I’m a pretty big pancake fan. I’ll often ignore the age old adage “you can’t have breakfast for dinner” and make up a big mess o’ pancakes after a hard day at work. As foods go, pancakes aren’t necessarily unhealthy to begin with, but the standard processed bleached refined white flour syrup sponge that you will typically encounter (a side note here: all you can eat pancakes at IHOP…not as good as advertised) is decidedly less healthy.
So in today’s post I’ll be taking an in depth look at pancakes starting with a good basic pancake recipe (no mixes for this post!) from the Joy of Cooking:
Joy of Cooking Pancakes
1½ cups all purpose flour
3 Tablespoons sugar
1¾ tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1½ cups milk
3 tablespoons melted butter
½ teaspoon vanilla
I’ll go over each part of the recipe and see what can be changed to make this griddle fried ambrosia just a bit healthier based on my years of experience and careful study in the art of pancake making.
Let’s start with the biggest change we’ll need here, getting rid of the white flour. Pancakes are nutritionally all about eating grains, and white flour is a grain with all the best nutritional parts removed. Take a look at this picture:
White flour removes the germ and bran from the grain (which contain all the fiber, B vitamins, minerals, vitamin E, and antioxidants) leaving only the Endosperm (containing the carbohydrates and protein). And yes, food cooked with whole grains is coarser and heavier than a refined white flour, but it also has an immensely greater nutritional value. Whether breakfast, or “breakfast for dinner”, why eat grains if you are going to take all the nutrition out of them first?
Of course the only reason anyone uses white flour is because you can bake lighter, fluffier food with it. But, in the case of pancakes (and really, most baked goods) I actually prefer whole wheat flour. Whole wheat pancakes have a much bolder, richer taste than white pancakes. They become something more than the aforementioned flavorless syrup sponge and actually taste like the grain they are made from.
So, the single most nutritional (and flavorful) change you can make to a basic pancake recipe is to use a whole grain flour. Even going with half white/half whole wheat (if the thought of going all whole wheat is giving you heart palpitations) is a start, and before you know it you’ll be using all whole wheat like there was no other way!
Here are some of my favorite flours while we are on the subject:
- Whole Wheat Flour – This is just basic whole wheat flour. You can’t really go wrong here, and I don’t really have any input on a favorite brand or anything.
- White Whole Wheat Flour – This has all the nutrition of regular whole wheat but with a slightly lighter texture and color. This works fine but I sometimes feel like it bakes a little strangely/doesn’t taste as good…probably just my imagination.
- Graham Flour – One of my favorites, this is basically white flour with the bran and germ coarsely ground and added back into it. Nice flavor and very coarsely textured, this will make some very “hearty” pancakes (or any kind of baked good…it’s great in cobblers too).
- Buckwheat Flour – This has a nice nutty flavor and can be added in any ratio you prefer.
A final flour note is that whole wheat flour usually shouldn’t be substituted 1:1 in a recipe that calls for white flour. It will suck up more liquid, so use a bit less whole wheat (I don’t have an exact number, your pancake batter should not be too thick or thin and when poured should spread to a nice circle a bit less than a half inch thick).
Whole wheat is a dense flour no matter what kind you use, and pancakes should have a certain fluffiness. There are a lot of ways to get this, but the most effective thing you can do is use lots of baking powder. The recipe above uses far more than most recipes and I’d say it is about right. The drawback here is that if you use too much your pancakes will have a metallic baking powder taste that isn’t so great. The 1¾ tablespoons in that recipe is dangerously close to too much, so don’t go overboard.
Another important thing in the quest for fluffiness is to not stir your batter too much. If you stir every clump of flour out your batter will probably end up over mixed and give you rubbery pancakes. Clumps are fine, just carefully mix the large clumps in and don’t worry about small clumps and thinner batter sections…they will all bake together in the pan and be much more airy for it.
Pancakes always call for milk, and milk isn’t that bad for you. I never drink it straight though, and consequently never have any on hand and I’m here to say water works just fine for your liquid. Your pancakes might have a bit less flavor (and it seems milk might make them a tiny bit fluffier), but overall using water instead of milk really doesn’t have much of an effect in my opinion.
*THOUGH* if you want to use buttermilk (a not so healthy option but worth it for the pancakes it makes ***EDIT*** It has been brouth to my attention that buttermilk is actually very healthy despite the name and thickness!), then it does make a difference. Make the following substitutions to the recipes found in this post:
- only use 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- add ½ teaspoon of baking soda
- use buttermilk instead of your liquid
Buttermilk pancakes are my favorite and are super fluffy despite the massively decreased amount of baking powder (I guess it has something to do with the buttermilk).
