Buttermilk-style waffles are probably the kind that most Americans are familiar with. They may not necessarily have buttermilk in the list of ingredients, but the leaveners come from baking powder and/or baking soda rather than yeast. Compared to yeast waffles, they tend to be softer (and sometimes sweeter), but this often means they can list soggy and cardboard-like. Happily, the handful of tasters who attended both the yeast and buttermilk waffle tastings told me they far preferred buttermilk waffles. So let’s talk about why!
All recipes were made the day of. Each waffle was made fresh in a Belgian waffle maker and tasted immediately afterwards. After doing the first waffle bake off on a smaller scale, I scaled up the invite list for this tasting–so ultimately we had about 23 tasters. Each taster was allowed to taste the waffles either plain or with syrup (as long as they were consistent throughout the tasting) and ranked each waffle on a scale from 1-10 for flavor, and 1-10 for texture.
Ingredients: Gold Medal all-purpose flour, Kroger butter, Borden’s cultured buttermilk, McCormick vanilla, Diamond kosher salt, Kroger sugar.
Waffle maker: We used this Cuisinart vertical waffle maker to make all the tasting waffles (and used my friend’s traditional waffle maker to use up some leftover batter afterwards!)
In the same way most of the yeast waffles riffed off of the Marion Cunningham recipe, many buttermilk waffles riffed off the popular Waffles of Insane Greatness recipe, though there was much more variation overall compared to the yeast waffle I scraped (check the “Buttermilk” tab in my Google spreadsheet for all the recipes I scraped for this test). Interesting variations included ingredients like powdered sugar, dried buttermilk powder, cornmeal, and orange extract.
Here are the results!
Of all the recipes, Oh Sweet Basil is the post that goes most into detail about how they crafted the ideal waffle recipe, and I’m kind of excited that our results confirm that they did just that. The post is chock-full of tips about how to get the perfect waffle, which I’ll summarize at the end. I was rather shocked that the Waffles of Insane Greatness (WOIG) ended up near the bottom (same with The Faux Martha’s waffles, which are popular among many bloggers, and King Arthur Flour’s waffles, which I trialed before this bake off and were well-received by several friends). HOWEVER, I think the results were skewed by an inconsistent waffle round (we tried tasting the King Arthur Flour recipe with both traditional and Belgian waffle styles before I gave up) and several cycles of waffles that weren’t fully cooked through.
Similar to yeast waffles, the recipe compositions didn’t provide obvious indicators of how well a recipe would do. As a general trend, recipes with more sweetener (in this case, sugar), did better than the bottom-performing recipes with little to no sugar. I think many of the tasters tasted the waffles plain first, before dipping them in syrup. Tasted without toppings, most of these waffles would taste pretty plain, and I think a lack of sugar would exacerbate that.
Oh Sweet Basil’s Ultimate Waffle Recipe: If you Google “best waffle recipe,” Oh Sweet Basil is likely to pop up on one of the first search result pages. The blog post goes into heavy detail about how they developed the perfect waffle recipe–tricks include a brief rest (only 15-30 minutes!), stirring the butter in at the end, making sure not to overmix, and an extra-rich combo of heavy cream and buttermilk, which in theory gives a better overall flavor, reducing the “eggy” taste. And lo and behold, it blew the other waffles out of the water! (“PERFECT!” Exclaimed one taster.) And the best part? You don’t even have to whip the egg whites for this recipe. In my waffle maker, the edges turned out ethereally crisp, a feature many tasters loved. They also loved the sweetness and texture of this waffle–“good density, rich and buttery, slightly eggy,” said a few. Many called it a “traditional” waffle, noting that it would be good for savory or sweet. A few remarked that it was slightly dry, but I (and most) actually liked the slightly dry, rough exterior texture and the custardy, soft interior.
Make this if: You love perfectly crisp and fluffy, slightly sweet waffles with a soft interior. These are all-around fantastic waffles that I would recommend to anyone, and would probably work well in a traditional or Belgian waffle maker. (PS. If you don’t have/don’t want to use heavy cream, this recipe by Sally’s Baking Addiction is very similar, though it does call for whipped egg whites.)
