In an ideal world, you’d bounce out of bed every morning ready to whip up a breakfast from scratch. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, which is why supermarkets sell convenience products like instant boxed pancake mix. It’s not as good as homemade, but it’s a lot easier to cope with while you wait for the coffee to kick in. Besides, plenty of boxed pancake mix hacks are available to fall back on to make your flapjacks better.
A Quick Look at Pancake Ingredients
Whether you get them out of a box or make your own from scratch, pancakes ordinarily – barring allergies or dietary restrictions – share the same basic handful of ingredients. Flour, eggs and milk are the main three, with baking powder, baking soda or, sometimes, sourdough starter as the leavener to make the pancakes light. There’s usually a small amount of oil or other fat as well to make the flapjacks tender and, sometimes, sweeteners or flavorings.
A more sophisticated pancake recipe might throw in buttermilk for its pleasant tang or call for baking soda as part of the leavening in the pancake. Other recipes sometimes include a bit of buckwheat flour, which has a deep, nutty flavor of its own.
Your box of all-in-one pancake mix has some combination of those ingredients as well, but in dehydrated form. You’ll get milk or buttermilk powder in place of their liquid equivalents and fats that are emulsified into the flour and other dry ingredients. These ingredients are more perishable than plain flour and baking powder, even when they’re dried, so usually a box mix includes antioxidants or other preservatives to prevent spoilage. You’ll also get emulsifiers to help the ingredients mix easily without clumping.
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Don’t Just Add Water
It’s easy to simply dump powder from a box and add water, which is what makes these mixes appealing. Water doesn’t do much for the pancakes’ flavor or texture, though, so changing up your liquid can bring a variety of benefits.
Using sparkling or soda water helps make the pancakes lighter and fluffier, and soda water adds flavor as well. Milk makes the pancakes richer, and buttermilk makes them tastier. Using yogurt as part of your liquid gives a tang similar to buttermilk, and it adds protein. You can even use coffee in place of the water, which gives your pancakes a deep color, a nutty flavor, and a kick of caffeine to help open your eyes the rest of the way.
Add Egg to the Pancake Mix
Even though a “complete” mix contains eggs in some form, adding a fresh egg to the batter gives a flavor and texture that’s more like homemade pancakes. For bonus points, separate the egg. Whisk the yolk right into the batter; then beat the white separately and fold the foam into your batter just before you start cooking. It will make your pancakes lighter and fluffier.
Up the Leavening
Box mixes contain baking powder, but over time, baking powder can lose its oomph. Before you mix up the batter, add a fresh baking powder from your cupboard to the dry mix and whisk it in. A teaspoon will do for a large batch or a half-teaspoon for a small batch. Your pancakes will be noticeably lighter and fluffier as a result.
If you’re adding yogurt or buttermilk, you could use baking soda instead. Soda’s a lot more powerful than baking powder, so use 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon, depending on the size of your batch.
Tweak the Flavor
Unless you prefer to keep your pancakes a blank canvas for their toppings, consider adding in some compatible flavors. A few drops of decent vanilla extract are never a bad choice. You might also opt for a pinch of cinnamon, a pumpkin pie spice mix, or something less common such as allspice, cardamom or lemon zest.
Bring on the Add-Ins
If you’re really ready to cut loose and get creative, throw open your pantry doors and start thinking about add-ins. Chocolate chips are an obvious choice for anyone with a sweet tooth, but butterscotch or peanut butter chips are pretty good, too. If you’re looking for less sweetness and more crunch, try a sprinkling of granola or chopped nuts. Hemp hearts or chia seeds add nutrition as well as crunch.
If fruit is more your thing, berries – especially blueberries – are a popular choice. You could also opt for small pieces of diced peach, plum or pineapple or any cut-up dried fruit. Dried fruits are a good option because they won’t leak juice onto your skillet or griddle.
Don’t neglect savory options, either. If you can’t handle sweet stuff in the morning, load up your pancakes with diced deli meats, cooked and crumbled sausage or bacon, thin-sliced green onions or chives, or shreds of your favorite cheese.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.