Popovers – They’re Easy (Really)
This post was inspired by Cindy Martin, who found the vintage baking pan story and wrote to ask what popovers were and whether I had a recipe.
How could there be anyone who doesn’t know what a popover is? thought I.
Then I realized – but of course! Popover innocence would be almost a given if no one in your family baked. These addictive quick breads are easy to make but impossible to manufacture commercially. They don’t just have to be oven-fresh to be any good, they pretty much have to be oven fresh to exist whatsoever.
Having grown up making and eating popovers without realizing there was mythology attached, I got ready to answer Cindy’s question by simply writing down the formula I learned when I was about thirteen. But then, just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything, I undertook some research.
To my surprise – I’m often the last to realize these things – popovers have a reputation for being difficult. Everywhere I looked, in print and online, recipes were full of warnings, injunctions, caveats and ironclad rules, many of them contradictory: Use a hot oven; use a cold oven; beat the batter thoroughly; don’t over mix the batter; let the batter rest; use the batter right away; be sure you develop the gluten; be sure you don’t develop the gluten. Oy.
Here’s what: advice about popovers probably offers the highest ratio of balderdash to useful information I’ve ever seen for a formula that has only 5 ingredients.
There are in fact a (very) few rules, but they’re not hard to follow.
1: Be sure that the oven has come all the way up to temperature before you start to bake.
2: Be sure the ingredients and the mixing bowl are at room temperature.
(2a: Use preheated heavy pans. This ups your odds of success but isn’t essential, which is why it’s labeled “a” and put in parentheses.)
3. Don’t open the oven door until the baking time is almost over; a premature waft of cool air can be highly deflationary.
4. Be sure the eaters are nearby when the popovers are done.
I think that’s it.
Simplest explanation I can manage, starting with the basicmost basics:
Popovers are made from a thin batter composed of flour, salt, eggs and milk, with or without a smidge of butter. When small cups are partially filled with this batter and placed in a very hot oven, the surface congeals almost instantly, trapping the steam formed by the rapidly heating liquid.
The steam forces the popover to do just that: it blows up like a balloon, hugely overtopping the baking cup. There is now a very thin crust around a mostly hollow interior.
This crust browns quite rapidly, but there’s still a lot of moisture inside. The inflated popover must keep cooking long enough to make a thicker shell. (If it isn’t sufficiently cooked, it’ll collapse as soon as you take it out of the oven.) In order to keep cooking without burning, you turn down the heat. End of story. Everything else is minor refinement.
The only tricky part, insofar as there is a trick, is to get the popovers cooked enough so the crisp crust stays tall all the way to the table, but not cooked so long that the soft eggy goodness inside has been lost.
There’s actually a window of about 15 minutes between “crust sufficiently set” and “dryout immanent,” so deciding exactly when to remove them from the oven isn’t that big a deal. But any popover that’s nicely crisp outside and nicely moist inside will deflate as it cools, so serving them promptly is important enough to be a rule.
About popover pans: You totally do not need special pans, but here’s why they exist:
Deep, slightly conical baking cups allow maximum ballooning.
Cups that are well separated allow the air circulation that maximizes ballooning and encourages (approximate) uniformity.
Heavy pans can be preheated, giving you a head start on heating the batter and forming the supportive crust inside the cup.
Seasoned cast iron is the best non-stick surface known to man and well buttered pyrex is a close second. Thin metal pans can be sticky, even when well greased, and non-stick pans often can’t take the heat required for popovers. There are dedicated popover pans manufactured to be the best of all these worlds. I’ve never used one so cannot vouch one way or the other.
For 10-12 popovers:
1 c. bread flour or all purpose flour, spooned into the cup and leveled with a knife
½ tsp. salt
1 c. room temperature milk
1 tbl. melted butter, plus more for the pans
2 room temperature large or extra large eggs
1. Put the rack about 1/3 of the way from the bottom of the oven and if you’re using heavy baking cups, put them on it. Heat the oven to 450. It must be way hot, so don’t stint on the time and if you know your oven to run cool, up the dial accordingly.
2. Combine the flour, salt, milk and butter – I use a whisk in a mixing bowl, some people use a blender. Doesn’t matter. Let the mixture sit a minute, then beat in the eggs. If you use the bowl and whisk there may be a few little lumps. Doesn’t matter. If you use a blender there may be froth; stir it in.
3. If necessary, transfer batter to a pouring pitcher. Use a brush to generously butter the baking cups (If they’re preheated hot ones, be sure to use natural bristles; plastic melts.)
4. Fill the cups – half full if they’re close together, 2/3 to ¾ full if they’re well separated. Half fill any empty cups with water.
5. Bake for 20 minutes, then without opening the oven door, reduce the heat to 350 and bake 20 minutes more.
6. Gently open the oven door, reach in and press the nearest popover, testing for crust firmness. If it seems well set, remove just that one popover and let it sit a moment or two. If it doesn’t deflate, it’s done. If it starts sinking, put it back in the cup and give everybody another 5 or 10 minutes, depending on sinking speed.
Serve at once, on what I trust are warm or at least not cold plates, with room temperature butter and jam. If the popovers have to sit for a minute or two, make a small slit in each, to let steam escape.
* Batter can be refrigerated and baked the next day. Stir when it first comes out of the fridge, then again when it has warmed up. Be sure it’s room temperature before baking.
* There is a school of popover making that insists on the importance of well-beaten eggs, even unto adding a few extra whites. This adds the expanding air bubbles of the egg froth to the steam and probably does – think soufflé - increase lift, but it’s certainly not as critical as many people would have you believe.
* A baking stone helps even the oven heat; if you’ve got one, by all means use it.
* Making popovers in advance and reheating them isn’t really a great idea, but if you must: Overcook them a little to be sure they stay puffed. Cool on racks, store airtight and then bake about 5 minutes at 350 to recrisp.