What’s the difference between doughs and batters? We help you find out and give you the keys to success with every recipe.
Batter and dough are both flour and water mixtures to which additional ingredients, such as yeast, eggs, butter, and others, are often added. The main difference between the two is the flour-to-water ratio: batter has more water than flour; dough has more flour than water.
Doughs are mixed and kneaded, either by hand, in a stand mixer, or in a bread machine. The result is a dense, sticky, consistent mass that holds its shape even when it’s raw. That mass is workable; it can pressed or rolled into a flat disc, square, or rectangle—or formed into a ball, roll, and many other shapes.
Loaves of bread, bagels, baguettes, burger buns, pizza pies, Italian focaccias, and German pretzels are all examples of baked goods made from dough. Goods made of batter include biscuits, cakes, cookies, French crêpes, pancakes, Belgian waffles, as well as deep-fried foods.
In contrast, batters are whisked together with a whisk, a hand mixer, in a food processor, or with a stand mixer. The result is a thin, fluid mass that takes the shape of whatever it’s poured onto (or into), which dries out and firms up during cooking.
Kneading dough and whisking batter are laborious tasks. They require a considerable amount of elbow grease when done manually. Not surprisingly, chefs and home cooks choose to delegate them to their high-end food processors or vintage-inspired stand mixers.
Batter: Things to Know
Batters consist of more water than flour. The two are whisked, with the glutens and starches scatter into the water to form a thin, watery mixture that’s poured out of a carafe, pitcher, or batter dispenser and baked onto flat-top grills, cast iron griddles, frying pans, and cupcake trays.
Flours with a high gluten content yield chewy baked goods. Although this is desirable in bread or pasta, the same can’t be said for cakes and crêpes. When in doubt, make your batters out of soft, feathery flours with a low gluten content, like cake flour.
Celebrity chefs and cookbook authors often suggest letting batters sit for several hours to allow the ingredients to combine. However, they forget to mention that this must be done in the refrigerator, especially if you want to let the batter, a highly perishable food item that often contains dairy and/or eggs, rest for longer than 1-2 hours.
Some goods made from batter—for example, pancakes—are prepared on a hot frypan on the stove. Others, such as cupcakes and muffins, are poured into trays with molds and baked in the oven. Waffles require special equipment, the waffle maker.
Meats, seafood, cheeses, and produce can also be dipped in batter, then dipped in hot oil for shallow-frying or completely submerged in it for deep-frying. The batter crisps up and turns golden brown, and the meat stays moist and tender.
Batters can be leavened by steam, the leavening agent in cake, which is produced when the water inside the batter gets heated and turns into vapor. Creaming and whipping are also ways to leaven batter for a lighter, less dense cake, which many recipes utilize.
Drop Batter, Pour Batter, Coating Batter
Generally, batters fall into one of three categories: drop batter, pour batter, and coating batter.
Drop batters and pour batters are on the sweeter side, as they are mostly used for preparing desserts. Coating batters are on the savory side since they’re used for frying and baking battered meats, cheeses, and vegetables.
Drop batters consist of more flour than water, which makes them thick and pasty. As their name implies, they can be dropped from a bowl, spoon, or scoop into a cake, muffin, or cookie sheet without running.
Pour batters consist of more water than flour, which makes them wet and runny. They go in a carafe, pitcher, or batter dispenser and are poured into/onto shape, whether for French crêpes, American pancakes or Belgian waffles.
Coating batters are wet batters, usually consisting of 1 part flour and 2 parts water, beer, or cider (using a carbonated beverage instead of water makes the batter airier). They are mixed, poured in a pan, and foods are dipped into them for shallow-frying, deep-frying, air-frying, or baking.
Why We Fry Foods in Batter
When we boil water, its temperature doesn’t exceed 212°F (100°C) under normal circumstances. Browning and caramelization, which give our food a golden-brown color, an inviting aroma, and a rich, savory flavor occur at temperatures well above water’s boiling point.
This is why we fry foods in oil, which gets much hotter than the minimum temperatures required for browning and caramelization to take place.
But oil, although a liquid, also dries out our food by evaporating the moisture from the surface (hence the bubbles that appear as soon as you dip a new batch of food into the deep frier or a pot of hot oil).
When we dip foods in batter before submerging them in oil, we give them a coating that protects them from drying out on the surface by the time the heat cooks them all the way through to the middle.
As an added benefit, that crust comes out crispy, crunchy, golden-brown, and full of flavor.
Dough: Things to Know
As a rule of thumb, doughs consist of more flour than water. The water gets incorporated into the dough and combines with the gluten and starches in it to form a dense, elastic mass that’s mixed and kneaded, optionally, proofed and/or leavened, then shaped and cooked.
Some goods made of dough—such as loaves of bread, pizza pies, and sweet or savory pies—are baked. Others, like pasta, noodles, and dumplings, are boiled in generously salted water. Then there are those that are deep-fried, such as county fair fried dough or pizza fritta.
Leavened vs. Unleavened Dough
To leaven dough is, in layman’s terms, to make it rise. By that definition, leavened dough is dough that has risen, and unleavened dough is dough nary risen nor meant to rise.
