Flipping for Food Science: The Perfect Pancake

Keith Harris, PhD cooks buttermilk pancakes for his family every Saturday morning. For Harris, fixing these “epic” pancakes not only represents tradition, but the intersection of microbiology, chemistry and engineering that comprise his profession: Associate Professor and Undergraduate Coordinator of Food Science at North Carolina State University.

Pancakes are basically a type of flatbread. Flatbreads include tortillas, naan, pitas and any other breads that are flat so they cook all the way through on a hot surface, and do not need the aid of an oven. The method of cooking a flatbread is called conduction heating. Conduction heating occurs when there is direct heat communication between the pancake and the griddle.

Ingredients in a basic buttermilk pancake batter are flour, salt, eggs, buttermilk, sugar, baking soda and baking powder. Each ingredient has a purpose:

Flour: Provides a matrix for other ingredients and forms batter when mixed with water
Salt: Enhances flavor of pancakes.
Eggs: Provide protein
Sugar: Helps with texture
Baking Powder: Leavening agent
Baking Soda: Leavening agent
Buttermilk: Helps the mixing process and chemical reactions to occur

The aroma and color of pancakes come from a chemical reaction known as Maillard browning, which Harris calls his favorite chemical reaction in all of food science. The reaction occurs when sugars react with proteins.  This reaction generates a wide range of small molecules that escape from the mixture and creates a scent, which is the familiar delicious smell associated with pancakes.

According to Harris, it’s important to wait for bubbles to form and the edges should appear dry before flipping the pancake.

Other sources: The Science Behind Making a Perfect Pancake, TIME Magazine, February 9, 2016

Categorized under: The Science of Food
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