We should all have a solid command of the ABCs of baking. Thankfully, Food52's Test Kitchen Manager Erin McDowell is here, with tips and tricks to help you master the most essential desserts and the simplest breads.
Today: Need a little magic in your life? Make popovers.
The first time I saw a popover, I was certain that it was magic. I watched a TV chef whisk the batter together in a total of 3 minutes. He poured it into the pan and, not that I was in the habit of doubting an expert on TV, I thought he was crazy. He said that in 20 minutes he would have towering, warm popovers, which just didn’t seem possible. The batter was easier to make than pancake batter and required no special ingredients—mostly items you could find in an average kitchen.
But when he pulled them out of the oven, I audibly gasped. I felt my stomach grumble. They were gorgeous, and it was truly, absolutely, magic.
Popovers are an entertainer’s dream: Simple to prepare but dramatic in presentation, they’re quicker than bread, but have a similarly comforting effect, especially since they’re meant to be eaten warm. They’re great for breakfast, with a healthy dollop of jam, but they also pair well with a hearty dinner. Decadent though it may be, I love them alongside a steak or super crispy-skinned roast chicken. Best of all, I’ve hardly ever found too many folks who struggle to make them. And yet, they seem out of reach for a lot of cooks and bakers.
Fortunately, with this guide, the hardest part will be deciding how much butter to slather on top.
Or, just head straight to the recipe!
1. The Physics of Popovers
While popovers are close cousins of English Yorkshire pudding, they are, in fact, an American creation, appearing sometime in the late 1800s. If you’ve ever seen or eaten a popover, you’ve probably had the same question I once did: How does it work?
Popover batter is mixed similarly to pancake or crêpe batter, but it’s much thinner than pancake batter and a bit thicker than crêpe batter. Popover batter is almost like a custard, consisting mostly of eggs and liquid (usually milk or water) with just enough flour to help set the structure as the eggs soufflé during baking. It's distinguished by its high egg content, which is important because when the popover batter hits the hot pan (see the tip on preparing the pan below), the eggs immediately begin to coagulate. As the popovers cook, the moisture from the batter and the eggs generates a massive amount of steam that builds up inside the popover, pushing the batter upwards (no other leaveners needed—how cool is that?!).
In addition to leavening the popovers, the steam also cooks the inside, creating a soft, custardy texture that is excellent paired with the crispy, crunchy texture of the exterior. When the proteins in the egg, milk solids, and flour are exposed to the edge of the pan and the hot oven air, the heat browns the proteins (this is known as Maillard reaction) and creates a crisp outer crust.
Best of all, the interior of the finished popover is hollow—usually due to one large pocket of steam, which turns into something like a single, giant air bubble in the oven. The hollow interior is perfect for mopping up savory sauces or soups or smothering with butter, jam, fruit curd, or even ganache! (I personally love filling a popover with a scoop of ice cream for a super fast profiterole look-alike.) The popover batter also contains salt and a small amount of fat (usually melted butter, though sometimes a neutral oil) to help promote browning on the exterior.
Generally speaking, I am not a fan of single-purpose kitchen tools. But when it comes to popovers, I have to break my rule (okay, okay, cherry pitters too…but I love me some cherry pie). If you love popovers, if you make them even somewhat regularly, invest in a popover pan. How does a popover pan differ from a muffin pan? Whereas muffin pans are usually narrower at the base than at the top, popover pans have straight sides with taller, skinnier cups. This shape is pretty important for achieving the desired result: The tall, narrow vessel forces the batter upwards as the steam is created. Think of the sides of the pan like high walls that the batter clings to while it climbs; eventually the batter is firm enough to set, but when it’s still liquid, it needs room to grow and assistance to get there.
