Homemade pancakes have a high effort-to-satisfaction ratio: They’re fast and easy to make, and they’re far tastier than flapjacks from a mix. But sales figures don’t lie, and they tell us (courtesy of the Symphony IRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm) that Americans spend more than $250 million a year on pancake mixes. For those occasions when a mix is essential—while camping, say, or cooking for 79 of your closest relatives—you should know which one to buy.
To figure that out, we rounded up 16 nationally available pancake mixes (choosing buttermilk flavor when possible) and pretasted our way down to the final seven. We also threw in a pancake mix that’s sprayed from a can, because, frankly, we were curious. (We’ve been reading a lot about it on the Internet.) We prepared the pancakes according to package instructions and served them plain, with syrup on the side, to 22 cooks and editors from America’s Test Kitchen.
Not surprisingly, our tasters liked pancakes with a flavorful balance of sweetness and tang—that is, pancakes that were well seasoned with sugar and salt (our two winning mixes contain the most sodium per serving). But texture proved just as important as flavor, maybe even more so: Tasters preferred light, fluffy pancakes. Squat, tough pancakes with little height and fluff were downgraded substantially. Interestingly, only one mix in our lineup (one of our winners) included rice flour, which contributes softness to baked goods.
What’s the secret to the best texture for these pancakes? Our top two mixes are the only ones that require the addition of vegetable oil (along with milk and egg) to reconstitute the batter. Oil affects texture by helping to govern how the air bubbles (from the leavener) are retained during cooking. Mixes that don’t require oil either call for butter (flavorful, but greasy) or compensate with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which creates pancakes so soft that they fail to “hold” the leavening, making a fluffy texture impossible.
A gourmet mix was the surprise loser in this tasting. Despite its credentials (this brand won our brownie mix tasting), it came in last. Whatever the mix is using for leavening clearly isn’t up to the task.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
Register for CooksCountry.com
It's FAST and it's FREE.
WHY REGISTER? The taste test you requested is only available to registered users of CooksCountry.com. Register today for FREE access to every recipe, rating, and kitchen discovery from the current season of Cook’s Country TV.