The Muffin Method

27 Jan
Now, that's a muffin!

Now, that's a muffin!

Here’s another one of those basic mixing methods that can really mess us up.  Sure, it sounds like a day at the beach:  Dry in one bowl.  Wet in another.  Wet on dry.  Stir, stir, stir.  Bake and hope for the best.  But then, you pull out some sad old flat-topped muffins that look like moles have been burrowing their way through them.  And then, your day at the beach turns into I-left-my-sunscreen-at-home-I-lost-my-sunglasses-in-the-surf-and-there-is-sand-in-places-it-shouldn’t-be nightmare.  How hard can it be to make a muffin, anyway?  Slather on some cooling aloe and let me see if I can help.

You’ve got two basic options when it comes to making muffins:  you can use The Creaming Method, or you can use The Muffin Method.  As far as I’m concerned, the creaming method is for cakes.  What you end up with when you use the creaming method to make a muffin is a cupcake.  Tasty and all, but just not the same thing.  So, let’s forget the creaming method for muffins and focus on the eponymous Muffin Method.

Here’s how it works.  This is a method you do not want to use the mixer for.  Trust me, as much as you love your stand mixer, your muffins will be better if you mix them gently by hand.  More on this in a bit.

1. Whisk the dry ingredients–low-protein flour (White Lily is a nice one if you’re in the southern US, or use cake flour) together with salt, sugar, leavenings and any spices–together in a large bowl.

Whisk your dry ingredients together very well.  You are looking for even dispersal of the salt and leaveners.  Sifting doesn’t necessarily do a great job of this, so whisk all the dry together thoroughly, for at least 20 seconds.  More would be good.

2. In another bowl or a large liquid measure, combine all the wet ingredients–dairy (milk, cream, 1/2 and 1/2, sour cream, creme fraiche), eggs, liquid fat, liquid flavorings.

Notice I said “liquid fat.”  This is one of the points where the muffin method differs from the creaming method.  When you add the fat to the liquid, you want to make sure that all of the liquid ingredients are at room temperature.  You want the fat to be evenly dispersed throughout the batter.  For this to happen, you’re going to have to have the rest of the wet ingredients warm enough that the butter won’t turn hard on you the moment you pour it in the measuring cup.

3. Pour the wet on top of the dry and fold them gently together.

Let’s take a moment to really look at what’s going on here.  You’re trying to mix a lot of water-type ingredients together with flour that hasn’t been coated with fat.  Remember, in the two-stage mixing method, we coated our flour with a good amount of fat to inhibit gluten formation.  Here, we don’t have that luxury.  In the muffin method, we are pouring a ton of wet ingredients on poor, defenseless flour.  How do we keep from having dense, chewy muffins, then?  First, we’re using a low protein flour, so that’s a good thing–low protein equals less gluten formation.  Second, and maybe more vital is the way that you mix these ingredients together.  When mixing wet into naked flour with the intention of producing a tender muffin, easy does it.  You really just want to fold the ingredients together, making sure that you limit agitation as much as possible.   Old AB says to stir for a count of ten, but your ten and my ten might be different.  I say, fold the ingredients together until all the flour is off the bottom of the bowl and you don’t have any big pockets of flour floating around in your batter.  The batter will be somewhat lumpy, and it will be much thinner than a batter made with the creaming method, but you’ll just have to trust that it’ll be okay.

4. Scoop your batter into well greased (or paper-lined) muffin tins.  Fill the cavities about 3/4 full.

At this point, if you are leavening with baking powder, you can let the batter sit for 15-20 minutes.  This gives the flour time to properly hydrate.  It will sort of magically finish mixing itself.  Double acting baking powder gives some rise when it gets wet and then some more when it gets hot, so your muffins will still rise in the oven, even after sitting out for a bit.  If the recipe only calls for baking soda, skip this step, as the bubbles are all given up when the soda gets wet.  With recipes that only call for baking soda, you want to get those little guys in the oven as quickly as possible before the chemical reaction stops.

5. Bake at a relatively high temperature–400 or even 425 degrees, F.

So, why this high temperature?  To me, and to lots of folks, muffins are defined by their crowns–their majestic peaks.  In order to get this to happen, you have to bake at a high enough temperature that the edges of the muffin set pretty quickly.  The batter will set in concentric circles, from the outside, in, and as each “band” of batter sets up, the remaining batter will continue to rise.  The last to set is the very peak.  If you bake at a lower temperature, you will end up with a domed, rather than peaked, muffin.  If you like them domed, go for it, and bake at a lower temperature.  Just wanted you to know the “why” behind the peak.

