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.  freshly baked popover, split and filled

A popover, split, buttered, drizzled with syrup from candied pineapple. Honey and jam are more common sweet additions, but it’s hard to go wrong. Alternatively, you can channel ladies’ lunch circa 1950 and fill them with creamed chicken or tuna salad.

 

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.

popover ingredients

Ingredients for popovers – I use bread flour but it’s not essential. I forgot to show the salt – please don’t forget to use some.

 

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.

popovers baked in preheated pans

Popovers in preheated pans, old fashioned cast iron in rear, pyrex cup up front.

POPOVERS

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.

pouring popover batter into preheated cups

It’s easier and faster to pour than it is to ladle. Note that the batter is very thin.

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.

Further notes:

* 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.

cluster of purple crocus

Newly opened crocus on popover baking day, March 16th. There is still a bit of snow just outside of the frame. Last year at this time it was pushing 80 and the crocus had been over for almost a month.

 

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8 Comments »

  • Barbara Wellman Said,

    Thank you Love pop overs, they are the things I forget about making the go on a spree of making them five times a week. We still have a little snow too! No bulbs, just snow roses.

    Hi Barbara, I know just what you mean. I hadn’t made any in ages and now I can’t stop. What are snow roses? I’m thinking hellebores…

  • Rebecca Mitchell Said,

    Popovers are like Proust’s madeleines for me. My father made them on Sunday mornings — Pyrex custard cups. To make sure we were at the table when they came out of the oven he blew into a bos’uns pipe and shouted “Popovers out in ten minutes!”
    I keep meaning to try adding herbs or cheese to the batter, but can’t get past the deliciousness of just plain popovers.

    Great story! I’m lovin’ the idea of the pipe (more than I’d love the sound of one, truth to tell). For what it’s worth, I’m not that crazy about herbs in the batter; the heat of the oven scorches the bits on the outside in an undelicious way. Cheese is good, but then you might as well make gougeres.

  • Vee Said,

    I pinned this. Hope that’s okay. If not, just let me know and I’ll remove it. I have been wanting to try popovers again, but haven’t because I don’t own the special pans.

    Hi Vee,
    Pinning is fine; I encourage it! Hope you do make popovers soon. Special pans really aren’t needed. I did a batch in a muffin tin to prepare for this post – just in case it did make a big difference. The batch was only ok, not great (2 out of the total of 8 didn’t pop much), but that was because I’d crowded the oven. For that trial, I did the muffin pan AND the iron one that’s pictured and the popovers in the iron pan didn’t all pop either. Good circulation of very hot air is the more important thing, so don’t hesitate to go for it!

  • Susan Scheid Said,

    The popovers look edible right off the page–and the crocus magnificent. Blue skies and a bit of warmth, please, please? And no. more. snow. They say it’s spring tomorrow . . .

    That’s what they say. Guess it proves the old chestnut about don’t believe everything you hear…

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