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22 Dec 2019

On bread and definitions – Some time back, my friend Kevin posted a video about doughnuts, noting that he considered them bread since they are made with yeast (as opposed to “cake doughnuts,” which are made with baking powder). He added that some people might not consider doughnuts bread since they are not baked—and here he linked to the definition, which stipulates that bread is baked—but as far as he was concerned they were indeed bread. I can honestly say that I had never really thought too much about whether doughnuts were bread, but the argument made sense. Although bread is typically thought of as being baked, there are a number of food items that are not baked but which people still consider bread. When I make naan or other flatbreads, for example, I cook them in a stainless steel frying pan (with no oil) over high heat. A number of other breads are steamed, such as Korean jjinppang and the northern Chinese mantou. And plenty of breads besides doughnuts are fried, like puri, another Indian bread. So I have no problem calling yeast doughnuts “bread.”

“The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how vague a category ‘bread’ really is.”

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how vague a category “bread” really is. This led me down a bit of a rabbit hole, and I thought I would chronicle that journey here—since it’s been a while since I’ve posted something just for the heck of it. Let’s start by taking a closer look at that definition:

A kind of food made of flour or meal that has been mixed with milk or water, made into a dough or batter, with or without yeast or other leavening agent, and baked.

For good measure, we’ll throw the OED definition in there as well:

A well-known article of food prepared by moistening, kneading, and baking meal or flour, generally with the addition of yeast or leaven.

Both definitions stipulate baking as a defining characteristic, but what caught my attention here were the phrases “yeast or other leavening agent” and “yeast or leaven.” I usually associate yeast with bread, but these definitions are much broader, including leaven as well. What exactly is leaven? Well, it comes from the French levain, which refers to a small amount of pre-fermented dough that is added to a dough to act as the raising agent. (In modern baking, at least, French levain is a stiff pre-ferment, as opposed to poolish or biga, which are much wetter.) However, these days “leaven” (and, more commonly, “leavening agent”) can be used to refer to any substance (including yeast) that might cause the production of gas in a dough in order to make it rise. The most common non-yeast leavening agent is bicarbonate of soda, in the form of baking soda or baking powder (the former needs an acid to react to, while the latter contains its own acid, such as cream of tartar). If you do any sort of baking at all, you’ll know that baking soda or powder are used in many baked goods that are not traditionally thought of as bread, such as cakes and cookies. According to the above definitions, though, these things (including cake doughnuts!) are bread.

Is there actually any difference, then, between bread and cake? Well, as mentioned above, bread is generally leavened with yeast, while cake is generally leavened with baking powder. However, this rule doesn’t always hold. Some cakes, for example, don’t include a gas-producing leavening agent at all, instead gaining their volume and lightness through ingredients such as whipped egg whites or creamed butter and sugar. Soda bread, buttermilk biscuits, and the like would probably be classified by most people as bread rather than cake, but they use baking soda, not yeast. In fact, there is an entire category of breads raised with bicarbonate of soda: quick breads. Pancakes or flapjacks (in the US sense—flapjacks in the UK are something very different) are also technically cakes in most meaningful senses of the term, and even usually have the word “cake” right in their name—whether you call them “pancakes,” “hotcakes,” “griddlecakes,” etc.—but they are generally thought of as a quick bread.

So we can’t fully distinguish bread from cake based on the leavening agent. What else is there? Well, people also generally associate bread with savory flavors and cakes with sweet flavors. But this distinction breaks down upon closer inspection, too. Breads can be made just as sweet—or even sweeter—than most cakes. The first thing that pops to mind for me is cinnamon buns, which tend to be so sweet that I struggle to eat a whole one in a single sitting, but there are plenty of other examples as well. And, although they are perhaps not as common as sweet breads, there are plenty of savory cakes out there as well (you may be surprised at how many recipes turn up when you google “savory cake”).

