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So here are the ingredients for "Dutch" pancakes (which are much like French crepes, quite flat):

  • Flour
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Pinch of salt

And for more "American" style I guess you also need:

  • Baking powder

All the various ingredients contribute differently to the end result: fluffyness, texture, flavour, baking time, etc. I'm trying to find out how they contribute, and I've tried to do so through experimenting, but my experiments are not "controlled" enough probably to find out.

Any tips for what these base ingredients do for the end result? I want to vary with quantities, knowing what I could expect when changing the relative quantities.

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    Is there a particular result you're aiming for or is this just about knowing? – Cascabel Dec 25 '15 at 13:40
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    You should invest in a good scientific cooking source like America's Test Kitchen... They generally do a good job of explaining the purpose of most ingredients included in recipes and compare the results of different amounts and ingredient choices (eg buttermilk vs milk or bread flour vs cake flour vs ap flour). – Catija Dec 25 '15 at 23:39
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    If you're interested in food and cooking and how it all works, an investment in a copy of Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking is money extremely well spent. – Pointy Dec 25 '15 at 23:59
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    @Jefromi Mostly about knowing; knowing how varying the ingredients will affect the end result, so I can cater to what my guests prefer / what I want to achieve. The accepted answer actually best explains what I was looking for, as it was exactly that :-) – Jeroen Dec 26 '15 at 9:34
  • Thanks @Pointy and Catija for the suggest (as well as the detailed answer), I think I just might invest in such a resource. – Jeroen Dec 26 '15 at 9:36
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The range of possibilities with a basic pancake recipe is not very broad. There are additional things you can add of course, but the basic recipe is really basic.

Eggs are mostly protein. When you cook an egg, it goes from liquid (basically) to solid. The egg blended into the pancake batter will do the same. Pancakes are generally cooked pretty quickly over a fairly hot fire, and that quick heating makes the egg proteins lock up and stiffen. Think of the difference between making a fried egg and scrambled eggs: fried eggs should cook fast, while scrambled eggs cook slowly to keep the eggs from being rubbery. (The other pancake ingredients counter that rubbery toughness of fast-cooked eggs.)

Flour is mostly starch. Starch absorbs moisture (from the egg and the liquid). People started making things like pancakes because flour is relatively cheap and keeps well, and one egg can make a lot of flour-based pancakes and feed a lot more people than the egg alone.

The liquid (milk in your recipe, but other stuff works) is necessary to thin out the batter; we're still stretching that egg out. Without a liquid addition, you'd have a lump of thick dough. By keeping the pancake batter thin, you ensure that the batter poured onto the hot griddle will remain loose enough to spread out into the familiar flat disc, providing a large surface area for the egg protein to solidify.

The salt is there so that the pancake doesn't taste bland. That's an easy one to test. Most American pancake recipes also include some sugar or another sweetener.

American pancakes without some additional fat — melted butter or vegetable oil, usually — would not be liked by most Americans. The added fat makes the pancakes softer and richer. Using table cream or something instead of plain milk can work too, as would adding an extra egg yolk.

Baking powder is a mix of dry sodium bicarbonate and one or more acidic salts. The blend is (usually) designed so that some amount of gas is produced as soon as the powder is mixed with liquid, and more produced when the batter is heated.

Finally, besides the bill of ingredients, the process used to combine the ingredients is also important. Wheat flour has gluten in it, and too much mixing in liquid will form gigantic protein mega-molecules in your batter and result in disturbingly chewy pancakes. You want gluten development for bread, but not pancakes, muffins, and other "fluffy" baked goods.

Generally, dry ingredients (except granulated sugar) are pre-mixed separately from wet ingredients. The two are combined as the last step before cooking.

You also want some air in the pancakes (for American pancakes at least), and that's of course what the baking powder does. You can get even more air in by separating the eggs, using the yolks as a "wet" ingredient, and then whipping the egg whites into a soft foam. The foamed whites are then blended in when the wet and dry ingredients are combined. (Note that you don't want air in crepes, and that's the purpose of letting the batter sit for a few hours before cooking: it lets bubbles escape, bubbles formed in the blender or via the whisk used to prepare the batter.)

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    You've maybe underplayed the importance of starch here. Sure, it does absorb moisture, but for American pancakes it also provides pretty much the entire structure, so messing around with the flour/liquid ratio has a pretty big effect on texture. – Cascabel Dec 26 '15 at 18:11
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    @Jefromi I'm sure I did; I was too lazy to run down and grab my copy of McGee to do some reviewing. Yes, pancakes are at least half flour by volume so the starch is pretty important. Also I didn't elaborate on the fact that you can vary American pancakes with other grains: oat flour, flax, etc. – Pointy Dec 26 '15 at 22:17
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    Yeah, I like my batter thinner because I like thin pancakes that have crispy edges. Also butter milk increases the levening effect of the baking soda or powder. It makes the cakes fluffier and also gives them somewhat of a zestier taste as well. – Escoce Dec 28 '15 at 14:38
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Milk also helps the pancakes brown. Pancakes made without milk and egg are usually very pale.

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