If you know how to make a quick bread, you can bake almost anything. That means that if baking scares you, or if your sweets never turn out quite right, you should start here.
The formula for making, say, banana bread, applies to banana-walnut loaf and banana-chocolate cake, as well—and to so much more. Morning glory muffins? Yep. Orange-marmalade cupcakes? Works for that, too. Carrot cake? Same recipe, plus some glorious cream cheese icing spread on top.
All these sweets rely on the same proportion—one part oil, two parts sugar, three parts flour. Even if you don’t think you’re a baker, you can still remember that proportion, right? 1, 2, 3. And then, because the main components are so basic and memorizable, you get the opportunity to add mix-ins to your heart’s content.
That customization is the reward for doing all this baking: you get to have a slice of whatever cake you want. Even if you’re visiting your friend’s rustic cabin and you don’t have recipes or Internet but you do have eggs, oil, sugar, flour, apples, and cinnamon, you’ll be able to make breakfast or dessert.
Besides realizing that this recipe is your ticket to easy baking, there are few other things to note about quick breads. First, the method: You want to keep the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients separate until the end. Once they’re combined, mix as little as possible. That keeps the cake moist and the crumb tender. Don’t worry if you see a few swirls of flour—they’ll dissolve in the process of baking.
Second, baking times can vary. Depending on the depth and width of your baking vessel, your cake will take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to bake. Be patient, stick around, and check on your cake often to avoid over-cooking, under-cooking, and frustration.
Here’s how to get baking:
1. The fat
Responsible for that toothsome texture, that crisp top, and that melt-in-your-mouth texture, the fat you use has the biggest influence on all that’s good in your cake or quick bread. Traditionally, quick breads use oil, which means the sweets you make are both dairy-free and Kosher (if that matters to you). For oil, pick something totally neutral, like safflower or vegetable oil. Canola and corn oil are viable options, but they give a slightly flat aftertaste to the cake.
You can also substitute butter to achieve the luscious and nutty flavor only saturated fat can deliver. Melt the butter before measuring to accurately follow a recipe that calls for oil.
For most cakes and breads—a loaf pan, a 9-by-9-inch square, or a 9-inch circular cake pan—you’ll want to use a ½ cup of oil or melted butter. You can skimp, especially if you’re adding applesauce, mashed bananas, or other sources of moisture, but your bread will be better if you opt for the full amount.
The other fat source in your quick bread is eggs. You’ll use these when you combine the wet ingredients all together.
2. The sugar
Sticking with our ratio, we’ll add 1 cup of sugar for every ½ cup of oil you use. Of course, there’s no need to use 1 cup of exactly the same sugar. Depending on the flavor profile of the cake you’re baking, you can customize the sugar to fit the taste. That means adding brown sugar or molasses when you’re dealing with apples and maple syrup or when a cake calls for pecans. It’s perfectly fine to use some of a syrupy sugar instead of granulated or brown sugar. The only downside is that the batter will be wetter and the cake may need a few more minutes in the oven.
3. The flour
As for the #3 in the 1-2-3 proportion: that’s flour, and we want to use three times as much of it as oil. Measure flour by spooning some into your measuring cup, then leveling off the top without packing down the flour. A cake with too much flour is unenjoyably heavy.
If you’ve got your eyes open, you’ve seen all kinds of flour rush into the spotlight recently. Whole-wheat, oat, buckwheat, and spelt flours can all find a home in quick breads, though most will make the final product a bit denser than a full serving of all-purpose. My rule of thumb? If you’re playing with flour, do so with one-third of the total flour (that’s a ½ cup for our single loaf) and keep the rest plain all-purpose. If you like the result, add a little more next time you bake.
4. The fruit and veggies
Besides the oil, the fruits and vegetables you add to your quick breads are most responsible for the divine texture and supreme moistness associated with the best quick breads in the world.
Three full cups of grated carrots go into your oil-sugar-mixture right at the beginning for carrot cake. Likewise, one can of pumpkin puree will add both density and an autumnal quality to your pumpkin bread. Substituting grated zucchini will result in—surprise!—zucchini bread. And pouring in applesauce is an excellent start for the moist-est, most delicious apple cake ever.
Most of the time, I add these ingredients to the wet ingredients (oil, sugar, extracts, eggs), before mixing them to avoid over-mixing later. But you can also fold them in after. Really, both ways work.
