Quick Bread

You Say "Bread," I Say "Cake"

One baker's take on the differences between the two.

January 21, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Pop quiz: Which of the following does not belong in the group? Pumpkin bread, persimmon bread, banana bread, gingerbread, cornbread, rye bread, zucchini bread. (Hint: The correct answer has nothing to do with fruits and vegetables.)

I was all ready to say that the outlier on the list is rye bread—the only loaf leavened with yeast (rather than baking powder or baking soda). I was going to say that the rye is a true bread and the others are so called “quick breads”—most of which are actually cakes (with plenty of sugar, butter or other fats, and eggs) baked in loaf pans. For backup, I checked my 1990 edition of Joy of Cooking where you'll find a chapter called “Yeast Breads,” followed by another called “Quick Breads," to wit:

Quick breads are so called because they are quickly mixed and, with the absence of yeast, need no lengthy rising time before baking…These breads encompass not only sweet and savory loaves to serve as mealtime accompaniments or teatime temptations in lieu of yeasted breads, but also corn breads…, spoon breads, sweet morning coffee cakes, muffins, tender biscuits and…scones.

Based on this, I now see how one could argue that yeast breads and quick breads are simply different types of bread. And now, in the interests of transparency (and possible hilarity), I have to admit that I wrote this intro in the 1990 Joy of Cooking! In retrospect, I’m surprised (actually, annoyed) that I didn’t discuss the difference between bread and cake, and point out that many quick breads are really cakes in wolves' clothing.

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So I went online, where confusion reigns. Some info is downright ridiculous, and sources tend to quote each other. One source explains that the difference between bread and cake is that cake is light and bread is dense—and this is why banana bread (dense) is bread while zucchini and carrot cakes (light) are cakes. Oy! This is an interesting observation about the textures of things that we bake in loaf pans, but it leads to a silly definition.

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Top Comment:
“Hi there, it’s okay to disagree, but kindness is always appreciated here. :) I actually feel differently! Cakes are leavened by eggs or leavening agents. And while the way these ingredients interact is indeed scientific, the terms that cookbooks and publications use to describe baked goods aren’t scientific at all; they’re names we’ve come up with over the years. And they can change over time, and I think that’s really interesting.”
— Eric K.
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I see it from a baker’s point of view: Cakes vary in texture from dense and moist to light and airy, with all kinds of textures in between. Those with a tight crumb that bake nicely in a regular round or square cake pan often bake well (and make nice bread-shaped slices) in loaf pans. When we bake such a cake in a loaf pan, we sometimes call it bread (think banana bread, pumpkin bread). (By the way, loaf pans don’t work well for cakes with lighter and more delicate sponge cakes, chiffon cakes, etc.—so bakers don’t use them for these kinds of cakes.) But does the use of a loaf pan turn a cake into a bread? I don’t think so.

So what's the difference between bread versus cake?

For me, bread is predominantly flour and water and requires yeast and rising before baking. A few are sweet and/or rich (think brioche, Challah, panettone, stolen, babka), but most are not. As such, if you ask me, quick breads (even the ones that are savory or simply not sweet) are not true breads at all. And most of the sweet, rich loaves that we call breads (like those in the quiz above) are actually cakes baked in loaf pans.

Honestly, I don’t care if you call a loaf-shaped cake a bread; I only hope you don’t actually think it is one. Here’s how the issue came up for me recently:

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped into Standard Fare Kitchen and Pantry, a West Berkeley gem where you can enjoy a perfect salad, main dish, or snack served on Heath pottery, and eat them on a sidewalk bench in an industrial (okay, lightly industrial) part of town. I was ordering turmeric tea for my throat and inspecting the baked goods on offer when I saw slices of something dark and moist and laced with tiny black seeds and labeled "Roasted Squash Bread."

"Is that really bread—or cake?" I inquired (because I didn’t have my glasses on).

The young server’s answer was super enthusiastic and (because I was sure she understood the existential nature of my question) almost triumphant. “Bread!” she sang out.

Bread or cake? Photo by James Ransom

I was curious. Expecting a hearty and interesting blend of whole-grain flours and what-have-you, I ordered a slice to share and settled on a bench with my pals. Well, of course it was cake. It was also loaded with garam masala and ginger and had a fine crunch from poppy and chia seeds. I enjoyed it immensely, but could not let go of the fact that the server did not know that the use of a loaf pan does not actually transform a cake into bread—and that the correct interpretation, thus the correct answer to my inquiry should have been "cake."

Quick breads (even the ones that are savory or simply not sweet) are not true breads at all. And most of the sweet, rich loaves that we call breads are actually cakes baked in loaf pans.

My daughter was not present, but she would have been proud of me for not going back into the cafe to lecture the server like a cranky old lady, or even in the nicest possible way. I didn’t. But I did spend a couple of hours creating my own version of roasted squash “bread” with a liberal lashing of garam masala, chia, and poppy seeds. The result is addictive. So here is my homage to Standard Fare’s roasted squash "bread." Mine includes buckwheat flour and is gluten-free and entirely whole-grain, if you choose brown rice flour instead of white rice flour along with the buckwheat flour therein.

What's the difference between cake and bread, in your opinion? Let us know in the comments below.

7 Comments

Brynn C. January 28, 2019
The title suggests we also label "cakes" as breads too but I didn't see any examples of this (and I'm not familiar with what a quick bread is), just the other way around. What cakes do we call breads? <br />Where do cinnamon rolls fall on the spectrum? Maybe they're a category all their own, or a pastry, although they do need time to rise. And same for Indian breads, like bhaturas, which also rise but do not bake (rather, are deep-fried puffy deliciousness)?
 
Patricia P. January 25, 2019
Dear Alice. How about Beer Bread? It's mostly flour, baking soda/powder, sugar, salt and beer. Is it a cake??
 
Charli N. January 24, 2019
Interesting! I think it's actually a complex question without a clear answer. I think at the end of the day it all comes down to creative licensing — which is why it's so confusing! It's like when people I went to culinary school with started using the word confit to describe an endless array of things that are cooked in fat. It makes the term undefinable in a way, up to the creator to decide what they want it to be called/presented as.
 
Matt H. January 23, 2019
Nine hundred and fifty four words to argue that quick breads and cakes are the same thing when all you did was talk about sources you didn't agree with, fail to cite them, and then give you own personal opinion. <br /><br />The difference between cakes, quick breads, and bread is scientific in nature. Cakes are leavened by fat; quick breads are leavened by gas producing chemicals; and breads are leavened by yeast. Quick breads and cakes are therefore, different. <br /><br />Congratulations for you though on your self-aggrandisement. You must feel so proud for not having yelled at a service industry worker in public. Your elitism is sickening.
 
Eric K. January 24, 2019
Hi there, it’s okay to disagree, but kindness is always appreciated here. :)<br /><br />I actually feel differently! Cakes are leavened by eggs or leavening agents. And while the way these ingredients interact is indeed scientific, the terms that cookbooks and publications use to describe baked goods aren’t scientific at all; they’re names we’ve come up with over the years. And they can change over time, and I think that’s really interesting.
 
Marianne January 22, 2019
I would consider soda bread, which is a quick bread, to be a true bread :)
 
Amanda January 21, 2019
THANK YOU. I already owed you the best brownies I've ever baked, but this is just... icing. May no cake, rectangular as it may be, ever be ashamed of being called by its rightful and delicious name.