In search of the Perkins pancake

When I was a kid, we went out to dinner with my grandparents a lot at Perkins. They’d seat us in a corner booth usually, because my grandfather was in a wheelchair, and I frequently availed myself of their chocolate chip pancakes. Perkins has always been known for its amazing buttermilk pancakes, and back then they’d also keep their specialty syrups at the table. (I’m not really one for syrup, but their apricot and twin berry syrups are indescribable.) Perkins had all kinds of other good stuff too, and back when I could afford to take them for granted I ate their regular lunch and dinner items. When I was a math tutor in college, I worked the 4-8 evening shift Monday through Thursday for the summer sessions, and sometimes as a special treat on the way home I’d grab some chocolate chip pancakes to go from the Perkins right down the street.

Around the turn of the millennium, all the Perkins in Syracuse switched over to Denny’s. I’m not sure why that happened, but it is a source of everlasting sorrow. The nearest Perkins is in Cortland. That’s a bit of a drive, but worth it; I just never really get there except on special occasions, and unfortunately I also have no option to bring a fresh hot stack of their delicious pancakes home.

It’s hard to explain just how tragic a situation it is that Perkins isn’t closer to home. Their pancakes are wonderful in an impossible way. The last couple of times I was blessed to have them, I was shocked at how much I had forgotten how good they really are. I mean for about a decade I wasn’t able to have them at all except on very rare occasions, and I held them in my mind atop a pillar where nothing else could ever compare to their awesomeness. Usually when we do such things we idealize the memory a bit too much, but each time tasting those pancakes again I realized my pillar wasn’t high enough.

Seriously, they’re that good. When I become a supervillain, I’m having a Perkins installed in my lair. Or lair-adjacent, because you can’t just have a line cook wander in and press the Big Red Button.

But I can only complain about a bad situation so much before I do something about it. (Just kidding! My output capacity for complaint knows no upper limit.) So awhile back I tried something gutsy, and decided to attempt to make buttermilk pancakes in an effort to come up with something closer to Perkins pancakes than what I currently can enjoy at home (Bisquick). There are a number of copycat recipes online, but all of them are stupid: Some call for club soda, or vinegar, and many don’t involve buttermilk at all. Some claim to be a copycat of Perkins and IHOP, which is moronic because it can’t be both; their pancakes are unalike, and frankly IHOP’s are inferior. (Nothing personal, IHOP; nobody can live up to that standard.) I did however find one recipe that looked like a good starting point for buttermilk pancakes, even though it never claimed to be a Perkins copycat.

Boy was I wrong. It was a disaster. The pancakes were way too heavy, and flavorless in spite of all that sugar. But it did tell me a few things that I’d need to fix the next time, one of them being size: I should have cut that recipe in half. I also learned that to find Saco buttermilk powder, you have to look in the organic section of the store, not where you’d look for dry milk.

Anyway I still have a crapload of Saco buttermilk powder in the fridge, so I thought I should either learn to make something else with buttermilk (not a bad idea) or take another stab sometime soon at the pancake recipe.

While searching, I stumbled upon a few tips. I learned that when the batter is too thick it can be thinned with whole milk. I suspect 2% will do fine, which is what I usually keep in the house; I only buy whole milk to make cheese or ice cream, though in a pinch we do have half & half. I also found an interesting link with another stupid recipe. It uses vinegar and no buttermilk, which is dumb, and someone else suggested ditching the vinegar and replacing the milk with buttermilk, which is not dumb. More interesting to me was that a former Perkins manager weighed in and confirmed the recipe is only eggs, oil, buttermilk, and a secret flour mix. It was also opined that the flour in question can’t all be all-purpose flour, because lower gluten content is likely to produce a superior result: a blend with perhaps half cake flour might do the trick.

So with that in mind, I have a strong inkling to try again to create a light buttermilk pancake with the Perkins flavor. The stupid vinegar recipe (herein known as Beta) and the recipe I tried (Alpha) are relatively close to each other once you cut Alpha in half, so I think I can make adjustments based on what I’ve learned. There’s too much baking soda and baking powder in Alpha, so says the flavor, so I’ll back that off by removing the baking powder entirely to bring that in line with Beta (I want a thinner pancake anyway). More salt is definitely required, so Beta is probably best to go by. While I’m not sold on the need for sugar, I’ll go with the 1/4 cup from Beta which is double what Alpha had; the flavor just wasn’t there. Then, I’m going to go half-and-half with regular flour and cake flour.

Pancake Experiment Mark I

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cups cake flour
  • 4 tbsp. Saco buttermilk powder
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • Milk to thin batter (as needed)

I suspect this will be a much better place to work from than Alpha. My gut says something is wrong about the sugar, but Perkins pancakes do have a slight sweetness to them that isn’t overpowering, and Alpha was both flavorless and a little bit nasty—which I attribute to the high amount of both baking soda and baking powder, and also to not having enough salt. But more sugar can’t hurt much, I think, and there’s nothing to say it wasn’t part of the secret Perkins dry mix all along.

