If you've ever been to the United Kingdom or Ireland, you might wonder why when you see "pudding" isn't always a creamy chocolate- or banana-flavored dish served with whipped cream on top; instead, it comes in many forms, including some that are not sweet and not served as dessert. Americans would call the sweet forms "dessert," with "pudding" reserved for the aforementioned very limited creamy types of dessert.
In both Britain and Ireland, the difference between pudding and dessert is quite confusing not just to Americans, but even to natives. Some say they think it is a lingering result of the class system, and to some extent, this does have some influence, though the edges are now very blurred. There are more easily defined differences that have to do more with the content of the dish, whether it is light in substance and content, stylish restaurant-style, or homely.
But the most obvious difference in the U.K. and Ireland between a pudding and a dessert is that a dessert must be sweet, but a pudding can be sweet or savory.
British and Irish food is awash with savory puddings: Yorkshire pudding served with roast beef in a traditional Sunday lunch; black pudding; or a winter-warming steak and kidney pudding. These dishes are all called puddings but are most definitely not sweet.
A Pudding Is Homely and Rustic
A pudding is often considered a more homely, rustic, or a traditional recipe. Often, but not always, when the word "pudding" is used in Britain or Ireland it conjures up an image of great British puddings like spotted dick, rice pudding, or roly-poly. A pudding is often baked, almost always contains a good helping of starch, and often also contains suet; just think about a traditional Christmas pudding or a steamed sponge with custard.
A Dessert Is Lighter, More Sophisticated
A dessert is often not cooked, and if it is cooked it is lighter and more sophisticated than the puddings mentioned here. Good examples are chocolate mousse, light, and refreshing Champagne jelly, souffle, fools, brulees, or trifle. There are of course many, many more. A dessert is also a more like a confection a chef might present than a homespun recipe.
Class Makes a Bit of Difference
Though many don't like to admit it, using the term "pudding" or "dessert" in the U.K has connotations of class. Using "dessert" is thought to be posher than a homely pudding. Yet, in upper-class circles (or among those who aspire to be) you rarely hear the word "dessert" used.
The class distinction has eroded, with more traditional recipes making a fashionable comeback in recent times; many restaurants (including top-end ones) use "pudding" to refer to the sweet course on menus.