Before you order a flapjack in the UK, just know what you're getting into.

By Tim Nelson
February 22, 2021
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Flapjacks. Pancakes. When you hear either word, there's a good chance you're picturing the same circle of syrup-soaked carbohydrates in your mind. But have you ever really stopped to think about what those words mean or where they come from? 

The thing is, the two different terms have to exist for a reason, and it's worth investigating (however briefly) why that may be. So whether you're curious about the etymology of a favorite breakfast or you're looking for a new dish to add to your repertoire, let's take a tour through the field of flapjack studies, shall we? 

In North America, Flapjacks and Pancakes Mean the Same Thing

Let's just get this out of the way first: here in the US, it's perfectly OK to refer to thin cakes made from batter as both pancakes and/or flapjacks. While the latter feels somehow less formal (probably because "pancake" functions more descriptively), there's nothing to really distinguish them. 

And while Canadians call napkins "serviettes," serve milk from bags, and have their own definition of "bacon," it turns out they're the same as us Americans when it comes to pancake/flackjap taxonomy. Thanks, Canada!

Credit: Darren B

But in the UK, flapjacks are something else entirely

Should you find yourself in the United Kingdom or Ireland, however, you might see "flapjacks" and "pancakes" listed as separate menu items. This isn't some ploy to confuse naïve North Americans (though you can never rule that out entirely), but a reflection of the fact that "pancakes" and "flapjacks" aren't synonymous on the other side of the Atlantic. 

Over there, flapjacks aren't batter-based cakes, but a baked bar of oats that looks more like a snack or a dessert than a breakfast. Swapping a griddle or a frying pan for a baking tray, these flapjacks are a combination of rolled oats, butter, and brown sugar, which is then put in the oven and  cut into smaller squares or rectangles before serving. That gives them a greater similarity to granola bars than your typical pancake. If there's anything a North American flapjack has in common with its British counterpart, it's the ability to add fillings like fruit or chocolate in order to enhance the taste. 

Brits take a different approach to pancakes, too

Not only are "flapjacks" their own thing in the UK, British cuisine also has a different understanding of what makes a pancake. Though they'll call it a "pancake," the British version is unleavened and closer to what we Yanks might call a crepe than the fluffy, pillowy food we tend to think of. In fact, what we call pancakes here in North America, Brits refer to as "American pancakes."

Not only is it a bit thinner and crispier around the edges, but the British pancake is also presented differently. Often, that means covering it in a filling and folding it into quarters. Instead of maple syrup, the traditional sweet addition is sugar and lemon juice. In another similarity to crepes, savory fillings for British pancakes aren't that uncommon, either, and they need not be confined to breakfast. 

To make matters even more confusing, Scottish pancakes are actually more similar to American than crepe-like British pancakes. It would seem the Scots never miss a chance to stick it to the English when the opportunity presents itself. 

So why the pancakes-flapjack split, and when did it happen?

It seems to have happened in two stages. Though the word "flapjack" dates back to at least the early 1600s, at least if its usage in Shakespeare's 1607 play Pericles, Prince of Tyre counts for anything. Back then, a "flapjack" had a more fluid, flexible meaning,  referring to what we might think of as a pancake or even a tart, depending on who you asked. Supposedly, however,  "flapjack" has been a colloquialism for flat cakes like the pancake since before the US and Canada gained their independence from Great Britain, and that understanding has only gained traction in the centuries since. 

On the other hand, the current English understanding of the flapjack is a more recent development. It wasn't until the mid-1930's that "flapjack" came to refer to the rolled oat bars that they're known as today, and that definition came to prevail in the 80-plus years since. 

How do you make (British) flapjacks?

It's really not too hard once you have butter, brown sugar, syrup, rolled oats, and your choice of add-in on hand. As one of our recipes shows, it's just a matter of combining the butter, brown sugar and syrup, then stirring in the oats and your extra ingredient before pouring into a baking pan and letting it sit in the oven at 350 for half an hour. Given how much they yield, they'll function as a great snack throughout the week, and you certainly could enjoy them for breakfast if you're in the mood to mix it up. 

Get the Recipe: English Flapjacks

So, yes: Flapjacks are pancakes, but they also aren't. It really depends on where you are. But no matter what you want to call them, we can all agree that it sounds like both American and British flapjacks (not to mention their pancakes) ultimately all sound pretty good.