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Few things are as simple as they seem, and that's certainly the case with savory buckwheat crepes, a classic food from Brittany in France. I've eaten them many times before, and my general impression was that there wasn't much difference between them and regular crepes, beyond the buckwheat.
I was wrong. As soon as I started digging deeper into the subject, I began to realize just how complicated it was. There are regional variations that differ significantly from each other, some yeasted and puffy, others thin and delicate. They can also have different names; are we talking about galetous or galettes, for instance? There's even some division in France about whether they should be called plain old crepes. I found this French Slate article among the most useful, but even it didn't paint the clearest picture.
Establishing well-defined categories remained difficult. I found just about every variation imaginable. Some were wild-fermented, others leavened with baker's yeast; some had eggs and some didn't; plus, recipes called for anywhere from 100% buckwheat to a 50/50 mixture with wheat flour. And that doesn't even get into the question of how to cook them: Do you have to spread them on one of those round griddles, called a bilig, that creperies use, pushing the batter in an even circle with a T-shaped wooden râteau? Or would a carbon steel crepe pan work? What about nonstick, the easiest type of pan to use and the one most home cooks are likely to have?
My confidence was further weakened when I read this article from pastry whiz David Lebovitz, in which he describes a totally unsuccessful attempt at making buckwheat crepes at home. If he couldn't make it work, what were my chances?
Well, turns out they were pretty decent. Perhaps I just got lucky, or maybe it helped that I was willing to tinker with my batter beyond what tradition dictates is the "right way." I'm not sure, but in the end, I have a recipe that works. Maybe it doesn't make the laciest, crispiest crepes to ever come off a bilig, but they're still damned good and easy as can be—absolutely worth making at home.
My first step was narrowing down the scope of what I was testing. I tried some wild-fermented and yeasted batters, but I didn't like how they tasted—"funky" would be an understatement—and I found them very uncooperative during cooking. Serious Eats' own pastry whiz, Stella Parks, theorized that, since yeasted doughs are more acidic and acid slows down the rate at which a batter sets, this could have led to my troubles. It's an explanation I'm willing to buy, just as I'm willing to buy yeasted Breton crepes from someone who makes a good version of them...but I won't be bothering with them at home again any time soon.
Instead, I decided to focus on the thinner style, essentially a crepe as we all think of them, but with buckwheat in place of some portion of the wheat flour. If you're curious about what buckwheat does for the flavor, I'd describe it as deeply minerally, almost like limestone wet with rain. On its own, it can be intense; I wouldn't make a habit out of eating buckwheat crepes plain. But when the crepes are folded around other ingredients, like the classic combo of a fried egg, Gruyère cheese, and ham, the buckwheat comes to life, ushering forth a more intense savory edge that I frankly think is a better pairing with non-sweet foods than a standard wheat-flour crepe.
Still, I had a fair amount to test to get my recipe and ratio figured out. Here's what I found.
How Much Buckwheat Does a Buckwheat Crepe Need if a Buckwheat Crepe Does Need Buckwheat?
The goal of any buckwheat crepe recipe is to maximize the amount of buckwheat flour and minimize the amount of wheat flour—getting a pronounced buckwheat flavor is the reason we're making these, right? But we also want a batter that isn't troublesome. Some recipes go all the way, with 100% buckwheat flour. In one 19th-century recipe I found, the only ingredients were buckwheat flour, water, and salt. Clearly, such simple, pure-buckwheat versions have been made for a long time.
The problem is that buckwheat is gluten-free, which means that, on its own, it creates a batter that's very hard to work with. No gluten means very little elasticity, leading to friable crepes that will snap into pieces at even the slightest provocation. Perhaps when you're working on a large bilig-style griddle and spreading the batter around with a râteau, this uncompromising ratio can be made to work after some practice, but at home, it's just too difficult.
Adding a portion of wheat flour is necessary, since it can provide enough gluten to make the crepes more forgiving. A lot of French recipes I saw called for one part wheat flour for every four parts buckwheat (50 grams wheat flour for every 200 grams buckwheat flour), but I found even that to produce a crepe that was very prone to breakage. With enough tinkering, I reached a balance at which the crepes no longer broke easily, but still retained a prominent buckwheat flavor. That ratio was one and a half times as much buckwheat flour as wheat flour (so, 150 grams buckwheat flour per 100 grams wheat flour).
