Bread and cake: Both are delicious baked goods that require a certain finesse to get just right. But what is the difference between bread and cake?
You might be quick to say bread is savory while a cake is sweet. But is it really that simple?
When most people think about bread, there’s a good chance they’re thinking of everyday staples, like white, wheat, and rye. It’s hearty slices of savory baked deliciousness.
On the other hand, cakes are for special occasions or saved as an after-dinner treat. Their key ingredient is sugar and lots of it.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. There are a few fruits and veggie-based cakes like fruit cake and carrot cake. And of course, there are indulgently sweet loaves, like banana and pumpkin.
Before we look at the key differences between bread and cake, it’s crucial to understand why the ambiguity exists in the first place. We’ll start with categories of breads and cakes before outlining the major distinctions.
Categories of Breads and Cakes
A source of confusion about the difference between bread and cake is that there are so many types of bread. Plenty of bread borders on dessert territory because of how sweet they are.
Isn’t cornbread just a dense cake? And no one is confusing banana bread with sliced whole wheat bread or a nice sourdough roll.
Traditional Bread and Quick Bread
Sweet, dense bread loaves, like zucchini bread or banana bread, are also known as quick bread because they use a chemical leavening agent, like baking soda, rather than a biological one, like yeast.
Then, there are traditional yeast loaves that are best reserved for slathering with a hearty helping of jam or served up as a BLT.
Despite their differences, both types of bread are widely considered “not cake.” To explore their differences and similarities, let’s look at their ingredients.
Base Bread Ingredients
- Active dry yeast
- A pinch of salt and sugar (optional)
Base Quick Bread Ingredients
- Chemical leavening agent (not yeast, which is a biological agent)
- Fat (butter, margarine, shortening, or oil)
- A liquid, usually milk, sometimes vegetable broth, or similar
These ingredients will vary based on the bread you’re trying to bake. However, the basics remain the same. Bread uses yeast; quick bread does not.
Cake is light in texture, sweet, and served for dessert. You often frost and decorate cakes, and they’re considered a special treat.
Let’s talk about ingredients:
Base Cake Ingredients
- Chemical leavening agents like baking soda (no yeast, which is a biological agent)
- Fat (butter, margarine, shortening, or oil)
- Milk or other liquid
Does that list look familiar?
Yes, a cake is a kind of quick bread, which creates confusion around the differences between bread and cake.
After all, if a triple chocolate truffle cake and soda bread are in the same category, then why is one bread and one cake?
Quick Bread Leads To the Bread vs. Cake Confusion
We need to look at what we call quick bread a bit harder.
Cake technically falls under the umbrella of quick bread, despite our tendency to separate them into two distinct categories.
Let’s look at some more baked goods that fall under quick bread:
- Banana bread
- Beer bread
- Soda bread
You could say that the baked goods we call quick bread are actually just cake baked in a loaf pan. And you’d be right.
Ingredient-wise, there aren’t huge differences between cake and quick bread.
However, despite their sugar and calorie count, we still consider most quick bread loaves distinctly different from a traditional cake.
The Major Differences Between Bread and Cake
As you can see, the differences between bread and cake can get muddy, especially when you throw quick breads into the mix.
Real bread and cake are very different. Bread, like what you use on your sandwich, is primarily water and flour, and yeast. Depending on the recipe, there may be add-ons to this formula, but the process is essentially the same. You’ll make your dough, let it rise, and bake it.
A cake is made of flour, water, eggs, sugar, butter, and baking soda at a minimum. You mix up your batter and let it bake. It will rise from baking soda, not yeast, and the intention is to make a sweet dessert.
For simplicity’s sake, here are the differences between bread and cake at a glance:
- Yeast is the primary difference between bread and cake. Bread uses yeast as the primary leavening agent, while cakes use a chemical agent like baking powder or soda.
- Additional ingredients like eggs, milk, fat, and even flour type also make significant differences in texture and taste.
- Next, there’s the sugar content, but this can vary a lot by both bread and cake recipes. Traditionally, though, cakes have a much higher sugar ratio than both yeast-leavened and quick bread.
- There are differences between quick bread types, which can be arbitrary. They largely come down to texture, flavor, and sometimes culture. Some people serve pumpkin bread as a side, and others use it for dessert.
Let’s dive into laying out these differences in more detail.
The critical difference between bread and cake is the addition of yeast. It’s what makes a simple flour and water mixture into a delicious loaf, adding a fluffy airiness that goes perfectly with every meal.
Bread is almost all flour and water, and it requires yeast and ample rising time before baking. While true that unleavened bread exists, they’re not the gold standard for what most bakers and baked goods lovers reach for when preparing a sandwich.
Cakes also require flour and water to prepare the batter. Often (but not always), cakes need far more sugar than bread, and you omit the yeast. Instead, ingredients like egg whites and baking soda make the cake rise and are the cause of a cake’s fluffy and light texture.
In addition to yeast, another difference between cakes and bread can be the kind of flour used.
Bread flour has a higher protein content than all-purpose or cake flour. It makes for a denser, chewier result. This also gives bread higher gluten content than cake.
Cake flour has low protein content, so your cake will be fluffy and airy compared to bread. It would be best if you didn’t bake a cake with bread flour; the consistency won’t come out well.
Cakes, cookies, and brownies are sweet because they are a treat to top off a hearty meal. While they are calorie-dense, they are often lighter, softer, and sweeter than bread.
In most cases, dessert enthusiasts don’t enjoy a piece of cake for its nutritional value. Instead, they are something purely for the delicious flavor.
Quick bread is often much denser than any cake. That density makes it filling and nourishing because it’s intended to accompany the meal. It’s loaded with complex carbohydrates to sustain your body throughout the day.
In many cases, bakers prepare their quick bread with fruits, vegetables, cheese, and other vitamin-rich ingredients to supplement the nutrient content.
Of course, nutritional differences between bread and cake are only a general rule of thumb and not always the case.
Flavor profiles often separate quick bread into bread and cake categories.
Cakes feature sweet-forward flavors like chocolate, vanilla, honey, and fruit. More often than not, they come topped in additional sugary ingredients like buttercream, sprinkles, and candy.
On the other hand, quick bread showcases savory or spicy flavors with sugar as an appetizing backdrop.
Banana bread, for example, is often spiced with cinnamon to cut through the sweetness, and many cornbread recipes celebrate Tex-Mex flavors with the addition of jalapenos and cheese.
Personal Preference and Culture
Social norms, culture, and personal preference are critical players in distinguishing between quick bread and cake.
For example, in the United States, we consider poppy seed muffins an excellent option for breakfast but save gingerbread for dessert. Yet, both are technically quick bread.
However, in Italy, it’s not uncommon to nosh on a slice of apple cake with your morning espresso. Similarly, in Spain, a breakfast favorite features cinnamon-sugar-crusted churros dipped in a side of creamy chocolate frosting.
Cake and real bread are noticeably different.
Bread is a staple eaten at all times of the day. Cake is a specialty item used for dessert and special occasions. They overlap in 2-to-4 ingredients, but the recipe and preparation are always different.
Cake and other quick breads are the same things, with the primary difference lying in preparation and how and when you serve them.
Quick bread is pretty much cake that everyone is pretending is not dessert. This explains why it’s socially acceptable to enjoy a tender vanilla scone with your morning coffee, but not a big slice of vanilla cake.