This begs the million-dollar question: Can you use a muffin pan? Yes. You can even use ramekins or other oven-safe baking vessels. Will it produce different results? Yes again. Popovers made in a muffin pan won’t get quite as tall and may be slightly more custardy inside as a result—there won’t be as big of a steam pocket without the room to expand in the pan. Muffin tin popovers are also slightly more likely to fall over or become otherwise misshapen during baking. But they still taste pretty darn good, so don’t fret if you don’t have the proper pan.
3. Making the Batter
Popover batter couldn’t be easier to make. Essentially, you just need to whisk it all together. I begin by mixing the flour and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, I whisk the eggs and milk to combine, then pour that mixture into the flour gradually while whisking constantly. Finally, I slowly add the melted butter, mixing just until fully incorporated.
If your popover batter is excessively lumpy, you may want to strain it, pressing the batter through a sieve to remove lumps. However, if your batter is slightly lumpy, this is normal—much like making pancake batter. What constitutes excessive? The batter should be easily pourable and relatively liquidy—if it isn’t, you may want to strain. Otherwise, mixing the batter is the simplest part of the process!
4. Preparing and Filling the Pan
A popover pan should be greased. I prefer to use melted butter, but oil or nonstick spray would work too. Greasing the pan ensures that the finished popovers don’t stick and promotes browning on the exterior of the popover. After you’ve greased your pan, place it into the oven while it preheats. It’s ideal to add popover batter to a hot pan because the moment the cool or room temperature batter hits the hot metal, steam begins to form. The idea here is to create an ideal environment to maximize the amount of steam. More steam means fluffier, taller popovers. If you forget to preheat your pan, all is not lost—properly mixed batter will still rise to great heights. However, this is a simple extra step that can make a big difference.
Once your pan is nice and hot and your batter is mixed, it’s time to fill the pan. A good rule of thumb with popovers is to fill the pans just over halfway full. You want to provide room for the popovers to begin to expand before their structure is fully set (when they most depend on those “walls” of the pan). If you overfill your popover pan, they may pop too early, when the batter is still liquidy. They will eventually set, but it will create a big mess in your oven and the finished popovers will be very misshapen.
I like to use a liquid measuring cup to pour the batter into the pan, as it gives me the most control as to the level of the batter inside each cup. Ladles are another solid choice. As soon as your pans are filled, transfer the popovers to the oven.
The keys to baking popovers are to use a high oven temperature (I prefer 425° F) and to not disturb them (by opening the oven) during the process. I know, I know—I like to peek in on my baked goods, too. But this is one time you really should try to resist. Opening the oven door during baking releases a generous amount of heat, and any reduction can drastically affect the production of steam inside the popovers. Generally speaking, it’s wise to trust your popover recipe. Set your timer for the lower end of the time spectrum provided. When the timer goes off, turn on the oven light and look inside without opening the oven.
Popovers are done when they are tall, “set” (no obvious gooeyness), and very golden brown. If the popovers look like they need longer, set the timer for the amount indicated in the recipe. Standard popover pans filled halfway and baked at 425° F are generally finished within 20 to 25 minutes. It’s also worth noting that lightly baked popovers have a softer, more custardy interior, while more thoroughly baked popovers have a crispier outer shell. You may discover you have a textural preference and you can adjust your own baking time accordingly.
Popovers are best served immediately. They will, unfortunately, begin to collapse after a few minutes outside of the oven. One way to help prevent this is to puncture the top and/or side of the popover with the tip of a small, sharp knife to help release some of the steam trapped inside. This makes it more likely that the outer structure will stay set as the steam releases, and it also means you won’t end up with a soggy popover.
Even when they collapse, popovers are delicious—ideally, served warm. While this may seem limiting, I love baking popovers for company. They make an excellent (and relatively quick) addition to breakfast, brunch, or a simple dinner party (serve them in lieu of dinner rolls). Leftover popovers should be stored in an airtight container for 1 to 2 days, and re-warmed in the oven for the best effect.
Makes 6 large popovers
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (plus more for greasing the pan)
Photos by James Ransom