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In the age-old breakfast debate of pancakes vs waffles, it’s hard to pick a side. Both are delicious, and each has its superior applications (chicken and pancakes is not a thing for a good reason, but you can’t roll waffles around jam and cream as you can with crepes, which are technically part of the pancake family).
We wouldn’t want to live without either of them, but if we had to choose between pancakes and waffles, we’d want to be at least a little scientific about it. Everyone has a gut reaction that one is obviously better than the other, which may be regionally influenced (were there more IHOPs or Waffle Houses where you grew up?), and naturally, what your caregivers cooked at home must be a factor. But that can be a bad thing too; if you only ate Eggos as a kid, for instance, and you think you don’t like waffles based on that experience, it’s time to try a real one and reconsider.
In the interest of choosing with our heads over our hearts, we’ve broken down all the most important factors that determine which is the better bite, and declared a winner in each category. Whichever racks up the most points overall, then, must be the One True Breakfast Carb (as long you temporarily forget about croissants, doughnuts, Danishes, and the like).
Neither carb-tastic treat is exactly spa food (though both can be made healthier and/or made to suit special diets—by using almond flour for gluten-free versions, for instance), but if you’re counting calories, waffles have about 100 more of them than pancakes, and more cholesterol too, but that’s before you factor in toppings like butter, syrup, or whipped cream. Pancakes are often served in taller stacks, so they could end up being less virtuous, but in a 1:1 comparison, the victor is clear. Point: pancakes.
Both plain pancakes and waffles are lightly sweet and a little bready, although waffles are more so on both counts; they generally have more butter and sugar in the batter and become more caramelized during cooking, so they taste a little richer and more pastry-like. They’re also rarely underdone, unlike so many sad pancakes, which still taste raw and bitter in the middle when not quite cooked through—but even when they’re perfect, they’re just a bit more bland before you bring in the toppings. Point: waffles.
Properly cooked pancakes are soft and spongy (in a good way!) but not gummy, whereas waffles are lighter, crisp outside, and tender within. Which texture is better may be a matter of personal preference, but neither pancakes nor waffles usually stand alone, and once you bring toppings into it, the winner becomes clear…
Pancakes are better at soaking up syrup, no doubt, but many people would rather not have soggy breakfast food, and that’s what pancakes become after just a short while under a good drenching. Waffles trap that syrup (or whatever else you want to top them with) in all their handy nooks and crannies while staying crisp for a relatively long while. So taking toppings into account, texturally, waffles have the edge (so many edges). Those crunchy little squares also hold things like chopped nuts and berries in place, while with pancakes, such morsels are apt to fall off the stack. Point: waffles.
Pancakes are way older than waffles; they’ve been around in some form since at least the 1430s, based on the first written record of the word “pancake,” but probably existed long before then in some form. The first waffle iron was only patented in 1869, so relatively speaking, it’s still the new kid on the block. Point: pancakes.
In sweet situations—say, with butter and syrup, or whipped cream and berries—pancakes and waffles are fairly equally matched, as long as you eat the pancakes fast enough to avoid the sog factor. They’re both easily changed up with extra flavors (from gingerbread spices to orange and vanilla) and mix-ins, from chocolate chips to blueberries and beyond. They can conceivably both be turned into dessert (hello, carrot cake pancakes), although waffles are better vehicles for ice cream.
And in their most familiar forms (meaning, as you’d find them in a diner), both can be savory, but waffles are better at it. This is mostly thanks to their texture, which (whether they’re cheddar waffles, sourdough waffles, or basic buttermilk), can stand up not just to the classic partner of fried chicken, but even chili or cream gravy, without disintegrating into mush (at least for a little while). They also make better sandwiches than pancakes do (though mini pancakes aren’t bad bread replacements at breakfast time). Point: waffles.
Despite waffles’ win directly above, if you look beyond the horizon of the traditional American breakfast (and lunch and dinner) table, the pancake pantheon proves vast and endlessly enticing—from various savory Asian pancakes and fluffy Japanese souffle pancakes to blini, crepes, Dutch babies, idlis, and even latkes (which might be a stretch, but they are also called potato pancakes, so there’s an argument for lumping them in).
There just aren’t as many international versions of waffles; basically, Belgian waffles, Scandinavian sweetheart waffles, Hong Kong egg waffles, and taiyaki are it. And those are great, but they don’t just don’t quite stack up as high. Point: pancakes.
The biggest con leveled against waffles, that you need a special appliance just to make them, is fair enough, but if you have a waffle iron, you can use it for all sorts of other food, from sandwiches to brownies and lots else in between. Some types of pancakes—Poffertjes and Aebleskiver—also require special pans, and those pans are probably far less versatile than a waffle iron…but still, pancakes in their most common form can be made on virtually any flat surface that conducts heat, whereas if you have a craving for homemade waffles and you’re without an iron, you’re simply out of luck. That said, waffle irons basically do all the work for you, while pancakes require more skill and attention and the first one almost always seems to burn. Point: it’s a toss-up.
Pancakes have appeared in many movies and TV shows, sometimes incidentally and sometimes with intent: for example, they show up in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “Uncle Buck,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Adventure Time” (where they even get their own song), and “Pulp Fiction.” Waffle highlights may be harder to recall (and even then, tend to be less illustrious: “Shrek Forever After,” “50 First Dates”…), but they recently had a great showing in “Stranger Things” (even if in the unfortunate form of frozen Eggos), and they occupy an iconic place in sacrilicious Simpsons history. Point: let’s call this one another draw.
If you have a squeeze bottle and a knack for it, you can make pancakes in literally any shape.
Pancakes, by a hair. However, if you strongly believe waffle irons are magic appliances and not a burden, or don’t care about making edible art, then the playing field evens out. And if you set aside global variations and compare only plain old American-style pancakes and waffles on their merits, waffles definitely win. But in the end, of course, only you can decide. And happily, you don’t actually have to. Team: All the Breakfast Foods.