There is a distinct difference between batter and dough and every baker should be able to correctly define each term. Each will determine how much liquid is in your baking mix as well as the method for mixing and shaping your baked goods.
What's the Difference?
In cooking terms, the word batter has two definitions:
- A mixture of flour, egg, and milk or water that is thin enough to be poured or dropped from a spoon. This includes cake and pancake or waffle batter as well as the majority of cookie batters.
- A coating, often of flour and egg though sometimes with bread, which is applied to food that is meant to be fried. For instance, deep-fried fish is often battered.
The word dough has a different meaning:
- A mixture of mostly flour or meal and a liquid (often milk and/or water) that is stiff enough to be kneaded or rolled. This covers many baked breads, rolls, and some rolled cookies.
With these two definitions, we can clearly see that the difference between batter and dough is that batter is thin while dough is quite thick. This plays into the techniques used to mix each type of baking mixture.
Mixing Batter and Dough
The consistency of a batter is why you can—the majority of the time—beat it with an electric mixer. This makes quick work of the process because the liquid to solid ratio is balanced to create a lighter mix that almost any mixer can handle.
The only exception to using a mixer for a batter is when you add solid ingredients like chocolate chips. Any baker who has attempted to 'beat in' chips knows that this is often too much for the average mixer. You will burn up the mixer's motor if you try to do so. If your batter recipe says 'stir in' any ingredient, there's a good reason and you should follow the advice.
On the other hand, a dough is designed to be thick and has nowhere near the amount of liquid found in the average batter. When making bread doughs, it's best to not use an electric mixer unless it is a commercial-grade or has a motor that can handle thick dough (check your instruction manual).
This is the primary reason why bread dough is often mixed by hand with a wooden spoon. Once enough flour is added and the dough becomes too stiff to stir, kneading finishes up the mixing process.
How to Shape
The last difference between batter and dough is how the shape of the final baked good is formed. Due to its higher liquid content, a batter often cannot be shaped by hand.
Drop cookies are in between a dough and batter. They are thicker than cake batters and will spread out and flatten during the baking process. There's no designated shape or form other than a ball of batter.
In contrast, dough is often shaped by hand because it is extremely stiff. This gives the baker greater freedom to choose the shape of their bread.
Rolled cookie dough and biscuits are often cut into shapes. Many sweet bread rolls are shaped by hand but use the sides of a pan for containment.