A DEEPER DIVE
We’ve tested our recipes obsessively to make it easy for you to make the best pancakes you’ve ever eaten without a lot of fuss.
But if, like us, you have a burning need to stare deep into the soul of griddle-fried cake, or if, like us, you are simply the kind of person who obsesses over things like how brew time and water temperature affect coffee flavor and mouthfeel, this article is for you. This is the distillation of what you learn when you make pancakes five days a week for two years. It’s a deep dive into what makes Long Table's cakes so different from the others, and how to get the most out of your bag of mix.
THE LONG TABLE DIFFERENCE
Put simply, we use better ingredients, more fat, and more protein than most companies do. It makes a better cake.
Most commercial pancake mixes today are little more than second-rate white flour repackaged for sale. High in gluten and easy to over-mix, they cook up into a gummy, flavorless mass of empty calories. And no wonder: the industrially bleached grain has been stripped of all its naturally occurring fats and proteins to prolong shelf-life.
It's all a part of the story of how America got a little lost along the way, waylaid by the bandits of a food industry that views food as a simple commodity, not a deep source of life and community. Fortunately, pockets of our great nation are finding themselves again, and other options are possible.
We do it differently. We use true stone-milled whole grains. Nothing is removed from the whole grain, so none of those vital fats and proteins are lost. We're also chasing the best tasting breakfast possible, and fats and proteins carry flavor (think bacon). We have them milled freshly in small batches, so they don't travel far to get to us, and we mix them in small batches - all of which means that you don't get an industrial imitation of a pancake, but the real thing.
ON BUTTER & MILK, AND EGGS
When possible, always choose butter, milk, and eggs that are local and pasture-raised.
Why local? These are heavy foods that require refrigeration, so choosing as local an option as possible is the best way to reduce your breakfast's carbon footprint.
Why Pasture-Raised? Grass-fed cows with the ability to roam produce milk and butter that is more flavorful and richer in nutrients. Same for chickens and eggs - you can see the difference when you crack them open: firm, orange yolks, not flat, yellow ones.
Choosing local and pasture-raised is also a good way to ensure that you are supporting farmers who treat their animals decently. Which is important.
We call for more butter in our recipes than most. Not only does it taste good, it also helps to lock in moisture. You end up with a moist and tender cake - not a dry cake that has to be doused in butter and syrup before you can eat it: more butter in the cakes means less on them.
Choose a high-fat butter, sometimes called "pastry" or "european style" butter - they have more fat and less water. We recommend using unsalted butter, though we know that sometimes that isn’t what’s in the fridge, and that’s fine. If you enjoy a darker, more savory cake, try browning the butter before adding the milk.
We call for whole milk because it is higher in fat, and therefore better carries flavors, but you can use your milk of choice. Almond milk works especially well. Even water will do, in a pinch.
It's best to warm the milk before adding it to the melted butter. In small batches it's not very important, and you can use milk straight from the fridge. In larger batches, however, cold milk can cause the melted butter to form into globs, so it's best to warm the milk before adding it to the mix. (This is why we add the milk to the warm pan of butter in our kitchen-scale mixing method. It warms the milk without any wasted moves.)
We call for almost twice as much egg as most recipes do. This both provides you with more eggs in your breakfast (a good thing), and helps to provide lift and tenderness to the cakes (much of the leavening in a pancake comes from eggs, not baking powder). Too little egg is especially noticeable in whole-grain cakes, where they can get mealy, tough, and flat.
Very fresh eggs have a pronounced chalaza (that stringy bit of the egg that is difficult to beat), and they can be removed with a fork if you don't like the little bit of cooked-egg texture that will show up in one of your cakes.
ON MIXING THE BATTER
The important thing is to get the texture right, and then to leave it alone.
The thicker and dryer your batter, the thicker and dryer your cakes will be. We prefer a batter that is just thicker than gravy: it pours slowly and evenly into a circle, and cooks up into a medium-thick cake with a tender crumb. You can adjust your batter mid-stream by adding a touch more milk or a touch more dry mix to suit your tastes, but you want to handle the batter as little as possible after mixing it. This is because of how baking powder functions.
