Pancake formula says cold, lumpy pancakes are best


Today is Shrove Tuesday in the UK, relating to some archaic mumbo-jumbo religion nonsense about Jesus but generally celebrated as a good excuse to gorge oneself on pancakes. For some reason, newspapers like to ignore these religious overtones and focus on adding their own mumbo-jumbo science nonsense instead. Making and eating pancakes is one of life's simplest pleasures. Why is everyone trying trying to complicate things with god and science?

In 2002, the BBC reported on physics lecturer Dr Gary Tungate who had calculated the mathematics involved in flipping a pancake,

contributing this inanity to the public discourse of science:

Half a joule of energy is needed to get a 50g pancake airborne to a height of one metre
It should take 0.45 seconds on the downward journey, completing the perfect toss with a 90 degree flip
A pancake will hit the pan with a velocity of 4.5 metres per second or splat onto the floor at 14 miles an hour just 1.1 seconds after its launch

The following year, student Stephen Wilkinson derived the calculations needed to plot the course of a pancake in mid flip, allowing the BBC to engage the public with science through this statement:

The angular velocity of the object equals the square root of Pi, times the gravity divided by the distance the pancake is from the elbow times four - that is how to get the pancake back in the pan.

Haha, do you get it? Science is hard! And capricious!

So it comes as no surprise to find the Daily Mail and the Telegraph spouting their own pancake-science drivel in 2009. This time the culprit is one Dr Ruth Fairclough, who has created a formula for the perfect pancake, as the Daily Mail reports:

The 34-year-old senior lecturer of mathematics and statistics worked out the food formula because her two daughters loved eating pancakes so much.

Personally, if I had kids who liked pancakes, I'd make them some pancakes, not write a press release. But then, I'm just a science punk, not a senior lecturer of mathematics and statistics. Perhaps they do things differently in academia.

So what's the formula?

Dr Ruth, who teaches at Wolverhampton University found that
100 - [10L - 7F + C(k - C) + T(m - T)]/(S - E) created the tastiest snack.

In the complex formula L represents the number of lumps in the batter and C equals its consistency.

The letter F stands for the flipping score, k is the ideal consistency and T is the temperature of the pan.

Ideal temp of pan is represented by m, S is the length of time the batter stands before cooking and E is the length of time the cooked pancake sits before being eaten.

The closer to 100 the result is - the better the pancake.

Now firstly you should notice that the Daily Mail claims Dr Fairclough found pancakes made to her formula made the tastiest snack, suggesting that some kind of research went on here. Weirdly, none of the factors involved in making a tasty pancake really relate to flavour - there's no mention of what kind of flour to use, etc. The second thing to notice is that there are no units here. Not all scientific formulae have units, but you'd think Dr Fairclough would tell us whether the ideal temperature should be calculated in centigrade or Kelvin or whatever. Thirdly, notice that although the formula uses 'ideal temperature' and 'ideal consistency', there's no clue as to what those values might be. This is kind of like saying:

Perfect pancake = ideal ingredients * ideal cooking * ideal toppings

That is to say, a total truism. And finally, as commenter James Smith on the Daily Mail page noted, this formula is bullshit. The longer you leave the pancake standing (either as batter or finished snack), the closer you will get to a perfect pancake. Watery, undercooked pancake? Have no fear, bung it in a cupboard for 12 months and by Dr Fairclough's logic, it will emerge perfect, just in time for Shrove Tuesday 2010.

More like this

Over here on the left side of the pond very few of us have the time or inclination to muck about with pancakes on a Tuesday morning. I've never heard of that Shrove Tuesday tradition before.

However, the Cajuns down in Louisiana have taught us a thing or two about eating well at dinner time on this day. This recipe for Jambalaya is relatively quick to prepare and makes a most satisfying meal along with some good ale. (Sorry it's not converted to metric, but most cooks seem capable of coping with traditional measurements.)


