To make perfectly fluffy pancakes, you need to know the science of gluten.
First things first. We have to get this out there: unless you have an allergy or intolerance, gluten isn’t bad for you.
All gluten is? It’s a type of strong, sticky, stretchy protein that occurs naturally in wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten is what helps wheat flour morph into everything from al dente pasta and delicate pastries to chewy artisan bread. Gluten—and the proper manipulation of it—is also key to making fluffy pancakes.
On today’s episode of Something to Chew On, we’re breaking down the science of gluten to help you learn how to prepare the perfect stack of pancakes.
To begin, there are two factors that promote fluffiness in pancake batter. The first is baking powder, which is a chemical leavener that helps your pancakes rise. The other is the underdevelopment of gluten, which is dependent upon using the right mixing technique.
Here’s why. Gluten is a mix of very long proteins that are disorganized in structure. As gluten is dissolved in water, it becomes easier to rearrange the structure of these proteins. Kneading or mixing gluten elongates the proteins and organizes them, similar (in theory) to combing the strands of your hair. As the proteins start to lie more or less parallel to one another, the dough becomes increasingly elastic and less tender.
When baking bread or other types of yeast-raised doughs, encouraging gluten to form is essential: without it, your bread wouldn’t have any structure. It’s why we knead dough—and why we use bread flour, which is higher in gluten than all-purpose. But with chemically leavened doughs like pastries or pancakes, encouraging gluten to form is the last thing you want, as excess gluten makes biscuits dense, piecrusts tough, and pancakes rubbery.
By limiting the amount of time you spend mixing your batter, you give the gluten less opportunity to develop. Stirring, kneading, folding, mixing—all of these actions help gluten stretch and organize itself into a network. The more you mix, the stronger the gluten becomes, and the more likely you’ll be left with a plate of little hockey pucks covered in maple syrup. Whomp.
That being said, without any gluten, your pancakes will slump and have no structure. They also won’t have any of that delicious chewy texture. When chemical leaveners (like baking powder or baking soda) create bubbles inside of a cooked pancake, the gluten network ‘traps’ the air pockets. This allows a pancake to rise sufficiently, stay fluffy, and hold its shape.
Translation: the key here is to whisk your batter briefly and delicately. If you still have a few small lumps left behind after you add your flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt to the milk, butter, and egg mixture, that’s totally fine.
On the flip side, overmixing the batter until it’s perfectly smooth will overdevelop the gluten. This means that the gluten gets organized into more tightly wound, side-by-side bonds in a very strong weblike network. This leaves less space for fluffy air pockets in between each gluten protein, which translates to tougher, denser pancakes.
Get it? Gluten isn’t bad. It’s just misunderstood.