Sometimes a name really does say it all. Quick breads are the faster sibling of yeast breads, which we dug into with our first bread post. While there’s no denying the satisfaction of a fresh baguette whose inception has been 72 hours in the making, quick breads promise their own delight. From sweet to savory, standalone breakfast items to dinner add-ons, these breads may come to life quickly, but they are undoubtedly worth savoring for a long, long time.
The difference between yeast and quick breads is the type of leavening agent used to make them rise. Whether you’re a master chef or you just figured out how to turn on a toaster oven yesterday, you can guess the leavener for yeast breads (hint: look up to the first sentence of this post). The answer for quick breads isn’t as easy, so let’s just skip to the punch line: baking soda or baking powder. Unlike yeast, both of these leaveners react immediately when exposed to a liquid, so there’s no need to let quick bread dough sit and rise. It’s actually advised to do just the opposite: bake your quick bread as soon as you’ve mixed all the ingredients together.
Just as we had Bien Cuit’s Zach Golpher help guide us through yeast breads, we have another expert to share some behind-the-scenes details of the quick bread world. Amy Scherber is the founder of Amy’s Bread, an award-winning New York City bakery that opened its doors in 1992. Before Amy got up the nerves to write the business plan for what began as a small storefront in Hell’s Kitchen, she did what any aspiring baker does: She found an incredible mentor and worked with him to build up her baking chops.
For Amy, that mentor was Tom Colicchio, and the restaurant was Mondrian. Under Tom’s wing, Amy created breads to support the restaurant’s stellar entrées. Amy describes her time at Mondrian as invaluable, but as soon as she built up enough expertise, she turned back to her real passion, making bread the star of the show. And, at her namesake company, there’s no arguing that it’s front and center.
To begin our exploration of quick breads, let’s look at one that may seem, to the untrained eye, like a yeast bread (you can consider your eyes trained at the end of this post!).
Irish Soda Bread
Similar in look, texture, and even taste to many yeast breads, Irish Soda Bread is one of the original* quick breads. Dating back to the 1840s, when sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda) was first introduced to Ireland, this bread was only a slight departure from yeast breads: Wheat flour (same), buttermilk (instead of water), baking soda (instead of yeast), and salt. In the years following its debut – which began in economically poor communities for whom the non-perishable and inexpensive baking soda was a choice ingredient – more luxurious ingredients like sugar and caraway seeds started making their way into the recipe. These additions are what many Americans associate with Irish Soda Bread today, making it a bread that straddles the line between sweet and savory. Which is exactly how it ended up on Amy’s menu. “Customers were asking for something they could eat for breakfast, that wasn’t too sweet,” says Amy. Lucky for her, one of her bakers had an Irish grandmother with a family recipe, who was generous enough to share with the bakery. This adaptation, which comes chock full of “voluptuous raisins” is the perfect way to satisfy a slight morning sweet tooth. The acidity of the buttermilk keeps it a bit tart, so a pat of silky soft butter ties the whole thing together: Sweet, sour, savory. Happy breakfast.
*For the trivia buffs amongst you: There are soda breads that pre-date the Irish version. As early as the 1700s, Native Americans were using pearl ash (an early baking soda predecessor) to leaven bread. And recipes for quick breads were first recorded in 1796 in the American Cookery book by Amelia Simons.
(Cherry Cream) Scones
Sticking with morning-appropriate quick breads, let’s talk about scones. While there is still a debate over their country of origin (England vs. Scotland), no one argues that they are delicious. The nuts and bolts of scones are rather simple: flour, sugar, baking soda and/or powder, butter, milk, and eggs. It’s their affinity for additional ingredients that makes them so special. Amy’s bakes a swath of different scones, but an all-time crowd favorite is the cherry cream scone, which nods to a more traditional British approach, in which heavy cream is used as both the liquid and the fat (instead of a combination of butter and milk). This two-in-one substitute ensures that the scone stays particularly tender and rich, which is why the tart cherry is such a perfect pairing. So whether you’re enjoying it with an afternoon tea – in true Brit form – or not, you’re in for a treat.
