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Food is a lot like life itself—the more diverse the building blocks, the better. Take inbreeding, for instance. Cross closely related individuals too many times, and you'll end up with a sickly population suffering from negative traits.
So it is with zucchini bread, a quick bread (i.e., a bread made with fast-acting chemical leavenings, like baking soda and baking powder) that varies relatively little from one recipe to the next. One might say it's "in-bread." The common ancestor? As best I can tell, it's James Beard's recipe from his 1973 book Beard on Bread—though, of course, not only is his probably not the very first zucchini bread recipe to appear on Earth, but it's also based on a common quick-bread formula of one part oil to two parts sugar to three parts flour.
With few exceptions, most zucchini bread recipes follow his lead, calling for three eggs, two cups of grated zucchini, and similar flavorings in addition to that basic quick-bread formula. That's certainly true of AllRecipes' popular one, titled Mom's Zucchini Bread. It's true of Smitten Kitchen's version. And it's true of this one from the Food Network.
Sure, there are slight differences. The amount of sugar goes up a bit in one or down in another, the exact amounts of baking soda and baking powder fluctuate a little, and add-ins like nuts and dried fruits change. But overall, each recipe is working from the same blueprint.
Honestly, there's nothing wrong with that. Beard's recipe—and that quick-bread formula—works, so why reinvent it? The answer is that we don't need to reinvent it, but we can help by adding a little diversity to the mix.
For starters, there are a couple of things I and others don't love about that classic zucchini bread—let's think of them as negative traits. And, just like with inbred animals, these traits are a little too common in other zucchini bread recipes, too.
First, to my taste, that zucchini bread is a couple of notches too sweet. Second, I find it to be on the greasy side. And third, when I taste bread baked following Beard's recipe, I taste cinnamon, and pretty much only cinnamon.
Fixing these things, though, requires figuring out what we want from zucchini bread.
What the Heck Is the Point of Zucchini Bread, Anyway?
So what is the point of zucchini bread, anyway? This is a tricky question, and I've been grappling with it for a couple of weeks now. Take, for instance, the role of the zucchini itself. Why is it in a bread that's really just a loaf-shaped cake and hardly tastes of zucchini at all? The answer is resourcefulness. Zucchini plants are fecund things, producing pounds upon pounds of the squash, which has historically left folks trying to figure out what to do with so much of it. Thanks to its high water content and mild flavor, zucchini actually does a surprisingly decent job in an otherwise unlikely application, delivering a moist quick bread that doesn't taste at all like it has a vegetable in it.
Today, though, far more of us get our zucchini from the supermarket or farmers market than we do from plants we've grown ourselves, which means the whole dilemma of trying to find new uses for zucchini isn't nearly as common as it once was. Most of us really don't need to make zucchini bread anymore—and yet we do, often for nostalgic reasons. In my own case, my mom often whipped up loaves of it when I was a kid, so I have a fondness for its tender texture and neutral, sweet flavor that's pleasantly nondescript, which can't be said of the more particular flavors of banana bread or carrot cake.
All of this is to answer an obvious question one might ask when trying to rethink zucchini bread: Why not make it taste more like zucchini? We could increase the amount of zucchini in the recipe, maybe roast some of it to concentrate its flavor, or at least drain some of its water for a similar effect. I considered taking this route several times, but each time I came back to the fact that we simply don't make zucchini bread because we want to taste the zucchini. Frankly, since we're talking about a sweet confection that's more cake than bread, the idea of enhancing the green vegetable's flavor in it is a little gross, like sprinkling sugar on steamed broccoli.
Nope, zucchini's role is a functional one, providing moisture that helps keep the bread edible days after baking without contributing much flavor. Let's keep it that way, and just deal with those little issues instead.
So, What Can We Do?
Since I've decided to respect the basic premise of zucchini bread and not do something really out there, like turn it into a vegetable-forward savory creation, that leaves smaller tweaks. In genetic terms, I want to breed a recipe that has all of zucchini bread's desirable qualities, but dials down a few of those negative traits that I've traced back to Beard's version.
First up, I want to reduce the sweetness, since the Beard recipe borders on cloying. That's easy enough—cutting the sugar in half brings the sweetness level down to something I like. Some folks may find that version too austere, in which case a 25% reduction in sugar should hit the sweet spot.
Second, I want to cut the oil a bit—not for health reasons, but because my test batches of Beard's recipe left my fingers slicked with oil, which seemed unnecessary. Once again, easy to do; I just brought the oil down from a full cup to three-quarters of a cup.
But cutting the sugar and oil isn't without consequences, since they play critical roles in the texture of a quick bread. Namely, both sugar and oil contribute to a quick bread's tender, cake-like structure. In the case of sugar, that happens because the sugar bonds with water in the batter, which reduces the amount of water available for the flour. Since flour needs water to form gluten, and gluten toughens doughs while making them more elastic, any interference the sugar can run helps.
In the case of oil, the oil coats the flour particles, once again reducing their ability to bond with the water. What to do? An easy solution is to add a little yogurt, which is a trick some health-obsessed folks use when they want to cut the fat from their baked goods. Except I don't really want to cut the fat; I just want to make the finished loaf less greasy. So I go for full-fat Greek yogurt, which, because it's strained, is thick enough that it won't add too much extra moisture to the batter. Plus, it contains milk sugars, which, again, act as tenderizers, as does the yogurt's acidity.
The third step is to work on the bread's flavor. I've already established that I don't want to enhance the zucchini-ness of the bread, but I also don't want it to be as much of a cinnamon bomb as Beard made his. I start by cutting the cinnamon in his recipe from three teaspoons down to two, and reducing the vanilla extract from three teaspoons to one.
I've found through tests that light brown sugar subtly improves the bread's flavor, so, if you have it, that should be the sugar you use. (If you don't, an equal amount of granulated sugar works fine.) I also tweak the oil slightly by making a blend of neutral vegetable oil and extra-virgin olive oil. I've seen some zucchini bread recipes, like this one from Food52, that use 100% olive oil, but I found the flavor overwhelming in my tests. A blend sneaks in just enough olive flavor without going overboard.
Beyond that, I add crushed walnuts, and then I leave the rest up to you. You could leave it as is, or you could work in some other flavors, like grated lemon or orange zest, powdered or freshly grated ginger, a minced fresh herb like rosemary, or other spices (star anise, anyone?).
Is it the best zucchini bread? No more than a short person is better than a tall one, or a blonde is better than a brunette. They all have their place, and we're lucky they all exist. As for this zucchini bread, it's just a slightly different leaf on a tree where many of the others were quite nice, but too much the same.