This is a pretty quick and easy preparation of a great party dish that almost everyone loves. Total preparation time is about an hour. Itâs a one pot meal if you have a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid. The amount of spicyness can be varied to suit your taste. This recipe will feed 4-6 hungry people, and is spiced for âmiddle-of-the-roadâ taste. The meat additions can be varied, depending on what you have available. Do not add additional salt, as the ham, sausage, and broth tend to add enough.

1/2 lb. lean smoked ham, cut in 1/2â dice
1 really large onion, chopped in coarse dice
1 sweet green pepper, cored, seeded and chopped in coarse dice
1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeded and chopped in coarse dice
2 stalks celery, sliced 1/4â (save celery leaves for final garnish)
1 jalapeño pepper (or other moderately hot small green pepper), cored, seeded and chopped fine
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
2 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. mild cooking oil
1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp. hot red cayenne pepper
1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
1 lb. smoked sausage (andouille, smoked kielbasa, or other smoky sausage of your choice), sliced into 1/4â coins
1 cup long grain rice
2 cups (1 pint) of either shrimp/seafood stock or chicken broth - boiling when added.
1 lb. peeled, deveined medium-size shrimp (frozen is OK, but defrost before using)
2 tbsp fresh parsley leaves, chopped fine along with reserved celery leaves

In heavy skillet or Dutch oven, heat butter and oil over medium-high heat. Add ham and sauté briefly. Add chopped onions, sweet peppers, and celery and sauté until onions are translucent, but not browned. Add chopped jalapeño and garlic, along with black pepper, thyme, bay leaves, and cayenne, and sauté two minutes more. Then add tomatoes and sliced sausages and cook slowly for about 3 minutes. Stir in rice, then add the hot stock or broth. Cover tightly, reduce heat to a slow simmer, and cook for about 15 minutes. Then stir in the shrimp, parsley and celery leaves, making sure shrimp are buried in rice and sauce. Cover and continue simmering about 7 minutes more. Serve immediately in large bowls or soup plates, with Crystal hot sauce and/or Tabasco on the side for those who want more heat. A big green salad with a vinaigrette dressing, with ripe melon or fresh peaches for dessert go nicely. A cold, sharp beer is a better beverage choice than wine for this highly flavored dish.

You may add with the shrimp (or substitute for shrimp) cooked, diced chicken or pork, or uncooked scallops.
You may use pre-cooked fresh Italian sausage (sweet, hot, or both) instead of the smoked sausage.

"relating to some archaic mumbo-jumbo religion nonsense about Jesus" - i've always been told that it's about clearing out your kitchen of old ingredients. nothing to do with jesus or whatever.

By zombie_bot (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

To enlighten the science, I would say that the pancake so amounts:
( Take notes!)
T + C + F
throw. Catch. Food

chezjake - brits wouldn't generally eat pancakes for breakfast. Maybe lunch or an evening meal.

zombie_bot - you'd be clearing out your kitchen in preparation for your period of Lenten abstinence, which should start tomorrow, on Ash Wednesday and ends at Easter. All of which is definitely Jebus-related.

The only unusual thing about the perfect pancake formula is that I can't find what it's promoting. Usually these formulae stories are planted by PR companies in lieu of advertising but this time I don't know who this is publicity for.

I thought it was going to be Be-Ro or one of the big supermarkets, or maybe some TV chef hawking a new series.

By Mojojo Jojo (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

Science punk, I don't think it works in the way you suggest. The divisor = (batter sitting time - pancake sitting time) and as this divisor gets bigger, so the pancake approaches perfection. So the longer you leave the batter before making the pancake (e.g. 10 years) and the sooner you eat it after making it (e.g. 10 femtoseconds) the better it will be. So it is the batter that has to sit in the cupboard, not the pancake. One plan is to make the batter now for your 70th birthday, for true delight. Other real problems are the lack of units for consistency and temperature, as you say, but also the precise compensation of flipping for lumps - 1 flip compensates for 1.43 lumps. Actually, my limited pancake making suggests that no amount of flipping compensates for lumps, but there you go. Next, 'flipping' is also an unlimited term, so you could try taking the batter out after 10 years, and then flip for the next ten years. Depending on the units (as you say, not given) that might be even better than just waiting. Ruth Fairclough has humiliated herself (if she got paid, I hope the money was worth it) and made the University of Wolverhampton a laughing stock. I would think twice about doing mathematics there, if you were wise. Or even numerate.