Pioneer Woman’s Waffles: A few people messaged me to tell me that PW’s waffles were honestly so good, but not nearly as many as the floods of DMs that I got praising her cinnamon rolls. So her recipe was actually on the chopping block until I realized that even though her recipe looked very similar to King Arthur Flour’s classic waffle recipe, she adds an extra 2 egg whites to her recipe. I will always gripe about having to whip egg whites separately in a recipe, but her waffles were undeniably airy. With 1/4 cup of sugar, they were also sweet enough to please most tasters. Very crispy and light with a light, subtle-y sweet flavor. Tasters overwhelmingly agreed this waffle was fluffy and light, though many wished it was crispier on the outside. Tasters were split between appreciating the “good balance of sweetness” with “vanilla flavor” “sweet custardy taste” and “right amount of buttery” while others thought it was “plain” and kind of eggy. Everyone could agree that it was mildly sweet, though some would eat it plain (‘perfect for eating plain, but may get soggy with toppings,” others thought it needed more spice.
Make this if: You prefer a light, sweet and airy waffle. These were nearly universally crowd-pleasing! (Try King Arthur Flour’s recipe if you don’t want to separate out the extra egg whites.)
A Cozy Kitchen’s Very Crispy Waffles: By the time we got to these waffles, I’m pretty sure some remnants of egg yolk had made itself into the egg white whipping bowl, leading to whipped whites that reached rather droopy peaks rather than the stiff peaks called for in this recipe. But even though we kind of messed up this recipe, Adrianna’s waffles still did great! They were markedly sweeter than other waffles (aka just the right level of sweet for me) with a beautifully custardy interior. They’re very similar to the WOIG recipe but with buttermilk instead of milk (or optional buttermilk), butter instead of oil, and egg whites whipped with sugar to create a meringue that aids in crispiness. With 1.5 sticks of butter, it’s no surprise that the flavor was richer than the WOIG waffles. Many tasters commented on how “crispy and buttery” this waffle was. “Love the texture. Very crispy with a spongy interior,” said one taster. The only complaint from one was that it was perhaps “overly crispy.” This was probably my personal favorite waffle–the mild sweetness was so addicting, I felt like I could eat many of these. Even though whipping the separate meringue of egg whites and sugar is extra work, I would do it all again for these waffles.
Make these if: You want a new Waffle of Insane Greatness, updated with butter. This killer waffle is crispy, sweet, and soft inside.
Clinton Street Baking Company’s Waffles: Home of the famed pancakes, their pancakes did decently in my pancake comparison, and I was curious to see how their waffle recipe would do. The waffle recipe is actually the basic pancake batter recipe plus a few extra items like clarified butter and orange extract. The full recipe makes an insane amount of waffles (so you might want to halve it for an amount on par with most other recipes). The recipe also calls for a teaspoon of orange extract, and though the overall flavor that comes through is relatively faint, this was the primary note that the majority of tasters picked up on. “Stand out flavor,” said one taster. “Well balanced with sweet and savory. Feels like a waffle you could eat a lot of,” said another. The texture was fluffy but a bit doughy–many wished it was crispier rather than simply being hefty yet floppy. Even though this waffle had the highest proportion of sugar, some still wished it was sweeter (perhaps to accompany or mask the orange flavor, as some weren’t a fan of the fruity aftertaste). This recipe is quite finicky, calling for separated, whipped egg whites, butter, vegetable oil AND just 1 tablespoon of clarified butter (who wants to clarify butter for a single tablespoon??). For that reason, I probably wouldn’t make these again, or at least would streamline the recipe.
Make these if: You have clarified butter and orange extract on hand and love a faint citrus flavor. These are interesting waffles (mostly due to the orange extract), but the texture is kind of meh.
Serious Eats: I had high hopes for this recipe, which uses powdered sugar–an ingenious move combining cornstarch and sweetener in one. It also uses only egg whites, omitting the yolks in a move that is meant to ensure fluffy and crisp, but “never cakey” waffles, and adds a tiny bit of baking soda to add depth of flavor. This resulted in fairly airy, spongy and slightly tangy waffles. Perhaps it was due to the lack of egg yolks, but this waffle got soft quite fast, as soon as it cooled out of the waffle maker. Though it was crisp and custardy when hot, “this waffle was like a pancake, soft and wet inside. But good sweetness,” said one taster. Overall, tasters agreed that the slightly tangy flavor was unique but delicious: “kind of limp, but great taste.” (Though fear not, the tanginess is not overly strong–a couple commented that it tasted like a “classic waffle.”) Some of the “wet” comments could have stemmed from not quite enough time in the waffle maker, so make sure to cook these extra well if you try them.