6. Remove from oven.  Cool in pans for about ten minutes, and then turn out to cool completely–or not.  You could just go ahead and eat one.

After you’ve baked your muffins, you can test yourself to see if you’ve done an Excellent Job with the muffin method.  Cut or break a muffin in half, right down the middle, from peak to bottom.  Look at the crumb.  It should be fairly coarse but moist.  It should also be very uniform.  If you have little tunnels running up through the muffins, you know that you were a little too exuberant in your mixing.  The tunnels show the path of air bubbles as they passed through the batter and were caught by sheets of gluten.  The gluten then sets in that bubble-path shape, a silent reminder of your enthusiastic mixing.

So, to recap:

  • Whisk dry ingredients together thoroughly.
  • Have all wet ingredients at room temp.  Not the creaming method’s magical 68 degrees, F, because you’re not worried about the butter’s remaining plastic–it’s already melted.  By room temperature, I’m talking probably 70-72 degrees, F.
  • Fold gently.  Stop before you think you’re finished.
  • Let the batter sit (baking powder only).
  • Bake at a relatively high temperature.

Here’s a basic recipe to practice with.  By basic, I mean:  add any fruit, nuts, spices, zests that you want.  Add chocolate chips.  Change up the fat–use oil.  Experiment with changing up the dairy. Top with streusel if you want.  Make it your own.

  • 8 oz. low-protein flour
  • 3.5 oz. sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 6 oz. whole milk
  • 2 1/2 oz. melted butter

Now, go make some tender muffins.  No tunnels.  Oh, and I found your sunglasses for you…

For an in-depth look at other mixing methods, check out The Two-Stage Mixing Method, The Creaming Method, The Egg Foam Method and The Biscuit Method.  And for some great pictures of all the steps in the mixing method, go check out Joe Pastry’s Muffin Method Post.  It is awesome.

34 Responses to “The Muffin Method”

  1. John B January 27, 2009 at 7:59 am #

    Wow, can’t wait to try this out. Thanks!

  2. gastroanthropologist January 27, 2009 at 3:38 pm #

    Yes, bakers need not fear hot temps! Muffins need it for that poof.
    No mixers for tender muffin batter – and this also helps when you make blueberry muffins so you don’t end up with purple batter instead of muffin batter with blueberries in it!
    What’s your take on fresh vs. frozen blueberries for muffins and tossing blueberries in flour before adding (to prevent bleeding)?

  3. Daily Spud January 27, 2009 at 6:17 pm #

    I’m wondering now have I ever really tried to make muffins or have they all really been cupcakes (or what I would call buns). For the first time I think I have a clear picture of what the differences are and why (that’s what this blog is all about, ain’t it 🙂 ). Also interested in the response to the blueberry question above…

  4. onlinepastrychef January 27, 2009 at 7:03 pm #

    John B–Read your recipe for cranberry-lime muffins over at your place. They sound really good!

    Daily Spud–Hooray! If you understand the differences between muffins and cupcakes, and why they are different, I am doing my job! Yay–I’m giving myself a 100% raise immediately:D

    Gastroanthropologist–I say either frozen-not-thawed or fresh-not-mushy blueberries. Never frozen-then-thawed. I always just barely fold them in right before the muffins are “completely” mixed–when there are still large pockets of flour in. A couple of folds, and I’m done. I’ve never floured them, as I just don’t see that it makes a huge difference. I do take a few and press them into the top of the muffin batter (so their little tops are still showing) for added insurance there will be Even Berry Distribution.

  5. Chris January 27, 2009 at 10:31 pm #

    Goodness, what a wealth of incredibly useful information. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Are you sure we shouldn’t be paying you for baking lessons?

