It's all about the gluten (and the carbon dioxide)by Simon Cotton / March 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Everyone loves pancakes and wants to know the secret of cooking them. And that partly depends on whether you’re after the thin, crêpe-like European style or the thicker ones more popular in North America as each requires a different approach.
When you make pancake batter you are mixing a whole range of different chemicals (so all sorts of reactions take place in the cooking). The dry ingredients contain flour and sugar, as well as salt and maybe either baking powder or baking soda. Flour supplies protein, molecules made of lots of amino-acids joined in chains, along with starch, which similarly is made of lots of simple sugar molecules joined in chains.
Much of the protein in flour is gluten. When you mix the flour with eggs and milk, the gluten molecules get more flexible and can bind to each other forming networks. The mixing causes carbon dioxide gas from the air to be trapped by these networks, which causes the pancake to rise (just like bread does) and creates its chewable texture. Eggs give you more protein, while sugar and butter give tenderness to the texture and the fluids help the mixing process and enable chemical reactions to occur.
Thicker pancakes need a raising agent which produces carbon dioxide by itself when heated. This is typically sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) or baking powder, a mixture of sodium bicarbonate with a weak acid like cream of tartar. You might remember from chemistry lessons at school that when you mix an acid with a carbonate, you get a fizzing. This is the carbon dioxide gas.
Professor Peter Barham of the University of Bristol is one of the great experts on the science of cooking and he has some good advice about getting things right when making pancakes: “For a start, cooks always use too much batter’ and that the pan should be hot, but not too hot ‘almost smoking—but not blue smoke’ and should just have a smear of butter or fat.”
He goes on to say that a “standing” period of between one and three hours before cooking is vital:
“It is important to beat the mixture hard, so that…