Sunday, 03 December, 2006

Pancakes and the scientific method

I often joke that there are only two things that I do well in the kitchen, and one of them is the dishes.  I usually let people assume that the "other" thing is unmentionable, but if they ask I'll tell them that I make beer.  It's not that I can't cook so much as that I don't particularly enjoy it and therefore don't spend the time necessary to get very good at it.  I can follow a simple recipe.  I've had some failures in the kitchen but usually my food is edible, if a bit on the simple side.

I like pancakes for breakfast on the weekends, and lately I've had the urge to make them myself.  Last weekend I used Bisquik mix, but then got to thinking about what goes into the mix.  So this morning I searched out some "made from scratch" pancake batters and mixed up a batch.  With a few minor variations, the scratch pancake mix contains:

1 cup flour
1 cup milk
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (optional?)
1 egg (optional)
1/2 tsp. salt (optional)
1 tbsp sugar (optional)

This wasn't much more difficult than the Bisquik recipe that called for mix, egg, and milk, and I wonder why people go to the extra expense of buying the pre-mixed powders.  But I digress.

I used the egg and the vanilla extract and dispensed with the salt and sugar this time around.  The pancakes came out okay, although they were a little heavier than I like.  Reviewing the recipe and my ingredients, I realized that I used baking soda rather than baking powder.  That happened because some of the recipes that I'd reviewed called for soda and, because I don't bake, I've never internalized the difference.

Baking soda is bicarbonate of soda, NaHCO3.  When combined with an acidic ingredient it releases carbon dioxide which makes bubbles in the batter.  When heated, these bubbles expand and lighten the final product.  Baking powder is just baking soda with the acidic ingredient already added in powdered form.  So if you're out of baking powder, you can approximate it by using baking soda and slightly increasing the amount of an acidic ingredient.  More info on this is available at Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder (among other places, I'm sure).

What I did was add the soda but no acidic ingredient to help it form bubbles.  The result was heavy pancakes.  This lends credence to the idea that baking powder makes things rise rather than spread, and baking soda does the opposite.  There is some dispute to the validity of that statement, however, as pointed out in Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder Redux.  However, if you read that experiment in light of the entry linked above, all it really shows is that the homemade combination of baking soda, cream of tartar, and cornstartch made things rise slightly more than the pre-packaged baking soda.

My results with the straight baking soda seem to contradict those experimental results.  It makes sense, really.  Without the acidic ingredient, the baking soda seems to do nothing.  A properly designed experiment would use three batches:  a control batch that has neither baking soda nor baking powder, one that has baking soda only, and one that has baking powder.  My suspicion is that the baking soda only batch would not be significantly different from the control batch, and the baking powder pancakes would be much fluffier.  If I get really ambitious, perhaps I'll try that experiment.