How to make the perfect pancake, according to science – and why you should always use oil over butter

Making a pancake feels like it should be the simplest thing in the world.

But, as anyone who’s ever botched their batter or cremated a crepe will tell you, getting through Pancake Day is not always that easy. 

Luckily for anyone braving the kitchen this Shrove Tuesday, professional help is now at hand. 

MailOnline has asked the experts what science says about the recipe for the perfect pancake.

And, from the precise diameter of the perfect pancake to understanding your ‘baker’s ratio’, these nifty tips are sure to make Pancake Day a flipping success. 

MailOnline asked experts what science says about the perfect pancake. By getting the batter the right consistency and using the right pan technique, you should ensure that you get beautiful pancakes every time

MailOnline asked experts what science says about the perfect pancake. By getting the batter the right consistency and using the right pan technique, you should ensure that you get beautiful pancakes every time 

The perfect pancake, according to science 

The batter

  • 100 grams of flour
  • 200 millilitres of mill
  • One or two eggs
  • A pinch of salt
  • Mix vigorously with a fork and allow to rest for thin pancakes

Cooking

  • Add vegetable oil to a hot pan
  • Pour in the batter while tilting the pan steeply
  • Keep the pan tilted while circling the batter around the circumference
  • Slowly reduce the tilt while circling until the pan is evenly coated
  • Aim for a 15-20 cm diameter 
  • Cook until browned on one side and then flip 

The batter 

Every good pancake starts with a great batter.

The basic ingredients are simple: flour, milk, eggs, and anything else you want to use as a flavouring agent.

But it is the ratio and method you use to combine these ingredients that decides whether your pancakes flop. 

Professor Ian Eames is a fluid mechanics expert from UCL and has put more time than most into thinking about the physics of pancake batter.

Professor Eames explained: ‘The characteristics of your pancake are determined by the baker’s ratio, which is an indication of how much liquid is in your mixture, and the thickness of your pancake.’ 

To work out the baker’s ratio of your batter, divide the amount of milk in millilitres by the weight of flour in grams and multiply by 100. 

A lower baker’s ratio will lead to a thicker batter, while a higher ratio will give a thinner, more crepe-like batter. 

Professor Eames measured the baker’s ratio and thickness of pancakes from all across the world to determine the exact relationship between batter and pancake. 

According to Professor Eames, the ideal baker’s ratio for a UK-style thin pancake is 100.

He explained: ‘Use 200ml of milk, 100g of flour, one or two eggs, and a pinch of salt. 

‘The salt is a good contrast with the sweetness if you are going traditional with lemon and sugar.’

If you want a more American-style pancake, Professor Eames suggests 200ml of milk, 200g of flour, and two eggs.

This chart shows the relationship between baker's ratio, which is determined by the amount of milk, and the thickness and size of the pancake. The ideal UK-style thin pancake (yellow star) has a bakers ratio of about 200 while American-style pancakes (red star) come in a little over 100

This chart shows the relationship between baker’s ratio, which is determined by the amount of milk, and the thickness and size of the pancake. The ideal UK-style thin pancake (yellow star) has a bakers ratio of about 200 while American-style pancakes (red star) come in a little over 100

Professor Eames' research has found that the consistency of the batter determines how the pancake will cook. For the ideal UK pancake (yellow star) you are aiming to get the top showing islands and a ring of browning while the bottom is smooth with dark spots

Professor Eames’ research has found that the consistency of the batter determines how the pancake will cook. For the ideal UK pancake (yellow star) you are aiming to get the top showing islands and a ring of browning while the bottom is smooth with dark spots

Mixing  

You might have heard that a lumpy batter leads to a more tender pancake.

And while it might sound like an excuse for laziness, there is some scientific truth to this.

When flour is mixed with wet ingredients, two proteins called glutenin and gliadin combine to form long chains of gluten proteins.

But getting the right texture requires a trade-off: too much gluten and the pancake will be tough, while not enough and it won’t have any structure. 

Just like kneading dough, over-mixing to try and remove all the lumps can create too much gluten and lead to a tough, rubbery pancake. 

‘I would always advise on whisking up the batter with a fork so that you bind in as much air as you can,’ Professer Eames said.

This allows you to beat out any lumps in the batter and develop gluten which can bind trapped air to keep the pancake light and tender without losing its structure.

If you want an even more thin crepe-like pancake, let your batter rest for 10 to 15 minutes after whisking.

This will let the gluten strands relax as the protein chains untangle and the flour fully hydrates, leading to a thin delicate pancake.   

For tender, light pancakes, whisk your batter smooth with a fork and let it rest. This will enable air to be worked into the gluten from the flower but allow the proteins time to relax (stock image)

For tender, light pancakes, whisk your batter smooth with a fork and let it rest. This will enable air to be worked into the gluten from the flower but allow the proteins time to relax (stock image)

Cooking 

Of course, making the batter is only half the battle.

Professor Eames said: ‘The science tells you the relationship between the milk content of your pancake and its typical size. The higher the milk content, the thinner you should make your pancake.’

For a British-style thin pancake, Professor Eames recommends a diameter of about 15-20cm to ensure even cooking.

For a thicker American pancake, he recommends looking for a diameter of around 10cm.

Meanwhile, to get that perfectly thin, crisp pancake, he suggests ditching the butter for vegetable oil.

Vegetable oil has a lower smoke point than butter so can get hotter without burning and spreads around the pan easier, meaning better heat transfer to the pancake for more even cooking. 

We have all felt the struggle of trying to get a pancake to be perfectly round. Experts say the issue is that the batter is poured into the centre of a flat pan and then spread from there

We have all felt the struggle of trying to get a pancake to be perfectly round. Experts say the issue is that the batter is poured into the centre of a flat pan and then spread from there 

To get the perfect pancake every time pour the batter into an steeply tilted pan and then circle the pan to allow the batter to run around the circumference. Slowly reduce the tilt and keep the circles going until the pan is evenly coated (stock image)

To get the perfect pancake every time pour the batter into an steeply tilted pan and then circle the pan to allow the batter to run around the circumference. Slowly reduce the tilt and keep the circles going until the pan is evenly coated (stock image)

That might be easier said than done as pancake batter seems to seize up the moment it hits the pan rather than spreading into a neat circle. 

But, once again, science has the answer. 

Professor Mathieu Sellier, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Canterbury, has developed the optimal way of tilting the pan to ensure the batter is evenly spread. 

He said: ‘Often, the problem is that if the batter is delivered in the centre of the pan and the pan is left flat (horizontal), the batter cooks quickly and solidifies before reaching the rim of the pan.

‘Therefore, most people tend to tilt the pan and rotate it in order to speed up the spreading – because of the steeper slope offered by a tilted pan speeds up the flow.’

The issue is that as the hot pan transfers heat to the batter it goes from behaving more like a liquid to more like a solid.

So, trying to spread the batter around from the centre leads to uneven thickness and holes.

To get around this issue, Professor Sellier and his co-authors created an algorithm to predict the optimal way of tilting the pan to get a perfect pancake every time.

The solution is to tilt the pan sharply in one direction as you pour in the batter, letting it run quickly to the edge of the pan.

Once all the batter has reached one edge, keep the pan tilted and rotate the pan in a circular motion, letting the batter run around the full circumference.

Then, slowly decrease the tilt while keeping the circular motion going until you bring the pan back to flat.

Now, all that is left to do is let it cook until browned on one side and just starting to cook through before flipping.

Unfortunately, your flipping technique is still something you will have to work out yourself.