A Scientific Guide to Fluffy Pancakes

Today is Pancake Day! Yay! Gotta love days that celebrate food. But no matter what your favourite toppings are, I don’t think there is many better things than a good old fluffy pancake.

Now if you want to make a fluffy pancake, all you need to be able to do is follow a good recipe. But if you want to understand why your pancakes become all fluffy, well, that’s where I come in, and we enter the realm of science. But don’t worry, it’s not rocket science.

The fluffiness of your pancakes begins and ends with air bubbles. Without these air pockets, you’re just going to be eating crepes. The first step is knowing how to form the bubbles in your batter, and the second step is solidifying those bubbles.

The ingredients you need to make fluffy pancakes are plain flour, baking powder, salt, caster sugar, milk and a lightly beaten egg. Nothing too out of the ordinary there. But it is the baking powder that is crucial for the formation of your bubbles.

Adding the baking powder to your batter causes a chemical reaction that, when activated, creates carbon dioxide gas. It is this gas that get trapped in your pancakes and creates the fluffiness. Activating the baking powder happens in two stages. Firstly, from adding it to liquid, which creates a slow release of gas. The second stage is when the batter is heated. The heat produces a quick burst of bubbles. The higher the heat, the more powerful the release of gas.

Now the bubbles form because of a protein in the batter called gluten that comes from the flour. Gluten is long strings of protein molecules and as they develop, they become elastic. If you have ever watched Bread Week on The Great British Bake Off and seen the way bread dough stretches, that’s what I’m talking about. The carbon dioxide gas ends up filling these stretchy parts of your batter just like when you blow up a balloon. The gas gets trapped and a bubble is formed.

Let’s talk about solidifying the bubbles. When a scoop of your batter hits your pan, there is a rapid release of carbon dioxide gas from the baking powder. But in less time than it takes for the bubbles to pop, the liquid in the batter cooks away in the form of steam, the proteins from the egg coagulate and those carbon dioxide bubbles get stuck there in a network of air pockets. The airy interior is how fluffy your pancakes are.

Top tip – your pan needs to be hot enough to activate the baking powder quickly, and also makes sure that your batter cooks quickly so your air bubbles get trapped and don’t collapse!

If you are struggling to make fluffy pancakes still, here are a few reasons why that might be happening.

Make sure you are not using old baking powder. Science labs and kitchens are very similar, so there are still some reactions going on in your cupboards when you aren’t using ingredients. Using old baking powder isn’t going to get the carbon dioxide release that you need for fluffy pancakes.

You could try using buttermilk over bog standard milk. It isn’t fattier than regular milk, but just cultured, which means that it is more acidic and thicker. Adding your baking powder to this will just blow away any results with normal milk, and having a thicker mixture means that it is more difficult for air bubbles to escape before they are cooked. But you can always use normal milk and add some lemon juice for the extra acidity.

Make sure you aren’t over beating your batter. If you over beat the mixture, you end up releasing more of the proteins from the flour that make up gluten and your pancakes will become tough and rubbery and any air bubbles that get released will struggle to stretch the batter.

So, if you are still making pancakes today, I hope this bit of knowledge about the chemistry of pancakes can help you whip up the best batch you have ever made.

Do you have any more food science questions you want answered? Or any other pancake science queries? What are your favourite pancake toppings?

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