English pancakes and stirrer hotplates

With several of the Asynt management team taking a keen interest in cooking (or just eating, in the case of one particular team member who shall remain nameless!) we decided to take full advantage up the annual pancake day tradition and brought a pan to headquarters so that we could enjoy a delicious treat for lunch and put the Asynt hotplate stirrer demo kit to good use, safe in the knowledge that it has three safety circuits in case things go wrong with our cooking!

Asynt making pancakes on a hotplate stirrerThere are few variations to the standard pancake recipe but how many times have you found that your pancakes are sticking, or they’re too heavy? We investigated the science behind the batter…

So a pancake batter is made up of two crucial parts: dry ingredients (usually flour and salt – with sugar and baking powder if you want a thicker American style pancake) and wet ingredients (usually milk or water and eggs). Flour contains starch and protein. A starch is like a long chain of simple sugars. An example of a simple sugar is glucose, which is what plants produce to feed themselves in a chemical process called photosynthesis. A protein is a long, chainlike molecule made up of smaller molecules called amino acids. Flour contains a protein called glutenin (or gluten), which is crucial for the formation and structure of pancakes and baked goods. Gluten also provides the “chewy” texture in pancakes and breads.

When the flour is dry, the gluten molecules are nearly immobile, which means that they do not move much. They also do not bond (or “link”) to one another. When the flour is moistened with water (or with milk and eggs, which are composed mainly of water), the gluten molecules become active. Wet gluten molecules are elastic and springlike (which means that they can change shape under pressure) and plastic (meaning they can maintain their shapes after being stretched and moved around). When flour is mixed with water, gluten proteins loosen from one another, stretch out and begin to rearrange. Further mixing allows the end of a gluten protein to bond with the end of another gluten protein. As the gluten proteins come in contact with one another, they continue to bond. With additional mixing, the proteins create a tighter and tighter weblike network of proteins that are able to trap air bubbles. When chemical leaveners, such as baking powder, create bubbles in a cooked pancake, the gluten network traps these bubbles and allows a pancake to rise and stay fluffy yet still keep its shape. If the batter is over beaten then the structure is broken down in effect, and your pancake looses some of that form!

Being a very traditional British pancake fan, mine are without baking powder and are wafer thin but perfectly browned! With a daughter who’s favourite meal is savoury pancakes we really go for it and have a first course with pancakes filled with a bolognaise style mix, topped with cheese sauce and grated cheddar cheese before browning in the oven and then, after quite a long rest – we have delicious sweet pancakes.  Lemon juice and a sprinkling of sugar would definately come in as our very favourite sweet filling, but Golden Syrup or chocolate spread and whipped cream is rather popular too!

So, whilst we certainly wouldn’t advise our customers to use their laboratory hotplate to heat pancakes, we were very pleased to have an immaculate demonstration model available which is untainted by chemicals and very safe to use on this occassion. Please don’t use yours in the same way once it has actually been used in the lab!

(Chemistry text taken from Scientific American Magazine, 2013)