February 20, 2010
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Pancake Mix

CIA Instructor Bob Del Grosso is not happy with cooking frauds, nor with Marc Bittman’s minimalist cooking in the NY Times, whom he calls a minimalist of skill. The problem, he says, starts from a media environment that appoints arbitrary, untrained people as arbiters of cooking; since many of their readers are even less competent, who knows or care that their technique is wrong?

I’ve always been skeptical of technique for getting started. When I was learning metal machining – a skill I had to pick up in graduate school in order to build some instrumentation we couldn’t find money to buy – I was the despair of Heine, Harvard’s infinitely patient machine shop instructor. Heine wanted me to learn to hand file a perfect cube; I wanted to get down to using the Bridgeport and the lathe and to crank out the mounts I needed. Same thing in the kitchen: the Culinary School master wants you to saute correctly, and maybe you just want dinner.

But your interests can align. Take pancakes.

Pancake Mix
This morning’s buttermilk pancakes, right out of Ruhlman’s Ratio for iPhone.

A few years ago, I was buying pancake mixes at Whole Foods, because my experience of making pancakes from Joy Of Cooking had been (a) it was fussy to get all the bits and pieces, and (b) the pancakes didn't always come out. So I’d pay $5 for organic mixes and it just worked.

And that’s a lot better than toaster waffles! Nothing much wrong with good pancake mixes. It’s just one thing: you don't need them. And it’s not that fussy.

The trick: get all the ingredients. Put them on the table. All of them. Take them out of the pantry, and line them up. Flour, milk, eggs. baking powder, salt, sugar. (Want nuts? Blueberries? Honey? Vanilla? Grab them too)

Grab two bowls. Get a skillet or a griddle; it goes on the range. Get a whisk for a fork. Get a spoon or a ladle -- a 2oz ladle if you have it.

Now you’re cooking. That's the whole trick: get everything lined up, and now everything falls into place. The rest is just ratios – and for pancakes the ratio is wildly forgiving: basically 3/4c flour, 3/4c milk, 1t baking powder, and 1 egg for two people. You can use buttermilk and add some baking soda too. You can use a little more flour or a little less milk. You can replace some of the flour with cornmeal or whole wheat or rye. You can add some butter.

You can go crazy and separate the eggs and beat the egg whites fluffy. The orthodox technique says, blend the liquids in one bowl and the flour in another, then add them, and that’s fine – but if you just throw it all in one bowl, that’ll work too.

You can’t go wrong. No throwing the first one away, no blunders, no disasters, no drama. It takes five minutes. You can do it on a workday.

The key technique: put it all on the table first. In French, this is mise en place. You need to do it.

Once you’ve mastered the pancake, maybe you don’t need to do it this way. You can grab stuff on the fly. Fine. Until then: get it all out.