    Now I’ll never have to eat all those failed, lumpy muffins by myself ever again…

  6. effulgent7 January 27, 2009 at 6:07 pm #

    So glad I found your blog. Now I’m hungry though, and craving muffins. Nice job. 🙂

  7. gastroanthropologist January 28, 2009 at 5:41 am #

    I had to make blueberry muffins (we called them breakfast cakes for our guests to enjoy the following morning after their dinner) by the mountains! I had to use frozen – the little IQF wild ones from Maine. I kept them in the freezer till the very last second…they thaw so quickly and I agree, you don’t want that. Yes – I always sprinkled more berries on top and a little crumble topping. If you make enough of them you know exactly how much batter to put in the ice cream scoop for the perfect sized muffins.
    I’m a blueberry muffin over a cupcake (with frosting) person any day!
    oh, the flour thing…agree, its unnecessary.

  8. Maninas January 28, 2009 at 6:52 am #

    I made some failed muffins at the weekend. this article was just want i needed! THANKS!

  9. Tara January 31, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    Hi Jenni-

    I had been searching for the reason why my muffins were flat and not domed. I also wanted to have a recipe that would give me the really tall dome like you get in bakeries. I just made your recipe and everyone should know that these were absolutely terrific and everything that you said they would be… tender and moist inside with a slightly crunchy top.

    My only question is how do you get a higher dome? I had little domes on my muffins with filling the muffin pan 3/4 full. Can I fill it higher to get more of a dome, or can the muffin pan have something to do with it? I used a calphalon muffin pan. The only slightly different thing I did is used all purpose flour, maybe that’s it as I know you discussed the flour in your directions. Just curious on your thoughts to getting closer to that “bakery muffin” result. Thanks so much for this website, it’s absolutely terrific!!!!

    • onlinepastrychef January 31, 2009 at 11:21 am #

      Hi, Tara! Glad the muffins turned out so well for you! You can try filling the cups almost all the way to the top, especially if your batter is nice and thick. You can also add a judicious amount of extra baking powder. We don’t want any muffin lava flowing all over your oven, so I’d try maybe just an extra 1/4 teaspoon.

      I can’t imagine that the pan was the issue. If your pan is that dark Calphalon color, it would have helped to set the sides more quickly, which is really what you’re going for if you want a nice peak.

      Thanks for reading; it makes me happy to know that there are folks learning from and enjoying my mad ramblings 🙂

  10. Tara January 31, 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    Thanks for responding Jenni! So I take it the all purpose flour was in fact okay to use? I also live at around 5000ft. elevation, so should I change anything else with high altitude?

    I really appreciate what you do because it allows us “at home wanna be professional chefs, but can’t be” learn and have success in our own kitchens.

  11. onlinepastrychef January 31, 2009 at 4:44 pm #

    Tara,
    I’m glad you told me you live at a higher elevation. Scratch the add-more-baking-powder idea and just fill the cups a bit higher. And, yes, your AP flour is just fine to use:)

    I always say that we’re all home cooks when we’re cooking at home! We should all help each other be better bakers; I learn something new every day.

  12. Haniff February 12, 2009 at 6:00 am #

    Thanks for stopping by at my website, it’s been an honour ^^, yes your post made me don’t shy away from muffin anymore. I always Overmix it, thinking still not undermix ^^, now I know the reason. Thanks to you

  13. xiangling February 26, 2009 at 8:55 am #

    helo! boy, i LOVE this website! I have always been a why this, why that person … and I wanted insights on reasons to why we had to do the steps in muffin making! and of course, proper techniques. most people will juz giv u the recipe and expect u to magical conjure up good muffins … poooooh. So, my highest compliments to the creator of this! thank u very much! 🙂
    oh, my question is regarding the nuts and fruits that i would like to use, when shud I add it? with the wet ingredients? add lastly after he wet-dry mixing? and could I have the formula for a basic muffin please?

    again, my highest compliments to u, who has the good heart of sharing ur knowlegde to other bakers! Cheers! 🙂

  14. Leslie April 5, 2009 at 9:02 pm #

    Thank you thank you thank you for this educational post. I never knew there was a “muffin method” and what a differance it made in my muffins! Did I say Thank you yet?

    • onlinepastrychef April 5, 2009 at 9:04 pm #

      Hi, Leslie!

      You are welcome–but the fact that you are now producing tender, lovely muffins is thanks enough! 🙂

  15. Jess April 13, 2009 at 1:45 am #

    Hi Jenni!

