Hoecakes, Johnny Cakes, And Pancakes: What's The Difference?

They're not the same, but they aren't all that different.

Homemade corn meal Johnny cakes on a white plate, side view. Close-up.
Photo: Getty Images

It was a crisp fall morning. I woke up on the couch of my host, a charming older couple, as I had recently arrived from India. The aroma of Folgers coffee, homemade blueberry pancakes, fried bacon, and eggs filled the air in the small townhouse.

I instantly gravitated to the pancakes. Never before had I seen such soft delicate cakes with dollops of whipped butter and sweet maple syrup. Dessert for breakfast? Where had I been all these years?

Later, I assimilated in my new Southern lifestyle and started trying different versions of pancakes at themed restaurants, late-night diners serving "early breakfast," as well as the pre-made mixes and microwavable frozen kinds. As I began to immerse myself in the culinary history of the South and travel across the world, I discovered there was more to the pan-baked round treat that is a quintessential part of an American breakfast.

Who Came Up With The First Pancake?

The history of pancakes can be traced back to 5th century ancient Greece, where pan-fried cakes of wheat, milk, and honey were often served for breakfast.

Regional varieties of round, flat discs can now be seen as far as Africa, East Asia, and across Europe. While each culture has its own version and name for the dish, what we broadly term "pancake" today is a word that was coined by the English language around the 15th century.

In the South, pancakes are interchangeably called hotcakes, griddlecakes, and flapjacks, though British flapjacks are made with rolled oats cooked in the oven. In the U.S., pancakes are made with flour, eggs, butter, and milk, and cooked on a griddle or frying pan to form leavened flat cakes.

The difference between pancakes and other pan fried breads is the addition of baking powder and baking soda to create a thicker, fluffier texture. Served as stacks for breakfast, pancakes have sweeter toppings, such as maple syrup, butter, whipped cream and fruit. Some of the pancake's similarly named cousins veer savory.

How Did Hoecake Gets Its Name?

Pancakes are sometimes called hoecakes in the South. Most Southerners are familiar with lacy cornbread, aka hot water cornbread.

A hoecake is a rustic fried version of a pancake made with ground cornmeal. When cooked well, it is crisp golden on the edges, dense on the inside, and sturdy enough to stand its own with honey and butter, or paired with Southern dishes, such as braised collard.

The 1809 book Knickerbocker's History of New York by Washington Irving first sited hoecakes, which means they were around since at least the late 1700s. Hoes, or flat iron tools, often doubled as a griddle before the inventions of skillets and pans, but the name stuck.

Cornbread pancakes don't rise, but are rather flat and crisp. They cook best when made as small discs or in a skillet-sized cake that can be broken up into smaller pieces. To make it lacy, thin out the batter by adding more water.

What's a Johnny Cake?

Johnny cake is mostly found in the Caribbean, especially in the West Indies islands where they are also referred to as "journey cakes," though they are said to have originated in Rhode Island.

Historians also believe the name may have originated from what Pawtuxet Indians referred to as "Shawnee cakes." One of the first recipes for Johnny cakes was published in Amelia Simmons' cookbook The First American Cookbook in 1796.

Similar to a hoecake, johnny cake is made with yellow or white cornmeal mixed with hot water and milk. It may be served slightly sweet or savory. The recipe can be modified by adding eggs, sugar, and baking powder. Top with honey, maple syrup, or sorghum butter for a hearty breakfast or a side.

No matter what you choose to call them, the wide appeal and ease of cooking has made homemade pancakes one of the most beloved breakfast traditions across many cultures.

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