5. The add-ins
Let’s start with the obvious: chocolate. Chocolate is a valid add-in for the following types of quick breads: pumpkin bread, banana bread, and zucchini bread. Nuts are even more versatile. I find that walnuts really perk up zucchini bread and carrot cake, while pecans play well with pumpkin. Either jibes with apple. If you’d like to give your quick bread more of a grainy or hippie vibe, then you can throw in some sunflower seeds.
And then there’s fruit—both dried and fresh. Though you’ll add bananas, applesauce, grated carrot, and zucchini to the wet ingredients early on, now’s the time to add raisins, dried apricots, dried or fresh diced apples and pears, or citrus zest. In addition to the walnuts, you’ll definitely want at least a ½ cup of raisins in your carrot cake.
If you want all of the add-ins inside your mouth at once, then Morning Glory Muffin Bread is yours to bake: The quick bread contains bananas, carrots, walnuts, coconut, and cinnamon.
Take out two bowls for your quick bread-making procedure. We’ve already made reference to this “wet ingredient” and “dry ingredient” situation, and so here’s a little bit more about it.
If you’re making one loaf, here are the “wet” ingredients you’ll want to beat together in your larger bowl (if your bowls are different sizes): ½ cup oil, 1 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 2 eggs, and your mashed or grated fruit or vegetable. As you beat, the mixture will thicken. Leave it at that—you’re not trying to create anything big or fluffy like sugar beaten with butter for buttercream.
Now, onto the next bowl. Into that, we’ll throw the dry ingredients: flour (1½ cups), ½ teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1 teaspoon baking soda. If you’re using spices, they go in here too. Bakers like to whisk this stuff together first so the salt and leaveners get evenly distributed.
Now, the combination: sprinkle the dry ingredients over the wet ones, and use a spatula to “fold” the dry into the wet, calmly drawing the batter over itself (leaving some streaks of flour unmixed is okay). Now, quickly fold in your add-ins: chocolate, nuts, fruit, or zest. It’s tempting to overmix here, but just don’t do it. Stop. Pour the batter into a greased, parchment-lined vessel of your choice and step aside.
7. Baking and doneness
Your oven should be set permanently to 350°F if you’re on a quick bread-baking binge. All of the forms bake just fine at that temperature—it’s just the time in the oven that’s adjusted based on the pan you use (see below).
When done, you want your cake, whatever shape and size, to have risen. The top should be quite a deep golden color, and the sides should be pulling away from the edges of the pan. When you press the top of the cake, the surface should always rebound all the way. And, if you stick a slim knife or a skewer into your cake, it should come out very close to clean. Loaf cakes present the toughest cooking challenge—sometimes, they’ll get too brown on top before they’re cooked through. To trouble shoot, turn the oven down 25°F, cover the top with a piece of foil, or move the cake one rack lower in the oven. Then, watch it carefully as its prescribed cooking duration winds down, testing every five minutes or so.
8. Different forms, different baking times
The loaf is where you will likely start out. We’re making quick breads after all, and loaves make great gifts and contributions to brunch. They’ll bake in about an hour. Burt there are other forms to play with.
To make a sheet cake, bake the batter in a greased 9-by-9-inch baking pan for 30 minutes. To turn any 1-2-3 cake into muffins or cupcakes, fill the muffin tins three-quarters of the way full with batter and leave in the oven for just 20 to 25 minutes (12 minutes for mini muffins).
Leave the sweets to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then pry them out gently with a butter knife and set them on a rack or counter to cool to room temperature if you’ll be frosting. Feel free to eat ‘em while they’re warm. (Quick breads also keep for days, arguably getting even better with time.)
Cream cheese icing is the frosting of choice. It brings out all the fruits and veggies in your quick bread so perfectly. Plus, it’s easy to make. Simply beat together equal parts cream cheese and butter, both softened to room temperature, plus powdered sugar to taste.
To make a show-stopping two-layer carrot cake, double the proportions given for one cake and bake half of the batter in each of two 9-inch cake pans. Once cool, frost the middle, top, and sides of the cakes with cream cheese icing made from 12 ounces cream cheese, 12 tablespoons butter, 1 ½ cups powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and 1 tablespoon maple syrup.