I still remember the first quick bread I ever baked. The year was 1988, and it was a year of several firsts—my first time eating a falafel, for example, and also my first espresso.
It's nearly impossible to comprehend, but important to affirm for younger readers, how recently America was a nation where coffee was a generic brown fluid commonly produced in a large heated can known as a percolator. Either that or consumed directly from a styrofoam cup purchased at 7-11.
Cream was literally a powder. Steamed milk was undreamt of. Likewise foam. Likewise shots. If someone said the word venti they were either speaking Italian or making an obscure reference to the Roman gods of the winds. Asking for a macchiato would've gotten you slapped.
But I was talking about quick bread. My first quick bread was even more of a milestone than the falafel or the espresso, because unlike those, this was something I'd made myself. It was a zucchini bread, no doubt inspired by some unexpected surfeit of summer squash. With a successful effort under my belt, I soon branched out into banana bread, and then pumpkin. Oddly enough, I didn't do muffins until later. Maybe I didn't have a muffin pan.
Or maybe I didn't have a decent muffin recipe. I may not have known at the time that a muffin recipe and a quick bread recipe are interchangeable. That is, as far as the ingredients go. The cooking times and temperatures are going to need a little bit of tweaking.
But what this means is that if you have a favorite muffin recipe that you would love to convert into a quick bread, you can!
And it goes both ways. Your treasured quick bread can become muffins in less than half the time it took to make the quick bread.
What Makes Quick Breads So Quick?
Compared to yeast breads, quick breads really are quick!
That's because quick breads are made with baking powder, a fast-acting chemical leavening agent that produces CO2 gas when combined with liquid, which is what causes the batter to bubble up and rise. Therefore, once you combine the liquid and dry ingredients, you want to get the batter into the pan and in the oven with some alacrity, lest the gas expend itself before the heat of the oven has a chance to set the glutens in the flour.
Paradoxically, a loaf is a far less "quick" form of quick bread, because loaves take longer to bake. On the other hand, filling 12 muffin cups is considerably more tedious than simply pouring all the batter into a loaf pan.
Not to mention the fact that it's nearly impossible to spoon the exact amount of batter into each muffin cup without dripping batter all over the place, especially on the edges of the pan where it'll burn and smoke if you don't wipe it off first. And remember, you're supposedly trying to hurry so that the baking powder doesn't exhaust itself prematurely.
Let's consider the following ingredients in a basic plain muffin recipe:
- 260 grams all-purpose flour (about 2 cups)
- 1 Tbsp baking powder
- 1 egg
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 4 Tbsp butter
And now let's compare it with a recipe for pancakes:
- 260 grams all-purpose flour
- 2 Tbsp baking powder
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
As you can see, the pancake ingredients are essentially the muffin recipe with twice the amount of liquid. In other words, both are quick breads, but pancakes are runnier than muffins. Which makes sense since pancakes are cooked on a flat griddle, whereas muffins or quick bread loaves are cooked in pans with sides.
I bring this up because the secret to making pancakes (which is actually not a secret at all because I published it on the internet in 2015) is letting the batter rest for 15 to 20 minutes before cooking.
But wait! I thought we were in a hurry! Once the wet and dry ingredients are combined, aren't we frantically racing against the clock?
The reason for resting pancake batter is that you don't want to mix the batter until every last lump is gone, because doing so will overwork the glutens and make your pancakes rubbery. Resting the batter allows the lumps of dry flour to dissolve on their own.
Overmixing is also the bane of muffins and quick breads. And when you consider that spooning batter into muffin cups requires dragging a spoon through the batter, which is no different than stirring it, you can understand why it's so important to use the fewest possible strokes when you mix the ingredients.
And there really is no plausible alternative to spooning. Trying to pour the batter directly into the muffin cups is going to make a mess. If you have a mixing bowl with a spout, and the steady hands of a brain surgeon, then I suppose you could give it a try, but don't say I didn't warn you.
But what about the gases? Right. About that. You see, store-bought baking powder is almost always "double-acting," which means that it releases an initial burst of gas when it's combined with liquid, and then a second burst is triggered by heat.
Thus, while it's true that a certain amount of CO2 gas will be expended when the wet and dry ingredients come together, resting the batter does not affect the second burst of gas that happens in the oven. The only caveat here is that if you should happen to make your own baking powder (which you can do in a pinch), the homemade type will not be double-acting. It's going to produce all its gas as soon as you combine the ingredients.
The point is that if 15 to 20 minutes of resting isn't going to spoil your pancake batter, you can certainly afford to take your time spooning the batter into your muffin cups. Panicked spooning is messy spooning.
Converting From Muffins to Quick Bread
The main difference between muffins and quick breads is that muffins take significantly less time to cook. So if you're converting muffins to a loaf, check the temperature of your muffin recipe. If it's 375F, you'll want to lower it to 350.
And you'll want to increase the cooking time to at least 45 minutes, possibly longer, depending on all kinds of factors including whether the batter includes wet ingredients like blueberries, how accurate your oven temperature is, the size of your pan, and even what color it is.
They key here is to test for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center of the loaf. If it comes out clean, it's done.
Converting From Quick Bread to Muffins
Unsurprisingly, converting the other way is going to involve increasing the temperature, and decreasing the cooking time. If your quick bread recipe bakes at 350F for 60 minutes, try bumping it up to 375 for 30 minutes, or even 400F for 20 minutes. Again, use the toothpick test at around 15 to 20 minutes, and keep an eye on them. Once the muffins start looking golden brown on top, you should definitely check them.
Let me talk briefly about the fine art of filling muffin and loaf pans. Generally speaking, this technique will work for recipes where there's about 260 grams of flour, or approximately 2 cups. And whether it's loaf or muffin pans, you'll want to fill them about 3/4 of the way full.
And DO save yourself some heartache by using paper muffin liners. As a matter of fact, I'd suggest lining your loaf pan with parchment paper. The older I get, I realize that life is far too short to waste any of it prying quick breads or muffins out of pans (not to mention eating the mangled results). Learn from my mistakes, people!