A more subtle distinction might be in the texture. Bread—at least before it goes stale—tends to be chewier, while cake has a spongy, springy, but far less resilient texture. You can tear a loaf of bread apart, but cake will usually just split and crumble. This is due to the type of flour used and the way it is combined with the liquid ingredients: Breads are usually made from high-protein flours that have a lot of gluten, and that gluten is worked by kneading the dough so that it can hold the gas from the leavening agent. The amount of liquid used in a bread dough is always going to be less than the dry ingredients by weight. Cake, on the other hand, is made from low-protein, low-gluten flour, and it isn’t worked into a dough, it is mixed into a very wet batter. Even this distinction, though, doesn’t hold up in edge cases—this is why I said above that pancakes are cake in most meaningful senses of the term. We also have things like cornbread and banana bread, which are also technically cakes but called breads.

What do the dictionaries say, though? How do they define cake, and how do they distinguish it from bread? has two definitions that are relevant to our discussion here:

1. a sweet, baked, breadlike food, made with or without shortening, and usually containing flour, sugar, baking powder or soda, eggs, and liquid flavoring.
2. a flat, thin mass of bread, especially unleavened bread.

Hmm. So it’s either “breadlike” or just “bread.” Although these definitions differ from each other, neither makes any attempt to distinguish cake from bread, but rather presents cake as a subset of bread. The OED somehow manages to be both more specific and more vague at the same time:

A baked mass of bread or substance of similar kind, distinguished from a loaf or other ordinary bread, either by its form or by its composition

So it’s bread, but it is distinguished from “ordinary bread.” Again, this sounds like cake is in fact a type of bread rather than a unique food. What if we dig deeper into the history of the word? According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in the early 13th century “cake” referred to a “flat or comparatively thin mass of baked dough.” That definitely sounds more like bread to me (note the mention of “dough”). The entry goes on to say that the meaning of the word was extended in the early 15th century to “a light composition of flour, sugar, butter and other ingredients baked in any form.” But this could also just as easily refer to bread as cake.

Ultimately, even though people tend to feel that bread and cake are two different things, and the cultural connotations of each are quite different, there does not seem to be a clear, definitive distinction between the two. There are always going to be fuzzy edge cases, and I don’t think it is really possible to come up with precise definitions that will work in every case.

Cake is only one type of baked good that is related to bread, though. Look back at the second definition for “cake” from “a flat, thin mass of bread, especially unleavened bread.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds less to me like cake, or even bread, and more like a cracker. We might instinctively want to draw a distinction between crackers and bread, but that distinction doesn’t hold up historically. The Israelites in the Bible, for example, made unleavened bread, which is what we would consider a cracker today. Many modern Christian denominations use thin wafers for the Eucharist (or Communion) that barely qualify as food, let alone what we would normally consider bread. And yet officiants still call it bread. (I’ve also participated in ceremonies where cake was used instead of bread, and nobody batted an eye then, either.) It seems pretty clear that crackers can be considered part of the bread family—and if crackers are joining the family, then other baked goods like cookies and brownies also have a claim to the family name.

I can feel the threads starting to unravel here. How far, exactly, does bread go? Where do we draw the boundaries? If a cracker—which can be made with a simple mixture of flour and water (and probably salt)—is bread, what about other flour products, like noodles, pasta, dumplings, or Korean tteok? Could these all be considered bread, too? Surely this is madness—there must be some distinction! I was discussing this with HJ the other night, and she pointed out that noodles and the like are boiled, unlike bread. Bagels and pretzels are indeed boiled initially to get that chewy crust, but they are then baked like normal bread. Noodles, on the other hand, only need to be boiled to be ready to eat.

There is catch here, though: Although I did not include boiling above in my list of ways other than baking that bread can be made, there is such a thing as boiled bread. Bread dumplings are in fact quite popular in many European countries, and HJ and I had some when we were in Prague a few years ago. So boiling does not disqualify a food from being bread. But wait! I will now pull us back from the brink of insanity, because there is in fact a clear difference between bread and noodles, pasta, etc.: When boiled, the former will always be leavened, while the latter will always be unleavened. This is the distinction between bread and noodles.

That being said, tteok is a little trickier. There are many different types of tteok, and while some of these bear no resemblance to bread, others are more breadlike in their consistency. Baekseolgi, for example, although it is unleavened, very much resembles cake. There is also a tteok called sultteok that actually is leavened through the addition of makgeolli (an unfiltered, rice-based, brewed alcohol) and, for my money, could easily be considered bread. Personally, I have no problem calling baekseolgi “cake” and sultteok “bread,” but I would hesitate to extend the “bread” designation to all of tteok. For one, the rice flour for tteok is generally steamed first and then kneaded into its final form. Japan has a similar product called mochi, but this is made from glutinous rice that is steamed and then pounded into a sticky mass.