The baking powder we use is a double-acting leavener, meaning that it begins acting immediately when hydrated, and it acts again when it encounters the heat of the griddle. It works by creating gas bubbles that get trapped in the batter. If you agitate the batter much after it’s had its first reaction, you release all the trapped gasses that it just created, the first action of leavening will be lost, and you'll have tougher cakes.
This is one reason we prefer the kitchen-scale method: measuring by weight is much more precise than measuring by volume, so it’s easier to get right the first time.
Our cakes have much less gluten than most others. For us, this is purely about texture.
Simply put, and without getting into its much-contested reputation, gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in many grains that, when handled, binds into springy, elastic chains. The more you work it, the stronger it becomes. A good bagel has gluten development to thank for its delicious chew, and a bad pancake has gluten development to thank for its gummy toughness.
This is why most pancake recipes call for a delicate method of mixing (add the wet to the dry, and fold in gently): you don't want to overdevelop the gluten. It's actually really difficult to do well, and is one of the reasons why restaurant pancakes are often better: those cooks have had a lot of practice.
We don’t want to stick you with an overly delicate task before you've had your coffee. So our pancakes have only just enough gluten to keep the cakes together as they rise. It’s why we can recommend, in our kitchen scale mixing method, adding the dry mix to the wet, and not the other way around. We spent a long time achieving the right balance point to allow you to be somewhat careless in your morning routine - but that said, the less mixing you do, the airier and lighter your cakes will be.
A hot griddle produces the best cakes. Keeping your griddle just under the point where it will smoke gets you the best texture and flavor, by activating the leavening in the baking powder quickly and evenly, and by browning quickly - developing complex flavors before the cake is overcooked. You’ll want to flip each cake when its edges begin to set, but before the center sets - so that the uncooked second side has a chance to brown and rise just like the first side.
The best way to test griddle temperature is to flick a few small drops of water on the griddle. If they sit still and boil off, the griddle is not hot enough. The griddle is ready when they bead up and skitter around before boiling off. It’s called the Liedenfrost effect - it’s fascinating, and it only happens at very high temperatures.
If your griddle is at the right heat, cooking times will be about 40 seconds on the first side, and 30 on the second. The cakes will be finely pockmarked and a deep golden brown. If your griddle isn’t hot enough, the surface of the cakes will be solid and flat, and they will tend to a yellow color. If it’s too hot, fat will smoke on the griddle, your cakes will have a dark spiderweb pattern, and you’ll wind up with a bitter taste.
A cast-iron griddle is best. Hefty and thick, it holds temperature well, conducts heat very evenly across two burners, and if seasoned properly, the surface is better than any non-stick coating. It does, however, require some knowledge and care to maintain properly. (We agree with Cook's Illustrated: the best method for seasoning cast-iron can be found here.) If good cast-iron is unavailable, use the heaviest, thickest non-stick pan you have. On a good quality cast-iron or non-stick surface, our cakes need no grease, which allows the griddle to be very hot without smoking.
If you prefer a greased griddle for the texture and flavor it imparts to the cakes, we have some pointers for you. We grease a griddle by putting a small amount of fat on an already hot-griddle, and carefully wiping it across the surface of the griddle with a paper towel. This gives us a good and even non-stick coating. If you want your edges a little crispy, lay it on a little thicker. Butter is our standby griddle-greaser, though it has a low smoke point, so the balance of hot-but-not-too-hot is a little delicate. Vegetable shortening has a higher smoke-point, and yields a lightly crispy edge to the cakes. Bacon fat does even better, though it should be used very sparingly or its flavor will overwhelm the cakes.
Pancakes are of course best served hot, right off the griddle. If you need to keep them warm for a short period before serving them, the best method is to lay a slightly damp (not wet) paper towel over a plate of hot cakes. The moisture in the towel is slow to absorb heat, and so keeps them warm while also preventing them from drying out (the chief problem with keeping them in a warm oven).
Our cakes are at their best with little to no butter. Serving them with cottage cheese, jam, or honey are three of our favorite breakfasts. Our favorite show-stopper at brunch is to drop chunks of Mexican chocolate on the cakes just after they hit the griddle, served up with raspberries. With that said - we feel that there is nothing like the sweetly dark and complex joy of real maple syrup.