Recently, I posted something on my Facebook account about having eaten waffles one Saturday morning. The comments and emails I received were varied and interesting. One question caught my eye and I thought it would be interesting to explore: what is the difference between pancake and waffle dough?
Waffle Dough Definition
A dough contains a combination of water and flour. The leavening can occur naturally or by “force” using yeast, baking powder or baking soda. Doughs fall into three basic categories: bread, quick and batter.
Dough for bread has a relatively low percentage of moisture to flour ratio and can be manipulated by hand and stand on its own. This is due to a combination of moisture percentage and gluten development during the kneading process. The name dough comes from a word which means “to form”.
A quick bread is defined as having a higher percentage of moisture to flour – think banana bread or pound cake. These types of breads need to be baked in a pan as they lack the developed gluten to stand on their own. Quick bread doughs are constructed with the dry ingredients being mixed together separately from the the wet. The wet is then added to the dry, then quickly placed in the baking pan and placed in the oven.
Pancakes and waffles are batter doughs and have an even higher percentage of moisture to flour ratio. There is almost no gluten development and a very high level of moisture. In the purest sense though, they are quick breads and are constructed in the same manner – wet into dry. The high moisture levels dictate that this batter remain in a bowl until it is cooked. The name batter comes from a root which means “to beat”.
Waffles and pancakes were introduced to North America in the 18th century. In fact, documents show that George Washington liked a type of griddle cake called a Johnny Cake. This recipe, made from mostly corn flour, produces a very dense thick pancake. To our modern palate it is like the difference between “Yankee” corn bread and true Southern corn bread. The former is light and airy, the latter dry and dense with a more pronounced corn flavor. Being so dense, it is no wonder it is said that Mr. Washington enjoyed these Johnny Cakes smothered in butter and honey. While Johnny Cakes aren’t my personal favorite, they are very hearty.
So what is the difference between pancake and waffle batter? Not much really. Both have leavening added in the form of baking powder, baking soda, beaten egg whites or yeast. It isn’t a matter of thickness, though waffle batter does tend to be thicker. Some people prefer a thinner pancake and therefore make a more fluid batter – I wouldn’t recommend using this consistency in a waffle iron. The only real difference is that proper waffle batter should have a higher percentage of fat and sugar. The higher levels of fat and sugar help to brown and crisp the waffle.
I have, like most people today, used the same dough for both pancakes and waffles. I tend toward a thicker pancake batter anyway. The lower levels of fat and sugar will affect the finished waffle, but there are many ways to vary the texture and flavor. The results of all these variations can range from crisper, browner, softer or lighter waffles and are simply a matter of taste. The same holds true with pancakes.
One obvious difference is how waffles and pancakes are cooked. Pancakes are poured onto a hot, flat surface and cooked until bubbles form and disappear from one side, then turned and finished on the other. Waffles are poured between two heated, shaped plates called irons. These irons have various patterns on the inside which provide unique patterns on the surface of the finished product. The oldest form of waffle iron was literally made from iron and placed on the embers of a fire or on a cooktop flame to cook until done. While these basic irons still exist today, most of us use some form of electric waffle iron.
Often times, we make more pancakes or waffles than we can consume. Good news – both pancakes and waffles freeze nicely for several weeks. After cooling the pieces on a rack, I like to put parchment or wax paper between them and freeze in zip lock bags. Pancakes can be reheated in the microwave, as they are more moist and soft anyway. Microwaves tend to soften doughs and if left in too long, toughen them. Waffles, however, must be reheated in a toaster, toaster oven or regular oven. They need the dry air to heat them and retain their crispness. While neither will be as good as fresh made, they do make for a quick breakfast or snack.
And lest this article end before I answer that other question in your head…crepes (blintzes and palaschinki). Crepes are a batter dough enriched with eggs, milk and sometimes beer, however they are not leavened in any way. Crepe dough sits for at least an hour, is poured very thinly into the pan and is cooked very fast. They can be served as a sweet or a savory dish. I have even seen crepe dough used to form a pizza-like tart and finished crepes layered with preserves to form a cake.
Popovers or Yorkshire pudding, is made from what is basically a crepe dough. The only real difference is the cooking method which develops one large air pocket. The dough is poured into a heated, deep, narrow pan and placed in a hot oven. The surface sets immediately and traps the air forming a thin shell, blistered and puffed high.
English Crumpets and Russian blini are essentially leavened pancake dough. They are cooked very similarly, though crumpets are poured into ring molds for that traditional shape.
Oh and Chinese pancakes? They are made from a rolled-out wheat flour and water dough. They are cooked in pairs, peeled apart and cooked lightly on their second side.
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