You might think that at this point I would present my own definitions for bread, cake, noodles, etc., to clear up the confusion once and for all. If you thought this, though, you haven’t been paying attention—there is no coming back from this to a world where everything makes sense and fits into neat little boxes that don’t spill over into each other. That is simply not the way things work. And that is the problem with definitions: They must be specific to be of any use, but the more specific they are the less accurate they become.

Let’s get autological and see how our dictionaries define “definition.” First up is

the formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, idiom, etc., as found in dictionaries.

This may seem straightforward enough, but there are a few rabbit holes here. We could, for example, start by asking what a “formal statement” is. More importantly, though, are the terms “meaning,” which leads us down the rabbit hole of semantics, and “significance,” which leads us down the rabbit hole of semiotics. But I am going to resist the temptation to dive into these today and try to stay up here in the sunshine. For the time being, we’ll just say that a definition tells you what a word means.

The OED has several definitions that apply to our discussion here:

3. (Logic) The action of defining, or stating exactly what a thing is, or what a word means.
4. a. A precise statement of the essential nature of a thing; a statement or form of words by which anything is defined.
4. b. A declaration or formal explanation of the signification of a word or phrase.

The last of these definitions is more or less the same as the definition above, but the first two take things a little farther. Here we have the idea of “stating exactly” the meaning of a word, or making a “precise statement of the essential nature of a thing.” Exact, precise, essential—these modifiers make definitions sound much more authoritative, but they also leave us very little wiggle room. And I believe that they are based on an illusion: that the universe is fundamentally a neat and tidy place, one that lends itself to clean and precise divisions between things. But the truth is that these divisions are artificial—we impose them on the world so that we can make sense of things. They may make the world easier to grasp and understand, but they rarely reflect the actual reality of things.

The word “define” comes from the Latin definire, which means to set the limits or boundaries of something. In the natural world, though, boundaries are rarely clearly established. The same can be said of the conceptual world. Venn diagrams are used to illustrate overlapping categories, which can be helpful, but we should not be fooled by the simplicity of these diagrams into thinking that categories have such neatly delimited boundaries. We might be tempted to say that a category is still like a circle, but that it is more like a gradient that fades out the farther you get away from the center. Thus things that conform most closely to the ideal example of that category would be found toward the center, while things that conform less and less to that ideal would be found farther and farther away—until you start reaching items that feel more like something else.

Even this way of looking at things is an illusion, though, because it supposes that there is a single ideal example of each category. There are, in fact, many ideals—in theory, there could be as many ideals as there are people who use a given category. In simpler terms, if you ask everyone you know to picture the ideal bread—and you could then somehow see exactly what they were picturing—you would probably find as many unique images as people you asked. Walter Benjamin touched on a similar idea in his famous essay on translation, “The Task of the Translator,” stating that pain and brot do not, in fact, refer to the same thing. They can both be translated into English as “bread,” but what a Frenchman thinks of when he thinks of bread is probably going to be very different from what a German thinks of when he thinks of bread. (Benjamin’s point here was to demonstrate the difficulty of translating cultural connotation, but I think the example works to illustrate our present point as well.)

Ultimately, definitions are designed to state what something is, but in the process they invariably also state what something isn’t. In the real world, though, there are always going to be exceptions, because things are never as clear cut as we would like them to be. Definitions and categories are necessary tools for understanding the world around us, but they are only models of the world, not the world itself. Perhaps you have heard the story of the king who wanted a completely accurate map of his domain, a goal that was only achieved when said map represented the territory in every last detail, such that it grew to cover the entire kingdom. In the end, you have to trade accuracy for practicality. We could probably come up with a “definition” of bread that accounted for all possible examples across every culture, drawing very specific lines around what is and isn’t bread—but it wouldn’t end up being a very useful definition.

These meandering thoughts could be taken in many different directions, but I think I will leave things at that for today. And, since it is highly unlikely that I will be posting again any time soon, I wish you a happy holiday season and much fortune in the new year!

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