I’m not expecting that this will get me to an exact Perkins clone. What it will tell me is whether I’ve moved in the right direction. If I can even achieve something of a Denny’s level this will be a huge leap forward. I’ll post my results when I have some.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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11 Responses to In search of the Perkins pancake

  1. Alyssa says:

    Just found this after a Google search for Perkins recipes. And I have to let you know I completely understand where you’re coming from, though I have several Perkins near me and even worked there in college. There just aren’t any pancakes that can compare! And the syrup. I laugh at the people who only use maple (ahem, my husband). How can you even, when there are apricot and twinberry! I have never been able to decide which one I like better and therefore eat one of each and then, yes, split the 3rd down the middle. Pathetic, I know. But, please do let me know if you find anything that comes close. Even though I have the real thing close by, always fun to make it yourself sometimes too!

    • Lummox JR says:

      I envy you having them still close by. Having grown up with that luxury, it’s been a hole in my life ever since the closest ones all got replaced with Denny’s. I don’t mind driving to Cortland on special occasions, but not being able to bring chocolate chip pancakes home for dinner really bums me out.

  2. Troy says:

    Right there with you guys. Many years back they used to sell the dry mix in consumer packages. This made the 60 mile trip more justified for me. I have yet to find a recipe that works.

  3. Dan says:

    Like you, my Perkins Pancake journey has lasted many many years. They are by far the best I have ever had. IHOP is terrible. I restarted my search a few weeks ago. Like u I tried the club soda recipe. they were horrible. i came very close to trying the vinegar recipe yesterday. and like u I thought that it doesn’t make any sense to make buttermilk cakes without buttermilk. so last night I tried your recipe…you nailed it!!!!! very similar if not exactly like perkins. the buttermilk did the trick and the flavor is very close. they were not as spongy as perkins. also they browned evenly and impressively over the entire surface. the other ones produced brown spots. thank u. thank u. thank u.

    • Lummox JR says:

      I’m glad it worked out for you. Mark I didn’t work so well for me, as I mentioned in my post-mortem post, but I haven’t tried again since then with a Mark II experiment. (My plan was to use slightly more salt, go with all cake flour, add more buttermilk, and lose the sugar entirely.) Always got too busy. I think I’ll have to make a try at Mark II at some point and post the results. If you do any further experimenting, please hit me back with what you tried and how it came out.

  4. John says:

    My mother worked at Perkins, in Ohio, when the Perkins brothers owned it. I can tell you that since ownership has changed hands several times the recipe they use today is not the same one they used back in the 70’s/80’s. They still have great pancakes but even they can’t compare to what they use to taste like. They were so good you didn’t even need syrup. The original recipe was based off of Smitty’s Pancake House in Seattle Washington.

    • Lummox JR says:

      This makes me sad, but I believe you. Although the last time I ate at Perkins, the pancakes were as good as I remembered. I guess it goes to show even a subpar Perkins pancake kicks every other pancake’s butt.

  5. Jack tors says:

    First off, you don’t know what you are doing. Buttermilk IS milk and vinegar, you idiot. Look at the ingredients. That’s like saying “I like green, but I’m tried of seeing recipes that use stupid blue and yellow.”

    • Lummox JR says:

      Actual buttermilk is strictly dairy. It’s the liquid that’s left after the fats in heavy cream are separated out as actual butter. If you make homemade butter, you’ll get buttermilk.

      Combining milk with an acid like vinegar or lemon juice is simply a way to make faux buttermilk when you don’t have actual buttermilk handy. It’s not identical at all.

      • Josh Myers says:

        So, you are willing to use buttermilk powder, but not milk and vinegar (buttermilk). The powder is less of a buttermilk than milk and vinegar actually. It’s hardly food anymore at that point.
        Unless you are making butter at home (pre-1900), buttermilk is milk and vinegar.

      • Lummox JR says:

        I used the powdered buttermilk on the assumption that it would be closer to cultured buttermilk than simply mixing milk and vinegar. Whether that’s really the case I don’t know, but I can’t find any info on Google comparing them. At the time my goal was simply to keep the number of variables low, and since I’ve seen testimony from a former Perkins manager that they used buttermilk–(s)he did not say milk and vinegar–coming close was my goal. I will say that in recent pancake experiments (not related to trying to recreate Perkins’ masterpiece), I’ve found milk and lemon juice produce a similarly textured batter to what I saw with the from-powder stuff.

        But at any rate it’s no more accurate to say buttermilk “is” milk and vinegar than to say it “is” made from Saco powder. Either way we’re talking about substitutes. You can buy real cultured buttermilk from the supermarket, and I’ve done so in the past. The powder merely seemed like a better idea than having to plan ahead and buy the real stuff, which mostly went unused.

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