The Food Lab: We Should All Eat More Crepes, Starting Now

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Pancakes are simple. They're diner food. They're what you make on a Sunday morning with the kids. Crepes are fancy. They're French-bistro food. They're what you make once a week after your Parisian vacation because you want to relive some pleasant memories.

This dichotomy has always struck me as really, really odd, because the fact is that crepes are way easier to make than pancakes. It must be in the name, so let's just call them "skinny pancakes" for simplicity's sake.

Skinny pancakes use fewer ingredients (and zero specialty ingredients, like buttermilk).* They require fewer bowls and tools to dirty and wash, and they're much faster to make. It's easier to adapt them to either sweet or savory fillings, and, best of all, you can make them ahead, even by a few days, without losing quality. If American-style pancakes are your Sunday-morning ritual, skinny pancakes should be what you eat the other six days a week.

* I'm not going to get into buckwheat crepes here, which are delicious for savory dishes but are also another kettle of fish.

The only intimidating part of making crepes is spreading the batter thin enough in the pan, and, granted, that's something that takes a bit of practice. The good news is that even if your early crepes have funny lumps and bulges or aren't paper-thin, they're still gonna be plenty edible and delicious.

How to Make Crepe Batter

Recipes for crepe batter don't vary all that much, other than in the exact ratio of ingredients and how they're mixed together. I admit that in the past, I've tended to eyeball ingredients, but recently I've become more methodical, sticking with the ratio that Daniel developed for his crepe-style manicotti: two eggs, a cup of flour, and one and a quarter cups of milk. Those crepes are designed to hold on to a moist filling and get baked under a sauce. I like my regular crepes a little more tender, so I add a tablespoon of melted butter to the batter as well. For flavoring, I add a pinch of salt, plus a bit of sugar if I'm cooking sweet crepes, or sometimes a handful of minced fresh herbs for savory crepes.

For bringing the batter together, the blender is your friend: Dump in the ingredients and hit go. Fifteen seconds later, you're ready to start cooking. It's the method I've been using for decades.

Still, for the sake of completeness, I tested it against the bowl-and-whisk method. Using a bowl and whisk produces slightly less aeration in the batter, which in turn leads to slightly denser, smoother crepes. Crepes made in the blender will end up with teeny-tiny bubbles throughout, which you can see in this photo:

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This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, some crepe recipes call for soda water as an ingredient, specifically to try to get more of those tiny bubbles. Even with a bowl and a whisk, you can get them if you whisk vigorously enough.

What about resting the batter? Some folks insist that resting crepe batter for half an hour or even overnight before using it can improve texture and/or flavor. When I was testing out Yorkshire pudding recipes a while back (Yorkshire puddings are made with a batter almost identical to crepe batter), I found that resting the batter overnight had a dramatic effect on how well the puddings rose, as well as how deep their flavor was. With crepes, the difference wasn't so obvious. Crepes are not cooked until deeply browned, like Yorkshire puddings are, so they don't really get that complex toasty flavor. Crepes are also typically served with a very flavorful filling, so the actual flavor of the pancake itself is not quite as important. As a result, I never bother resting my crepe batter.

To cook a crepe, you have a few pan options. A carbon steel crepe pan is the classic choice—its shallow, highly tapered edges make it easy to get leverage under a crepe when you're ready to flip it—but unless you make a ton of crepes, I don't recommend buying one. Instead, just use a good-quality nonstick pan. I use this set from Calphalon—note, these do not work on induction. I use this one from Cuisinart on my induction cooktop. The real key is that you want something that will preheat evenly. Aluminum, copper, or a tri-ply clad pan is ideal.

I like to cook my crepes in a little butter, which gives them a nice, golden-brown color and lacy-looking surface. I rub a thin layer into a preheated skillet, then wipe out all the excess with a paper towel.

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Next is the tricky part. There are a couple of methods for pouring and spreading crepe batter. At those fancy crepe shops with the gigantic cast iron griddles, you'll see cooks using a wooden spreader to push the crepe batter into a thin pancake. That's pretty impractical at home. When I make them, I hold the preheated pan in one hand and the blender full of batter in the other, then I quickly pour a few tablespoons of batter into the center of the pan and immediately start tilting and swirling it to spread the batter out into a thin, even layer. You are absolutely bound to get a few thick and thin spots using this method, but nothing world-ending.

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The other, arguably simpler technique is what I call the "pour-out" method: Pour in way more batter than you need, swirl the pan once to get a coating all around, then immediately tip the pan and pour any excess batter right back into the blender. You end up with a very thin, even coating of batter in the bottom of the skillet, with a single deformed protrusion where you poured the batter back over the side of the pan. If you're a first-time crepe-maker, this might be the method for you.

Once the batter is in the pan, I set it back over medium heat without moving it, then let it cook just until the top surface has set and no longer looks like wet batter. This takes all of 15 seconds or so. Flipping crepes with a spatula is dangerous, since the delicate pancakes can tear easily. Much better is to gently release one edge with a thin metal spatula, then pick up the crepe with the fingers of both hands, gently laying it back in the skillet to lightly brown the second side.

All in all, the crepe should spend no more than 30 seconds in the skillet, after which you'll be immediately ready to start the next. Cooked crepes can be stacked on a plate and either stuffed and served right away or stored under plastic wrap (or under a second, overturned plate) in the fridge for several days before stuffing and serving.

How to Stuff Crepes

The simplest form of crepe-stuffing is so easy, I'm not even gonna bother showing you a picture: Spread a filling on them and roll them up. Classic combinations would be butter and jam, or butter, sugar, and lemon juice. Try them with Nutella and bananas, or strawberries and whipped cream, or simply folded and stacked and served with butter and maple syrup, American-style. You can also spread crepes with a filling and stack them up high, without folding them at all, to form a cake that can be sliced into wedges.

If you want to go savory, that's where stuffing style gets a little more fun.

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A classic stuffed crepe is folded into quarters. Any filling you'd use in an omelette can be used in a crepe. Here, I'm stuffing them with spinach, sautéed with red onions and tossed with crumbled feta cheese. I start by mixing all my stuffing ingredients together, then spread them over half of a crepe. I fold that crepe over, quesadilla-style, then fold it over again before repeating this with three more crepes.

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Once the four crepes are filled, I add them to a skillet, which I've preheated with just a touch of butter or fat. I let them cook until they're nicely browned and crisp on the first side before I flip and brown the second side. The result is crepes that you can eat with a fork and knife on a plate, but can just as easily pick up in your hands for a simple on-the-go meal.

The other method of stuffing crepes is reserved for crepes served with a sunny-side-up egg. To do it, start by frying an egg until the whites are set but the yolk is still runny, then set it aside. Next, place a small amount of filling in the center of a crepe. The simplest might be a little handful of shredded Gruyère cheese, with perhaps a slice of ham, but again, you can use whatever filling you'd like here. Caramelized onions. Bacon. Wilted kale. Sautéed peppers. Et cetera.

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Once the filling is there, place the egg on top, then fold the sides of the crepe up over the egg, leaving just the yolk in the center exposed. Carefully transfer the package back to the skillet to crisp up the bottom, and serve.

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Honestly, crepes skinny pancakes are one of the fastest and most versatile breakfasts, dinners, or midnight snacks I can think of. Once you get comfortable with them, you'll have opened up a whole world of quick, delicious meals.