Muffin

Muffin Tips from a Baker Who Has Made Thousands (+3 Recipes)

April 27, 2017

I was the muffin and scone maker at my first bakery job, at age 17. I would pull into the parking lot around 2:30 a.m. each morning and get baking, so there would be fresh items ready when the bakery opened a few hours later. I baked thousands of muffins, and I figured out what makes a great one (at least to me)! If you want to ace your own homemade muffin game, here’s what you need to know.

What makes a perfect muffin?

Like so many baked goods, what makes a perfect muffin is likely to depend on the eater’s personal preferences. I identify a good muffin by its crispy top, moist interior, and plenty of inclusions. (I once attempted to exchange a muffin at a bakery because I could only spot a single, lone blueberry.) There are a few rules to keep in mind—most importantly, not overmixing the batter. The more you mix, the more the batter will develop gluten—those dangerous protein strands which are desirable for bread baking but can make a muffin unnecessarily tough. Mix just until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and homogenous, then move on.

Gluten development, in a picture Photo by James Ransom

Cake vs. Muffin

What’s in a name? Often, just a lot of mental associations; for example, muffins and breakfast. I think just it’s a way we’ve collectively decided to eat dessert for breakfast. After all, a lot of muffin recipes are dangerously close in ratio to recipes for cake. Think about it: A muffin has light, airy crumbs and a moist interior, just like cake. The primary difference is with the surface. Domed cakes are often a no-no, but domed muffins are ten kinds of great. I’ve found the key difference to be that a muffin is acceptable to eat for breakfast, but cake is not. (No judgment to all you cake-for-breakfast eaters out there, though—I feel you.)

Make them big

When it comes to muffins, bigger really is better. A bigger muffin means more surface area at the top, plus a longer bake time, which means more time for that top surface to get crisp and awesome, in true muffin top form. To get a bakery-style, big ol' muffins, I use freestanding paper baking cups. You can buy them at baking supply stores or online (here are my favorites). They don’t need to be put in muffin pans, and can simply stand alone on a baking sheet—so there’s no need for a special size pan to get massive muffins of greatness! Fill your muffin cups about 2/3 way full—this ensures a nice dome on top.

No muffin tray necessary. Photo by James Ransom

Inclusions

This is where a muffin goes from good to GREAT. Don’t skimp on inclusions—they should speckle the batter enough that you get some in every bite. When adding fresh fruit, it’s best to toss them in a portion of the flour (about 1/4 cup to every 2 cups of fruit)—this helps keep them suspended in the batter during baking. It’s also important to mix very carefully if you’re adding delicate fruit (like raspberries), or they’ll break down a lot during mixing. Dried fruit and nuts can be added—leave them in big chunks so they add texture to the batter, or chop them up nice and fine to distribute them more evenly—whatever you like. You can also swirl things like jam, peanut butter, Nutella, or caramel into the batter. If you can dream it, you can make it into a muffin.

Flour the fruit before adding to muffin batter. Photo by James Ransom
Don't overmix! Photo by James Ransom

Toppings

I like all of my muffins to have some kind of topping, whether it’s a sprinkling of coarse sugar, a crumbly streusel, or a flavorful glaze. Apply the toppings to the surfaces of the muffins just before baking. If you’re using a glaze (like for my Apricot Oat Muffins), it can be nice to apply it both before and after baking. It adds so much flavor, plus a nice little glisten to the surface.

How do I even pick between the three? Photo by James Ransom

Baking

Don’t overbake your muffins! This can dry them out and make the surface too dark. Bake them just until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, or with just a few moist crumbs.

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6 Comments

Stefanie January 5, 2018
Well written! Thank you!
 
funklight July 13, 2017
I need more muffins in my life. Do you have any tips about how to adjust a given recipe to accommodate shredded veg? I have so much damn zucchini...
 
David July 5, 2017
Hello Erin. Your writing gives me hope that I can one day master the science of baking. However, I wonder whether you have any insight into converting your recipes into low-carb treats, using ground flaxseed powder, almond flour, xanthan gum, etc. It is so hard to find wonderful recipes like yours in a low-carb form.<br />Thank you!
 
Julia May 1, 2017
Hello, Erin, <br /> In regards a comment you made in your enjoyable article on tips for making muffins from April 27, 2017, you said under the heading, Cake vs. Muffin, that cakes were unacceptable at breakfast. I guess you forgot about coffee cake. Julia Gaczol
 
suzybel63 April 29, 2017
I love making muffins. After so many years, I find mine turn out pretty darned good. But I feel sorry for the last little guy that I scoop out, he's usually empty of most of the add ins. I have to manually drop extra in the cup. And my first experience was in Home Ec, the first thing we made was fruit cup, the second was muffins. Lo and behold they were tough with tunnels. I think everyone in the class had a turn mixing the batch.
 
French C. April 28, 2017
Great article! And delicious sense of humor. Thanks for the tips and recipes. I am in muffin heaven thanks to you!