Is it inevitable that the first pancake won’t be as good as the rest of the batch? It’s certainly my experience, but why is this, and how to avoid it?
Ian, Ystalyfera, Swansea Valley
Ian’s question was prompted at least in part by a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe in Feast last autumn for rye pancakes (to go with crispy duck, British-style) in which he admitted that, while the batter mix was ostensibly enough for 11 pancakes, “the first few attempts aren’t usually the best”, so it’s best to plan on getting only eight out of it. If even our culinary idols have issues with the first pancake or three, Ian wondered, what hope is there for the rest of us?
“There’s no harm in just accepting that the first one will be bad, eating it there and then, and moving on to the next, better one,” says Henrietta Inman, chef at the newly opened Stoney Street in London, whose breakfast offering, in particular, has got the Instagram crowd snapping away like mad things. “I’m not entirely sure of the science behind it, but it’s all about creating a seal, getting the pan used to the mix and warming it up for the rest.”
There are, though, a few tricks that may reduce the risk of first-pancake hell. According to restaurateur and food writer Bill Granger, one is not to overmix the batter. It might seem counterintuitive, he says, but “you actually want to see tiny lumps of flour in it – they’re a good sign that the end result will be a tender pancake, rather than a gluey one, because they show you haven’t overworked the gluten”.
Granger is more responsible than most for changing British attitudes to breakfast and brunch, so take heed – he began spreading the word here as long ago as 2000, and a decade later put his money where his mouth was with the UK’s first branch of his Aussie chain, Granger & Co, in London (he now has four here, and 14 others worldwide, from his native Sydney to Japan, Hawaii and beyond). Once the batter is made, he says, give it a rest: “Just 20 minutes, so the gluten relaxes. And, obviously, the more you’ve mixed it, the more time it needs: generally speaking, thin, crepe-like pancakes need longer than thicker ones, such as our ricotta hotcakes at the restaurants, because the batter tends to be worked more.”
Inman, however, isn’t so sure a rest makes that much of a difference: “I’ve cooked them with fresh mix and day-old mix, and they’re just the same. I think it’s more important to get the batter to the right consistency, which for a basic pancake means not too thick and not too thin.”
Of course, the pan plays a big part, too, Granger says. “Put it on medium heat before you add any fat, and for long enough to get an even heat distribution.” That’s because, when you heat metal, it expands, and you need the fat (with pancakes, that usually takes the form of butter) to fill any pores in the surface, or the first lot of batter will do so instead, which is why the pancake sticks and tears. Be wary of using too much, though, or the batter will simply soak it up, leaving you with a grease-sodden initial attempt. Treat it less as frying and more as seasoning the pan (much as you do a wok with oil), and you won’t go far wrong.
“Brush the entire surface with butter,” Granger says, “then wipe away any excess with a bit of kitchen paper and add a touch more butter, just to be on the safe side.” When you now add the batter for that tricky first pancake, the pan ought to mimic the well-greased one you normally get when making subsequent ones. “In restaurants, the pans are used so much, they’re always well seasoned, but that’s often not the case at home.”
At the end of the day, Inman says, pancakes are like any other kitchen skill. “You’ve got to get a feel for it, as we do with all the ingredients we cook with. It’s all about practice – and about not being defeated by first attempts that go wrong. That’s something that happens to everyone, however experienced.”
• Do you have a culinary dilemma? Email email@example.com