Adding an organic leavener, like yeast or sourdough starter, or a chemical leavener, like baking soda or baking powder, creates carbon dioxide bubbles in the dough. These gas bubbles get trapped inside the dense structure of the wet flour, making it light and airy, and causing it to rise.
The organic leavener that we use in doughs is called yeast.
Yeast is a tiny living organism composed of a single cell that feeds on the sugars in the dough and farts out ethanol and carbon dioxide as a byproduct of its feast.
The ethanol—basically, alcohol—enriches the smell and taste of the dough; the carbon dioxide build-up is what causes it to leaven.
There are three types of yeast: fresh yeast, active dry yeast, and instant yeast.
Fresh yeast, also known as “cake yeast,” is perishable. It must be kept in the fridge, where it lasts for a week or two, or in the freezer, where it lasts for a few months. Soft and crumbly, it’s the oldest type of commercially sold yeast and can be found in tiny cakes in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.
Active dry yeast was invented in the 1940s. It’s made of granules of dehydrated and thus dormant yeast cells, surrounded by a crust of dead yeast cells that protects them from the outside world. It needs to be proofed before use.
Instant yeast was invented in the 1970s. It consists of dormant yeast cells that are brought back to life as soon as they come into contact with water. It’s just as good as fresh yeast or active dry yeast, and is by far the most convenient type of yeast to use: Simply open the sachet, add to the dough, then mix it in.
Chemical leavening agents such as baking soda and baking powder take advantage of a chemical reaction that takes place when a base is mixed with an acid: The mixture bubbles up, producing carbon dioxide. The gas bubbles get trapped in the dough, leavening it and making it airy.
Baking soda consists of sodium bicarbonate, the base. For it to bubble up, it must be mixed with an acidic liquid such as buttermilk, yogurt, lemon juice or vinegar. Baking powder, on the other hand, contains both the base and the acid; it is a two-in-one solvent that only needs to be moistened to work.
Baking powder was invented after baking soda, and is the better option of the two to use. It contains two types of acid: one that’s activated by moisture, and one that’s activated by heat. So it makes your baked goods rise on the pastry mat as well as in the oven.
Both baking soda and baking powder are sold in sachets and carried by virtually every supermarket. They can be stored in a cabinet or your pantry at room temperature, and work best when they are used up immediately after opening.
Organic Leaveners vs. Chemical Leaveners
Chemical leaveners are quick and easy to use. Organic leaveners, on the other hand, take time and need a specific temperature range and humidity level to stay alive and do their job. That said, organic leaveners produce dough with a sturdier structure, richer aroma, and deeper flavor.
As much as we try to replicate the wonders of fermentation, the natural process of the yeast cells feeding on the sugars in the dough, chemical leaveners simply don’t rise to the challenge as well as yeast does.
Lean Dough vs. Enriched Dough
A lean dough is a dough that consists of flour and water, and optionally salt, and/or a leavening agent.
An enriched dough contains “rich” ingredients like butter, eggs, sugar, and whole milk, which add delectability and decadence to the end product.
Lean doughs are used for baking loaves of bread, pizza pies, and focaccias. Enriched doughs, on the other hand, are used for brioche buns (the kind we use for burgers), croissants, sweetbreads, and other baked goods with a flaky texture and a dessert-like sweetness to them.
Lean doughs can safely be left out to rise at room temperature for hours on end. Enriched doughs contain dairy and poultry products, which makes them highly perishable at room temperature. For this reason, they should only sit out for 1-2 hours or be refrigerated. (Refrigeration significantly slows down the rise, but doesn’t halt it.)
Tips for Baking at Home
Stick to fresh ingredients. Buy your flour bags, yeast sachets, and all other ingredients that go into your homemade batters and doughs fresh. Store leftovers properly, in airtight food containers or mason jars, and use them within a few weeks to a few months.
Rest batters (in the fridge). Once you’ve mixed your batters, transfer them to airtight food storage containers and refrigerate them for 3-4 hours to allow the dry ingredients to absorb moisture and all the aromas and flavors to meld together. Your desserts and fried foods will come out more fragrant and flavorsome than otherwise.
Select your flour accordingly. Cake flour is called this way because it contains 8-9% gluten, and it’s the right type of flour to use for desserts. Gluten, the plant protein in wheat, yields tough, chewy baked goods. Rustic breads, baguettes, and bagels, on the other hand, benefit from hard, high-gluten flour.
Give the yeast the time it needs. Slow down the fermentation of yeast-leavened doughs by putting them in a bowl, covering the bowl with plastic wrap, and storing it for 24 to 48 hours in the fridge. The slower the fermentation, the richer the aroma and more complex the dough’s flavors.
Mind the temperature. Always preheat your oven for 20-30 minutes before baking in it. Pizza, with a high hydration, thin crust, and wet toppings, needs high heat—as high as your oven goes—to dry out, puff up, and get crispy. Cakes, breads, and pies need moderate temperature, so that the crust doesn’t burn by the time the interior is cooked.