A Google search for “biscuit recipes” returns 9,370,000 results. There is a brand inspired by them (Bisquick) and they’ve been paired with other foods to make some of the most memorable food duos (biscuits and gravy, anyone?). So to say biscuits are a “popular quick bread” would be a severe understatement. But we all know that a flaky, tender, fall-apart-fluffy biscuit isn’t easily made. So how does Amy do it? For starters, shortening. Giving credit to the American south, Amy says this is the only fat you can use for good biscuits. Her other tip? Don’t over-mix the dough. That flakiness comes from a gentle handling. Amy can vouch for the popularity of the biscuit: to keep up with customer demand, the bakers at Amy’s often find themselves staring at an entire industrial-size countertop covered corner to corner in biscuit dough, just begging to be cut in to perfect, oven-bound rounds.
Like biscuits, cornbread is another quick bread often associated with the American South. While its origins date back hundreds of years, to when Native Americans first ground corn to make a cook-able meal (literally), cornbread has a prominent place in modern cuisine. From classic BBQ or chili side, to Thanksgiving stuffing star, one of cornbread’s most standout traits is its texture. This grainy and toothsome feel comes from a combination of cornmeal and regular white flour, and helps cornbread stand up to spreads and sauces alike. (Some recipes use cornmeal entirely, which yields an even grainier, rustic outcome.) At Amy’s, cornbread texture gets taken to the next level with creamed corn that’s full of big, sweet kernels. Amy explains: “Cornmeal is so absorbent that is can take a lot of liquid,” which is why they add this alongside the traditional buttermilk. While purists may appreciate their cornbread best as is, it’s a quick bread that’s open to adaptation, from ingredient addition to form and presentation: Add dried cranberries to make it holiday appropriate. Cheddar cheese and jalapeño give it a southwestern flare. Make it into snack-able muffins (like Amy does), spread it flat on a sheet pan for perfect square cuts, or get very house-on-the-prairie and bake it in a cast iron skillet.
Banana Bran and Walnut Muffin
Some consider them breakfast. Others, dessert. But no matter what time of day you chose to eat a muffin, it’s hard to not be satisfied. One of the more indulgent quick breads (there’s a quite a bit of sugar, butter or oil, and often vanilla extract), muffins may also be one of the most creative. Think of a muffin recipe as a blank canvas, ready for the artful addition of your favorite ingredients. After plenty of her own experimentation, one of the most popular muffins on Amy’s menu (and Amy’s personal favorite) is the banana bran and walnut muffin. “I created this muffin for myself because I love the coarse texture of the bran with the sweetness of the ripe bananas, and the toasty flavor of the walnuts,” says Amy. When it comes to getting a crunchy muffin top – a characteristic so crucial to a successful muffin that an entire episode of Seinfeld was based on it – Amy has a tip: “There’s a lot of cold, dense batter when the muffin tin goes in to the oven, so you need a higher temperature to start.” Give the muffins 10 minutes at higher heat (~450°F) before turning it down to a more moderate 375°F for the rest of the bake time. Then invite friends over so you can show off!
Quick breads are perfectly friendly for new cooks and plenty challenging for seasoned ones. So whether you’re just dipping your toe in to the bread-baking world or are ready to try your 18th biscuit recipe, there’s a quick bread out there for you. Because, despite their name, these breads are worth slowing down for, so you can enjoy every bite, as leisurely as you like.
Up Next: Flatbreads and a trip around the world.
This piece is by Veronica Wilson. Among her former colleagues, Veronica is known as “the girl who started a breakfast club at the office.” From first-time canning to weeknight experiments, Veronica is a food lover but not necessarily a food “professional,” an eater who enjoys finding ways to delight in food every day.