The Complete Guide To Quick Breads

What is a quick bread, exactly? Essentially, any loaf that is leavened with baking soda or baking powder instead of yeast (and/or the air trapped in beaten eggs). Banana bread is one quick bread example, but there are lots more loaves that fit the bill—cornbread actually counts as a quick bread too.


Are quick breads always sweet? No, but they do often skew sweet. In a way, quick breads are a hybrid of bread and cake, a fact that suggests how versatile they are, and how adaptable. Add more fat, an extra egg, and up the sweetener, and you've got something that could stand in as dessert. Keep things lean, and a slice of quick bread is a fine-textured alternative to yeasted bread. Cornbread can go either way (more sweet, or less), but beer bread counts as a (usually) savory quick bread.

In fact, quick breads are a huge category of baked goods, spanning many flours, textures, sweetness levels, and personalities.

Why are quick breads quick?

They're quicker to make than yeast breads, though not exactly "quick," the way we understand the word in this age of the wi-fi super-router. The reason baking soda–leavened breads came to be known as quick has everything to do with history. Which brings us to...


A Quick History of Quick Bread

Before the U.S. Civil War, there were beaten biscuits, there were unleavened johnny cakes (a kind of cornmeal flatbread), and there were old-fashioned pound or sponge cakes, leavened by beating egg whites until fluffy and folding them into a batter, gênoise style. There were, of course, good old-fashioned sourdough and yeast bread loaves too.


Breads raised by baking soda—like our beloved banana bread—were unknown.

But in 1846, baking soda—sodium bicarbonate—showed up on the scene. New York bakers John Dwight and Austin Church released what would be known, popularly, as saleratus, a thing first refined in France in the 1790s. When incorporated into a batter containing vinegar or soured milk, saleratus would cause a simple chemical reaction that released gas bubbles, yielding breads and cakes with an open, minutely honeycombed texture that registered on the tongue as lightness. The quick bread was born.

The significance of baking powder

A decade later, in 1856, there was a further innovation: baking powder, a mixture of a carbonate or bicarbonate and a weak acid (like tartaric acid, for instance), which meant you didn't need to include an acidic agent in the batter itself.


By itself, baking powder might have been a useful niche product to a nation used to yeasted breads and labor-intensive baking. Then: the Civil War. Within a couple of years, the U.S. was scrambling to fill the gaps in a labor force decimated by war. Suddenly shortcuts, like "quick" breads that would obviate the need for the hand labor, were essential. America developed a liking for baking powder biscuits, for soda breads and scones.

In 1889, the first mega-brand of baking powder was born: Calumet, manufactured in what would come to be known as Calumet City, Illinois, has been leavening cakes, breads, and biscuits ever since.

How Does Quick Bread Work?

Just like making pancakes, assembling a quick bread batter calls for two mixtures—from two separate bowls—becoming one. It's so simple, so ingrained in every cook's notion of mixing, it sounds a little ridiculous to break it down, but:


You start by blending the dry ingredients in one bowl—flour, salt, ground spices, and the leavening agent or (if the recipe calls for a mix of baking powder and baking soda) agents. In bowl two, the wets: eggs, liquid fat, milk or other liquid—often acidic ones, like buttermilk or sour cream, to activate the leavening agent. Stir them together, mix in any chunky things, like nuts, dried fruit, or chocolate bits, and bake, in a loaf pan in a moderate oven.

What does baking powder do?

What happens, mostly in the oven, is an act of chemical aeration. A weak acid meets a weak base, and a chemical reaction—the production of carbon dioxide—results. This, of course, produces air pockets in a dough, boosting volume and creating a sensation of lightness and softness on the tongue, while causing that familiar swollen and cracked top. Unlike yeasted breads, which undergo leavening from a number of conditions, all of which have to be working in the correct way, quick breads offer reliable results, time after time.


What is a weak base?

The combo of weak acids and bases is familiar to anyone who's done any baking: baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)—the weak base—allied with cream of tartar, buttermilk or yogurt, or lemon juice, all weak acids. Quick breads that rely solely on baking soda as a base are often called soda breads, like the St. Patrick's Day favorite, Irish Soda Bread. Baking powder, by contrast, contains both an acid and a base—all it needs is a liquid of some kind to start the reaction that produces carbon dioxide, and your quick bread is on the road to rising.


Are all quick breads bread?

Though we think of quick breads as actual breads—loaves of banana or zucchini bread, say—they can be a lot of things. Technically, chemically leavened quick breads come in four types, classified by the consistency of the batter (or dough, for that matter—though we're not considering them here, chemically leavened cookie doughs and pie crusts are definitely in the same category as quick breads).