Step 1: Measure with care
A pancake is essentially a pastry you make on the stove or griddle. Pastry-making (and pancake-making) requires exact precision. It's just as much chemistry as it is art. Start by measuring your ingredients exactly and carefully. Read and re-read your recipe, carefully measuring out each ingredient in its own dish as you go. Don't start mixing until you've got the right measurements. Level every measurement off with the back edge of a knife. Even a tad more baking soda than necessary can cause your pancakes to go flat.
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Step 2: Mix carefully
No matter what recipe you're using, overbeating the batter will deflate your pancakes. Since pancake batter is thin, try using a quality whisk (never a spoon or electric beater) to slowly mix liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients. Don't worry if there are a few bits of dry ingredients floating around.
Step 3: Cook evenly
It's tempting to use that cheap-o pan that's so easy to clean when you're cooking anything. Resist the temptation. You need a surface that heats evenly to make sure your pancakes are restaurant-quality golden-brown all the way around. Use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or an electric griddle for the best results. If you're using a skillet, heat it until drops of water "dance" then evaporate instantaneously. If you're using a griddle, heat it to 375 degrees F. No matter which device you're using, lightly grease it with butter to infuse the pancakes with flavor and prevent sticking.
Step 4: Precision cooking
You're not done with your measuring cups just yet. Use the quarter cup to measure out just the right amount of batter, ensuring you leave at least two inches of space between each pancake. You can also purchase a pancake batter dispenser, which may make it a bit less messy.
Cook them on the first side until the edges start to look a bit dry and bubbles form on the uncooked side. Don't be tempted to move the pancakes until you see the bubbles or they'll break apart. Flip them carefully but quickly, then continue to cook them for a minute or two. The second side will always brown better than the first, so serve the pancakes with that side facing up.
It's best to cook as you go with pancakes, but if you have leftover batter, cook them up and put them in individual bags to freeze. They'll reheat in the microwave in about 30 seconds per pancake.