Despite the higher ratio of wheat flour, buckwheat is assertive enough to remain the dominant flavor.
An Eggscellent Question
Next up was the question of eggs. Some recipes call for them, some don't. Once again, with repeated testing, the egg proved itself a useful component for the home cook, yielding a batter that coated the pan more evenly and crepes that were less prone to breaking.
Along with my higher ratio of wheat flour, an egg added to the mix is worthwhile insurance for crepes that won't fall apart on you.
High Times for Hydration?
One of the most common tips you're likely to encounter for all crepes is to let the batter rest—preferably overnight, but at least an hour or two if possible.
Some people say this is to allow the gluten to relax after you mix the milk and water into the batter. Now, even with basic wheat-flour crepes, in which gluten is inarguably present, I've never actually noticed much of a difference between a rested batter and a just-made one, and Kenji's crepe batter testing backs this up.
But with buckwheat crepes, gluten is even less of an issue, given that the buckwheat portion of the batter has no gluten. It's therefore hard to imagine that it'd matter much at all in this case.
Others say the resting period isn't to relax the gluten, but to allow the flour to fully hydrate. This theory makes more sense to me, but in practice, once again, I haven't noticed much of a difference, if any.
Maybe the hydration issue is more significant in a professional setting—creperies make bigger batches of batter in advance, then use them throughout the day. If the hydration level changes as the batter sits in the initial hours after mixing, that could lead to consistency issues as the flour absorbs more liquid and the batter becomes ever so slightly thicker. In that case, I can see the logic of making the batter the night before—that allows it to stabilize before you begin to cook with it.
But at home, I just don't see the point. I couldn't tell any difference between overnight batches and freshly made ones, and since you're going to make your crepes at home all at once, subtle shifts in consistency over time become a nonissue, if they ever were an issue in the first place.
So forget that age-old advice to prep the batter in advance, and just whip it up right before you cook it.
Putting the Pan in Pancake
It's safe to assume most of us don't have huge electric biligs at home on which to griddle our crepes. That leaves us with two options: carbon steel crepe pans and nonstick skillets.
You want to cook buckwheat crepes over high heat in order to create a nicely browned and crisp surface. A carbon steel pan is much better in this regard, since you can heat it more aggressively. Like cast iron, it also retains that heat well, even when cool batter is poured into it.
The downsides of carbon steel are, first, that it requires more maintenance, as it needs to be seasoned just like cast iron, and, second, that it's a specialized pan that's good for crepes and not much else. It's not necessarily worth the space or money if you don't make crepes often.
Ultimately, I'll leave this up to you. The quality difference between the pans is clear, but whether that difference is worth buying and storing an extra piece of cookware is your call. Nonstick certainly works, just not quite as well.
In either case, my main tips for making the crepes are as follows: First, preheat the pan well, adding a generous pat of butter and allowing the butter to begin to brown and smoke (just be careful not to burn it). A good dose of sizzling-hot butter is helpful here, since it will sputter and bubble when the batter hits it, helping to form tiny bubbles and a lacier texture on the surface of the crepe. This works better in the carbon steel pan, which will start off—and remain—hotter.
Pour in the batter, and swirl the pan until you have a thin, even layer. Then put it right back over high heat, and let it start to steam and brown.
There's no need to flip the crepe if you're filling it. Instead, let it cook through fully, which you'll know has happened when the top surface has gone from shiny to matte. After that, pile your fillings around the center. Here, I start with grated Gruyère cheese, then set a slice of ham on that, and finally slide a fried egg over the ham.
Slide a very thin metal spatula under the crepe, and use the spatula to fold the edges up to enclose the filling, pressing the flaps down to seal them and leaving the filling exposed in the center only. If you're using nonstick, be extra careful not to scratch the pan with the spatula.
Then slide the crepe out of the pan and onto a plate. Simple, right?