Make these if: You like waffles with a bit of tang. Make sure to eat them hot off the griddle for maximum crispiness!
Cook’s Illustrated: With ingredients like seltzer, sour cream and dried buttermilk powder, Cook’s Illustrated was, as always, one of the most mysterious recipes. It was also one of the rare recipes that used vegetable oil instead of butter. Happily, it doesn’t call for whipping egg whites separately (perhaps due to the leavening of the bubbly seltzer?!), yet people still loved the beautiful texture of these waffles. The firm texture with its dry, crunchy exterior and custardy interior falls somewhere in between the density of Clinton Street/The Faux Martha and the sponginess of Serious Eats/King Arthur Flour. However, flavor-wise, it was lacking. It wasn’t at all sweet, and I couldn’t detect any tang from sour cream or buttermilk powder. “The most plain tasting. Couldn’t figure out what it needed,” puzzled one taster. “I’d only eat this with a ton of toppings,” said another taster. “Tasted like whole wheat flour/healthy version of a waffle. Might eat again with more syrup,” said another. The overall consensus was: “the texture was awesome, but flavor was missing.” Eaten with syrup, these would probably be delightful! These won’t be on my regular rotation due to the unusual ingredients, but the seltzer is an interesting addition that I’d recommend trying in any of your favorite waffle recipes!
Make these if: You like a texturally textbook-perfect crispy yet soft waffle that doesn’t need to be sweet (because you’re going to add tons of toppings).
The Faux Martha: In the blogging world, many bloggers seem to turn to Melissa of The Faux Martha’s recipe for waffles. Her recipe include a tablespoon of cornmeal to add a bit of crunch as well as an additional egg yolk for extra richness. Maybe this is the point where my waffle maker decided to take a break because we ended up with waffles that were a bit doughy with a very soft interior rather than crispy on the outside and cakey inside, as intended. Tasters were split on the flavor–while some loved it, others thought it was just “bland, fluffy yet a little dense.” Several tasting waffles clearly suffered from being undercooked as many tasters commented that the center was a bit wet and/or moist. A few picked up on the cornmeal (“grainy,” “corn?”), which may have been due to my using a fairly coarse grind cornmeal since I didn’t have finely ground cornmeal. One called it a softer version of Pioneer Woman, which I think I agree with. The flavor is definitely solid, and her description of these is just so evocative and waffle-craving-inducing, I find it hard to believe these low scores are an accurate reflection of the recipe. I’ll be giving these another try!
Waffles of Insane Greatness: If you haven’t heard of this recipe, have you even made waffles? This seemed to be the OG recipe that many other recipes riffed off of, with its characteristic use of vegetable oil and a large amount of cornstarch, which reportedly helps with a crispy waffle exterior. Tasters definitely noted that this waffle had a great, crisp exterior, but most thought the interior was too “thick, cakey and dense.” Flavor-wise, most noted the eggy flavor. “Way too eggy,” agreed several. “Dense, eggy, doughy, not sweet at all,” said one taster. “Like movie theater popcorn without salt,” said another. Tasters noted this waffle definitely needs syrup, as not much other flavor comes through. Maybe it’s great with toppings? I’m not sure what all the fuss is about for this waffle–if you’ve had a different experience with it, let me know!
King Arthur Flour’s Best Waffles Ever: This recipe uses half butter and half oil (the oil is technically optional, but adds crispness), adding in whipped egg whites for good measure. Unfortunately, this waffle also apparently suffered from undercooking as several tasters commented on a wet center. Overall, the texture was a little soft and meh, slightly bubbly but lacking in much structure/crispness (this is probably due to waffle maker gaffes). Flavor-wise, I thought the buttermilk really came through in this waffle with a slightly spongy texture and sour flavor that reminded me of sourdough. Several tasters commented that it was “kind of savory”–definitely not on the sweeter side. “Generic. Tastes like iHop waffles,” said one taster. “Forgettable,” said another. In this waffle’s defense, I tried a half batch of this recipe prior to this bake off to test out my waffle makers and people loved it. So I still think it’s a fine waffle to try–I think it probably suffered from a lack of sugar compared to other waffles. Again, with syrup or other toppings, it’s probably delicious!
