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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I always carry three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's pie. My first cookbook, The Fearless Baker, is out on October 24, 2017.