This muppet Fairclough needs some serious ridicule. Selling your reputation for a bit of cheap and tawdry publicity - and in the Fail, FFS.

Unless it was done as some kind of sophisticated Comic Relief related satire. Maybe I'll tell myself that's the reason. Maybe then I can get through the evening without despairing. Is it any wonder the anti-vaxers, woo-meisters and religius nuts don't take science seriously?

By IveHadItUpToHere (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

@ Mojojo Jojo - weirdly, PR companies seem to be getting tired of this cliché, while individuals are using it more. Last month Cliff Arnall rehashed his 'most depressing day' formula, but without any mention of his original sponsor, Sky Travel.

@ Charlie - thanks for the insight, although if lumps are zero and a perfect temperature and consistency achieved, a large negative divisor can work too. A testament to how badly this formula has been constructed...

Yeah, you're right, Frank, I hadn't thought of that combination yet. I can't believe any competent mathematician made this up.

Oh, right.

What do you suppose the price was?

Her comments on making pancakes are completely wrong as well... if you stir them a lot you wind up activating the gluten in the flour and getting tough miserable pancakes that don't rise properly. Batter is supposed to be a little lumpy (but the lumps must also be small). In the first one though, when flipping a pancake, don't you want it to spin 180 degrees so it lands on the other flat side, rather than 90 degrees landing it miraculously standing on it's edge in the pan and burning one edge while the other remains raw?

By Jo Problems (not verified) on 25 Feb 2009 #permalink

@Jo Problems: Hah, you're right, I hate it when I flip pancakes at a 90 degree angle and they just stand on end. Reminds me of that 'be a teacher' advert where a girl says when she straightens her hair, it's at a 180 degree angle. What does that even mean?? Is this supposed to be the heart-warming effect of one's becoming a teacher - kids with tenuous grasps on basic geometry?

Yes, thats right - THE Stephen Wilkinson of pancake flipping 'fame'. Nice blog, stumbled across it when googling myself (as you do!). Just wanted to add my say - I must agree that it all really is nonsense. My project was digital image processing of a pancake (actually a cardboard disc) in flight, the 'magic formula' was a tiny part of it that most people with some mechanics knowledge could work out. (The clever bit was the software but I wont go into it!) But once the press got hold of it, all hell broke loose! They really will turn anything into a story! I think most of the articles I read had either misquoted the formula, or its description, due to the writer having no understanding of what it meant! Anyway the 'research' was 'sponsered' by Asda, who took a lot of the publicity, but gave nothing in return. The idea to make a story came from the university press office, who decided I'd love to have people from every newspaper in the country ringing me (I turned my phone off in the end).

I got sod all, apart from 15 minutes of fame and a mention on university challenge!

Anyway. That was all.

By Stephen Wilkinson (not verified) on 31 May 2009 #permalink

I think I knew some people on that project when I was an undergrad. I think it had been running for years. The sponsor was probably expecting a quick result to publish and someone insisted on doing actual physics at it. It's nice to know it finally got finished. Were you using the big red pancake catapult? I hated that thing. It kept breaking the STM tips. I seem to remember there was a real month-old pancake instead of a cardboard disc for a while.

Ha I was on the original project, the first to do it back in 2001. We actually designed the big red catapult and had it made by the guys in the work shop. They can make anything! We were just using a crappy web cam but I believe on susequent years they were using a hi-speed camera.

Glad to hear they carried it on for a few years though. I was actually contacted by the uni a couple of months back saying a the German press wanted a story on it. I thought the page article in Der spiegel would have been enough
Good times!

By Stephen wilkinson (not verified) on 31 Jul 2009 #permalink