    I second all the responses — what a great and informative article. I have a question about muffin crispiness — I seem to be able to get a pretty good texture and shape to my muffins, but what main factors affect the “crisp” on the outside of a muffin. I love love muffin tops that are a little crunchy to contrast with a soft inside. It seems like higher temperatures help, but when I cook at 425, sometimes the insides don’t get cooked.

    Are there any particular ingredients to use/stay away from in my quest for crunchy muffins (dairy, certain oils?), or is temperature the main thing?

    Thanks in advance!
    Jess

    • onlinepastrychef April 13, 2009 at 8:56 am #

      Hi, Jess–glad you stopped by; I hope you found some answers to your questions. 🙂

      Rather than messing around w/baking temperatures–which, as you’ve noted, have a way of leaving you with less than perfect results, I would apply a crunchy coating to the outside of top of the muffins before baking. A healthy sprinkle of Sugar in the Raw or even white sugar will caramelize in the oven and lend a lovely crunch. For even more of a crunch, pile on the streusel before baking. An easy one is more-or-less equal parts of butter, sugar and flour with a pinch of salt. You can also substitute some oats for part of the flour, add chopped toasted nuts and/or any spices/zest that will complement your muffin batter.

      As far as ingredients to stay away from, I’d not use honey in a muffin, especially if you’re looking for a crisp top–honey is very hygroscopic. As such, it’s good for keeping muffins moist, not maintaining a crisp topping.

      Best of luck with your muffins, Jess!

  16. Jess April 13, 2009 at 10:09 am #

    Thanks so much for the great advice. Moist batter = moist muffins makes sense. I will try peaking the whites and maybe adding a little sugar to the tops for crunch!

    Yum. I can’t wait to try some of your recipes.

  17. Amelie August 13, 2009 at 5:46 am #

    Hey that sounds like great advice ! I am going to try and apply that right now 🙂
    Thanks for using my picture as an example heheheheh I feel very flattered. I got my recipe from the BBC cooking site and they did say you’re supposed to only stir for a short time but I hadn’t understood why, so thanks for the explanations !

  18. Chein January 21, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    I have a muffin problem…..Whenever I bake muffins, then store them in a container after they are completely cool the next day the tops are always wet! I’ve even left them for hours before storing them, and still wet tops!

    Any suggestions?!

    • onlinepastrychef January 21, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

      Muffins are one of those types of baked goods that don’t really keep very well. I find they tend to go stale very quickly. For storage, what I normally do is cool them to room temperature and then bag and freeze them. When I want one (or three), I just take out what I need and warm it/them up in the toaster oven.

      If you prefer to keep them at room temp, don’t wrap them airtight. If your muffins are especially sweet, or you put a sweet topping–or just some sugar on top–they will draw moisture. Try storing them in a paper bag so they can breathe some. If you go this route, I wouldn’t keep them longer than a day or two. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to make a new batch. 🙂

      Good luck with them!

  19. Raffaella June 1, 2010 at 10:57 am #

    Well. I just baked oatmeal muffins (recipe from magnolia book) following all the suggestions I read. After many past attempts, the muffins came with a nice dome. FINALLY! I will try try to elevate the temperature to 425 instead of 400 and also add 1/4 tsp of more BP. I will post the results.

    Thanks.

    • onlinepastrychef June 2, 2010 at 7:40 am #

      Glad they’re turning out the way you want them to! Ain’t science wonderful?! 🙂

      • Raffaella June 2, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

        It is when things start to make a little more sense and is not just a matter of luck!! Always thanks.

  20. Raffaella June 7, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Hello Jenny,

    Hope you can answer my questions.

    – if I find a recipe that needs both baking powder and baking soda what should I do with the batter. Should I bake it immmediately or wait the 15-20 minutes. Or can I “convert” the baking soda into baking powder.

    -When I mix the wet into the dry ingredients should I use a wooden spoon or a metal one. Why some recipes do specify what to use?

    -Since I live in Cyprus there is no such thing like half and half. Can I make my own with cream (the one that can be whipped) and milk? If not what can I substitue it with?

    Thank you very much in advance.

    PS: ALL of my muffins look great!!! THANK YOU for sharing your knowledge.

  21. yankeegal October 12, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    My muffins turned out the best! Thank you so much for sharing! I make muffins for the kids every single week, and they have never turned out this great.

    I have been searching your site for something regarding cookies. Do you have a direct link to share? TIA!

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