Make this waffle if: You want a fairly neutral waffle base. This texture may differ greatly (i.e. get more crispy) in a different waffle maker.
If you want an airier waffle: Cozy Kitchen, Serious Eats, KAF
For a denser, more substantial waffle: The Faux Martha, Clinton Street Baking Co.
For a medium dense waffle: Oh Sweet Basil, WOIG, Cook’s Illustrated
For a sweeter waffle good for breakfast or dessert: A Cozy Kitchen or Clinton Street Baking Co.
Conclusion and Tips for Making Great Waffles:
- Don’t overmix: Like pancakes, leaving a few lumps in the batter is preferred over mixing the batter excessively (which will lead to gluten formation, leading to chewy waffles).
- Don’t check the waffle maker early–watch to see when the steam stops coming out (means it’s done)
- Sugar is essential: Even if you plan to drown your waffle in syrup, sugar is pretty essential to give waffles that traditional flavor. According to The Kitchn, it also helps with browning, crispness and creating a caramelized exterior. Especially if you have a sweet tooth, look for recipes that have at least a few tablespoons of sugar.
- Do you really have to whip egg whites? Based on these experiments, my answer is no. That is, unless you are maniacal about getting the lightest possible waffles and are going to cook and serve them absolutely RIGHT AWAY. In our test, recipes that required whipped egg whites didn’t necessarily perform better texture-wise than those without whipped whites–which I think speaks to the very tiny impact that whipping egg whites has (despite many articles and recipes on the web arguing to the contrary). Some argue that the batter gets compressed in the machine, reducing the effort of whipping egg whites to nil. On the other hand, this argument that whipping egg whites with sugar makes it easier to fold the whites into the batter makes sense to me (preventing bits of cooked egg white in poorly incorporated batters). It also supposedly “stabilizes the egg white, improving the batter’s longevity” (I can’t speak to this point). But if you really want that cloud-like waffle, you can try using an immersion blender to whip egg whites (something I just recently learned)!
- Do I have to use cornstarch? Eh. I don’t think cornstarch hurts, but I think the proportion of fat in your waffle recipe is a more important driver of both flavor and crisp texture. The three waffles that used cornstarch (Oh Sweet Basil, A Cozy Kitchen and WOIG) ranked all over the map, making it hard to tell if this really made a difference.
- Do you have to use buttermilk? Fine Cooking says that buttermilk makes waffles more flavorful–but you’ll trade that for thicker batter and less crisp waffles while regular milk helps make more crisp but less flavorful waffles. I didn’t necessarily find this to be true through this experiment–Oh Sweet Basil and A Cozy Kitchen’s waffles both used buttermilk and turned out quite crispy. I do think using real buttermilk helps with a thicker batter (good for heft), but any lack of crispness can be compensated for with a good amount of fat. There also weren’t any clear trends that buttermilk led to better-flavored waffles, though my hunch is that it can’t hurt. The long and very helpful answer is: maybe? I don’t think buttermilk is totally essential to great waffles, though it likely helps with flavor and a thicker texture, if that’s what you’re after. If you don’t have it on hand, you can kind of approximate the acidity by adding a tablespoon of vinegar to a cup of regular milk.
- Do I have to rest the batter? Whereas yeast batters tend to have to rest overnight to help activate and leaven the dough, buttermilk-style waffles with baking soda/powder don’t HAVE to rest before baking. However, even a brief rest (as advocated by Oh Sweet Basil) can help improve your batter. The Kitchn says that a rest helps starch molecules absorb more liquid, causing them to swell, resulting in a thicker batter (a similar reason to why you’d rest/refrigerate a cookie dough). It also any gluten formed during mixing the batter relax, leading to a less chewy waffle. If you are using a recipe that calls for whipped egg whites, don’t rest the batter (this will just give the egg whites time to deflate)–but if not, this is a great and easy technique to improve your waffles!
If you try any of these recipes, tag me on Instagram and use the hashtag #pancakeprincessbakeoff so I can see it! Happy waffle making!