Modern life is increasingly fast-paced, and we all find ourselves pressed for time on occasion. We’d all love to cook and bake the way our grandparents did, but sometimes the pressures of our lifestyles simply do not allow us. Luckily, this faster-paced modern society has brought with it solutions to some of our problems, and developed new traditions suited to the way we live, cook and eat today.
One of these solutions is the quick bread. The name itself sounds self-explanatory, but it can mean different things in different contexts. At its simplest, a quick bread is exactly that – a type of bread or baked good that is quick to make and bake. This could include non-leavened breads such as flatbreads, which in their most basic form require only flour, water, and salt as ingredients and can be made, theoretically, in a matter of minutes.
There is a more specific definition of quick bread however, and it is this type that we shall discuss here in this article. Namely, a type of baked good that does not rely upon yeast or eggs to leaven the dough or batter, and which instead makes use of food-safe chemical leavening agents for its aeration and rise. These leavening agents are fast-acting, and therefore do not require any period of waiting or fermentation before the dough or batter can be baked.
This definition includes both sweet and savory products, covering everything from bread in the strict sense of the term, to cakes, biscuits and cookies. It is a baking technique that has developed alongside our move into the modern world, and which has come to both speed up the production of traditional types of baking, and open up the way to many unique and interesting possibilities.
History of quick breads
For thousands of years, bakers relied upon the use of eggs or yeast in one form or another to leaven their products. This was often a time-consuming process, with the yeast often taking many hours to multiply, ferment the dough, and produce enough carbon dioxide to aerate it and force it to rise. It was also an inexact science, very temperamental and sensitive to the surrounding environment.
Environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity can greatly affect the speed of fermentation, and the quality of the outcome. Variation in the quality of the ingredients can also lead to inconsistent results, and so the same product might differ day-to-day or during different times of the year.
This all changed in the middle of the 19th century however, with the development of first baking soda, and then baking powder. These are chemical leavening agents which react in a dough to produce carbon dioxide, the same gas produced by yeast in a yeasted dough. The advantage was that they produce gas instantly once the reaction had begun, drastically cutting the waiting time by eliminating the need for fermentation.
In addition to speeding up the baking process, they also produced more consistent results. Being synthetic chemicals rather than biological organisms, their action could be more easily controlled, and bakers could be sure of reliable and predictable results every time. Moreover, as the gas no longer needed to be trapped within the dough over an extended period of time, a strong gluten structure was not needed, further cutting the time spent mixing and kneading.
Today, our baking culture has been altered immeasurably by the development of chemical leavening agents and the rise of quick breads. While many bread loaves are still leavened with yeast (there are some exceptions) for some of the reasons listed below, sweet goods such as cakes, cookies and biscuits are now almost exclusively baked using the “quick bread” technique.
Quick bread vs. yeasted bread
While the promise of speed and efficiency can be alluring, there are both advantages and disadvantages to the quick bread technique, with an increase in speed often entailing a sacrifice in some other desired quality. This inevitable compromise therefore makes certain types of baked product more suitable as quick breads, while others are best left to a longer yeasted fermentation.
As already mentioned, the advantages of quick breads are numerous, and include their speed and consistency. They require little planning ahead, and are much less labor-intensive when compared to leavened doughs. Environmental conditions are less of a consideration, and so reliable results can be achieved throughout the year. They also allow for the baking of unique types of products, using different flours and ingredients that wouldn’t be possible while using yeast.
Yeast fermentation does have its advantages, however. The fermentation of flour adds flavor to a dough, breaking down starches into sugars and creating many flavorful organic by-products. It increases the availability of certain nutrients, making the product more nutritious, and it can create textures that aren’t possible in a quick bread. There is more control and flexibility in the mixing process, given that the reaction starts to occur immediately in a quick bread, but takes time to build up and develop in a yeasted bread. This can give more control to the baker in certain circumstances, allowing her to bake the bread at the ideal moment.
Yeasted fermentation is therefore desirable when nutrition is a concern, and where most of the flavor will come from the flour itself. This and its ability to create an extremely airy rise in a dough with a strong gluten network explains why it continues to be used to bake regular bread. Sweet goods such as cakes and cookies on the other hand, which include flavorful ingredients such as fats, sugar and eggs, are the perfect candidates for baking as quick breads.
Quick bread chemistry
Quick breads rely upon the reaction of a weak base and a weak acid, which in the presence of water produce carbon dioxide. It is this carbon dioxide that aerates the dough or batter, creating a porous structure with a light, often fluffy texture. Weak bases used as leavening agents include sodium bicarbonate, potassium bicarbonate and ammonium bicarbonate. The weak acids that these react with can include citric acid (either in chemical form or as lemon or orange juice), or tartaric acid (cream of tartar).
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, and if used as a leavening agent requires the addition of an acid ingredient in the mix to act as a reactant. Baking powder, on the other hand, includes dried forms of both a weak base and a weak acid, and therefore requires only the addition of moisture to start the reaction. For this reason, a starch such as cornstarch or potato starch is included in the mix to act as a moisture absorber and to help with bulking out the mixture for easier measurement.
Learn more about how common ingredients used for baking interact with each other.
Working with quick bread
When working with quick breads, it is important to remember that the reaction between the reactants occurs as soon as they are mixed in the presence of a liquid. There is only a limited amount of these reactants, and as soon as they have exhausted their supplies they will cease to produce any more carbon dioxide. As quick breads usually do not have a strong gluten structure, much of this gas will quickly be lost if the dough is not placed in the oven to bake as quickly as possible.
For this reason, many quick bread recipes suggest using the two-bowl technique of mixing, whereby the dry ingredients (including the leavening agents) are weighed and mixed in one bowl, and the liquid ingredients are weighed in another. In this way, the two can be combined at the last minute, just before being placed into the oven. Recipes that also rely on rise from additional ingredients such as whisked eggs or creamed butter and sugar may require these ingredients to be prepared first and then gently incorporated into the other dry ingredients. Regardless of the mixing method used, it is important to not over-mix the dough or batter, so as to preserve as much of the gas inside as possible.
Classic quick breads
Some popular examples of quick bread include sweet banana bread and the Southern classic cornbread. Banana bread has a more cake-like texture, making it ideal for baking as a quick bread. Corn does not contain gluten like wheat, and therefore cannot be leavened with yeast like a wheat-based loaf. Soda bread is a great example of a more traditional wheat loaf that can be quickly produced using baking soda as the leavening agent, with buttermilk as the liquid acidic reactant.
The rise of quick breads in baking has produced some wonderful new products, and greatly increased the possibilities for both professional and home bakers alike. You may be wondering, however, if there is any way to get the best of both worlds – to both ferment a dough with yeast for flavor and nutrition, but also speed it up a little and take advantage of its unique leavening action with the use of chemical leaveners?
The answer is yes! English crumpets were developed with the introduction of baking powder, and use a yeasted dough for a general rise, with the addition of baking powder at the last minute to create a porous, spongy texture. They are a scrumptious, comforting treat warm from the pan and spread with butter. Get hold of some crumpet rings and try some for yourself!