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Recipes and techniques generally advance in baby steps. It's rare that you find a technique so far out of left field that it changes the way people think about food overnight. Sous vide cooking is up there, as is no-knead bread. In the world of vegan cuisine, nothing has shaken things up like aquafaba—the recently coined term for the liquid inside a can of cooked beans. It's the kind of technique that's so mind-blowingly simple that I'm amazed nobody discovered it until just a couple of years ago.
Here are the basics: Take the liquid from inside a can of chickpeas (the stuff you'd normally discard) and place it in a stand mixer. Now beat it and watch as it transforms into a creamy, fine, stable foam with the texture, density, and many of the cooking properties of an egg white–based meringue. I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I tried it. What's even more amazing is that it was discovered not by chefs or scientists, but by an off-duty French singer who was experimenting with vegan egg substitutes at home; it was later popularized by an American software engineer.
These days, there are web pages and Facebook groups devoted to cooking with the stuff, and, as an egg replacement in vegan cooking, it's quite promising. However, I think it's being oversold to a degree. I haven't, for instance, been able to make an acceptable cake with it, as some have suggested, and it doesn't work to simply replace eggs with this stuff in recipes—it lacks the structure-reinforcing capabilities of egg proteins, and thus collapses much more easily when incorporated into doughs and batters before cooking.
It is, however, great for some things I've tried—it bakes into perfect meringue cookies, and you can make a gorgeous, Italian meringue–style vegan topping for lemon pies and other desserts, for example—and I've been slowly adding to that list.
This time around: pancakes.
In my first attempt at this, I simply adapted my standard pancake recipe. It's pretty straightforward: Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt; mix in buttermilk, sour cream, vanilla, melted butter, egg yolks, and beaten egg whites; then cook on a griddle. I started by replacing the buttermilk and sour cream with almond milk spiked with vinegar, the butter with vegetable oil, and the eggs with a few tablespoons of aquafaba whipped into stiff peaks. The pancakes griddled up a little dense and gummy. I needed to make a few more changes for them to work right.
I knew that sugar can help stabilize standard meringues by increasing the viscosity of the liquid. Adding some extra sugar and incorporating it along with the aquafaba helped keep my pancakes from deflating as they cooked. An extra teaspoon of baking powder also helped in that regard.
Being extremely careful when incorporating the aquafaba into the pancake batter was also key. After combining my wet and dry ingredients, excluding the aquafaba, I added the whipped aquafaba and folded it all together gently until it was homogeneous, trying to keep as much air in the mixture as I possibly could.
Incidentally, aquafaba increases in volume even more than egg whites do as it's whipped. Four tablespoons of the liquid (your average 14-ounce can of chickpeas will yield about 2/3 cup liquid) whips up into over two cups of meringue! For flavor's sake, you want to seek out low-sodium chickpeas, if you can find them. It takes much longer to whip up aquafaba to suitably stiff peaks than it does egg whites—about six minutes at high speed. (The good news is that, unlike egg whites, aquafaba can't be over-whipped, so feel free to turn on that mixer and walk away. Even if you forget about it, your meringue will be fine.)
Buttermilk and sour cream have a tang and aroma that's far more complex than plain old white vinegar, so I also decided to add some lemon zest to the mix.
The final trick is to cook the pancakes over lower heat than you would an egg-based batter. That aquafaba mixture takes longer to dry out and doesn't have the protein-setting properties of eggs. Try to cook them too fast, and they come out too moist, turning gummy and mushy in the process. Cook them over lower heat, and they come out drier and much fluffier.
I'm not going to lie: These pancakes are not quite as good, from a pure flavor/texture perspective, as egg-based pancakes, but they are far, far better than any other vegan technique I've ever tried. For vegans who have longed for light and fluffy pancakes and waffles, there has been no better advance in cooking technique that I can think of.
Ditto that for vegans who have been longing for a stack of something warm and fluffy to pour maple syrup over, and are running out of patience trying it with cats and alpacas.
Now to get back to work on that cake...