Finally, soy milk or almond milk work fine too.
Most recipes call for melted butter, but fats that are solid at room temperature should be avoided (and there is really no need to use butter if you don’t need its solidity like in pastry dough). Simply substitute oil for the melted butter (maybe even slightly less). I’ll add that pretty much any oil can be used but my favorite is sunflower seed oil. It’s great in baking and really gives things a nice nutty flavor. One oil to avoid is olive oil (and strong oils like sesame seed oil of course). I know some people like to bake with olive oil, but the olive flavors are too strong for me in sweet baked goods.
Nothing much to add here, these will act as a binding agent to keep your batter together. I used to try to beat my whites into peaks before adding to the batter to make my pancakes fluffier, but that is a lot of work and I suspect it doesn’t have much of an effect on the final product anyway.
Salt and sugar go here. Salt has more chemical functions than simply providing flavor, but I don’t really understand them well enough to write about them here. All I know is your pancakes will be more bland without it. As for sugar, most sweeteners will work, but don’t go overboard with them. If you want your pancakes to be sweet add more sugar to the topping, the pancake itself should be light on the “cake”. White sugar, brown sugar or honey (my favorite), about 3 tablespoons is a good amount.
Vanilla extract and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc) are important, but tailor the spices to your choice of topping…especially if you want to use peanut butter (which I don’t think goes very well with cinnamon).
Additions to the Mix
I prefer just a plain pancake but you can add whatever you want to the batter before you cook it. Nuts and berries are good, though I find that every one’s favorite “blueberry pancakes” can too often sacrifice fluffiness because of the extra liquid in the blueberry juice. Still, this is more of a personal preference, just be careful of how much extra liquid your addition will add and you should be fine.
With trial and error you will figure out the right batter consistency. Don’t be afraid to add more water or flour (though too much extra stirring seems to make your pancakes less fluffy, so be careful) if your first pancake is too flat or thick. The first pancake is never the best anyway.
A simple nonstick pan is fine, though a cast iron skillet works great for pancakes too. Set your fire to medium (roughly…again, some experimentation is called for…and don’t forget to let your pan warm up before you adjust it too much) and pour about a half cup of batter in the center of your oiled pan. When you see bubbles all around the edge of the pancake it is ready to flip, and when you see steam rising from the cooked side it is done (you can always break one open to be sure they are cooking through). Both sides should be a nice golden brown if you do it right.
Butter and maple syrup is the standby and there is nothing wrong with that, but my personal favorite is peanut butter and applesauce (I know most of you are saying gross…and I’ll admit the peanut butter overpowers any delicate flavors I might have gotten from the whole wheat, but…well, I love peanut butter).
Honey is great on pancakes too if maple syrup is too expensive (I’m assuming no one here would ever buy that cheap corn syrup pancake syrup stuff!). I also really like black strap molasses (a great source of nutrients too) by itself or with peanut butter.
I am also a big fan of making my own fruit topping. Just chop up apples, pears (even canned if that’s all you have), blueberries, whatever you want, throw them in a pan with a little extra liquid some sugar to taste spices and corn starch (remember to add the corn starch to cold water to avoid clumping!) Heat until it is a nice syrupy consistency and you have a great pancake topping.
Another Unruh favorite is to blend sunflower seeds and a bit of orange juice together and put it on pancakes with a light coating of tahini (sesame seed butter). Not for everyone, but very good!
Don’t be afraid to make a lot, pancakes freeze/refrigerate very well and are easily reheated in a toaster (or microwave). I even make peanut butter and jelly (or honey)(or molasses) pancake sandwiches for a quick lunch to go.
Let’s take a look at a modified recipe for pancakes, one that is pretty close to what I use (I usually don’t measure things out too precisely).
1 cup graham flour, ½ cup white whole wheat Flour
2-3 Tablespoons honey
1 ½ Tablespoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups water
2 Tablespoons sunflower seed oil
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Notes: As to the flour to water ratio, you will just have to adjust as necessary. This recipe is about right for the flour mixture, but your batter would probably be on the thin end for just graham flour, and on the thick end for white whole wheat flour. Also, if you use milk or buttermilk instead of water, the batter will get thicker too. You will have to experiment, possibly adding a bit more flour or liquid after you make your first test pancake.
Also, this recipe only makes about 10 small-medium sized pancakes. I’d double it if I were you… everyone needs leftovers!