I compared two versions of the Martha Stewart pancakes, half made with the full-fat buttermilk and half with almond milk + vinegar. The almond milk pancakes were far flatter and paler–so if you must sub an alternative milk in a pancake recipe, I’d recommend either looking for a recipe specifically designed for alternative milk OR think about cutting down the amount of milk to keep the thickness and fluffiness of the original recipe.
Overall, The Kitchn’s Lofty Buttermilk Pancakes and Ruth Reichl were my new favorite discoveries! (Since Shelby’s cakey pancakes were already in my repertoire.) I expect to bust out Ruth Reichl’s recipe in the future if I need to impress a crowd, but will likely stick to The Kitchn’s recipe for more “everyday” pancakes. However, I still have some overnight tests and recipe tweaking work to do to recreate my ideal thick and cakey diner-style pancake!