Is it magic, highly advanced science, or just a bunch of chemicals?
Sometimes you wake up with limited ingredients in the fridge and a rampant pancake craving. Your stomach's all like, There’s no time to walk to the diner! I need pancakes NOW! So you reach for the just-add-water pancake mix, a pan, and water. You’ve got this.
If you’ve ever made pancakes from scratch (or even from a standard baking mix like Bisquick,) you know pancake batter needs fat like oil, butter, or egg yolk (sometimes all three) in order to get a rich flavor and tender texture in the final products. So how exactly does just-add-water pancake mix even work? It varies according to brand, but some just-add water pancake mixes contain dehydrated fats like powdered butter, powdered milk or buttermilk, and egg powder. Others rely on additives like chemical emulsifiers and proteins.
Technically, it’s possible to make a pancake without oil, butter, eggs, or milk by using leavening agents like baking powder; thickeners like potato and arrowroot starch or guar and xanthan gum; or non-dairy eggs made from flax or chia seeds. However, the ingredients list on a typical package of just-add water pancake mix is highly unlikely to be so simple.
A popular brand of just-add water pancake mix is Aunt Jemima Buttermilk Complete. This just-add-water mix is a blend of dry ingredients like flour enriched with niacinamide, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid (all forms of Vitamin B), sugar, salt, and leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda. The mix also contains wheat gluten, the protein derived from wheat, and a small amount palm oil (a vegetable oil with a complicated sourcing history used in many American packaged products) that is likely absorbed into the ingredients. Then comes a powdered fat: dried buttermilk, a dehydrated version of the real deal that, incidentally, is a revolutionary ingredient to have on hand at all times. Unlike liquid buttermilk, the powered version will stay fresh in the fridge for months.
As with many packaged mixes, Aunt Jemima just-add-water pancake mix also contains a hefty amount of additives and preservatives. This mix includes dextrose (a corn-based sweetener,) calcium carbonate (a dietary calcium supplement,) corn syrup solids (the sweetener in powdered form,) sodium caseinate (a biochemical name for casein, a milk protein used as a food additive to affect texture and flavor), mono and diglycerides (emulsifiers), lactic acid (a synthesized version of natural fermentation occurring in some foods used as a preservative and flavoring agent,) dipotassium phosphate (an additive used to enhance cooking performance,) tocopherols (semi-synthetic versions of Vitamin E used as preservatives,) and sodium metabisulfite (a bleaching agent used as a preservative).
Ultimately, the unsavory elements of Aunt Jemima just-add-water pancake mix are preservatives, additives, and extra sweeteners—all standard ingredients incorporated into most packaged foods. If you still crave the simplicity of the just-add water pancake mix, look for natural versions of the mixes, or better yet, pick up some powdered buttermilk and make your own.