Is it a muffin or is it a cupcake?

I have been working on a Holiday Brunch class that I will be teaching in November. I was testing a recipe for what was called “Chocolate Orange Muffins”. Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful holiday bread? As I was mixing them, I noticed that the directions were a bit different than what you find in most muffin recipes. When they were done baking, they looked beautiful and tasted delightful. However, they tasted almost more like a cupcake than a muffin. That led to this Cooking Tip – just what is the difference between a cupcake and a muffin?

There are actually real differences between these two items. The first (and most important) difference is the Mixing Method. There are numerous different mixing methods in the world of baked goods. (Stay tuned for a future Cooking Tip that will explain this more.) For now, let’s just mention the Muffin Method, which is also known as the one-stage method. All the dry ingredients are mixed together in one bowl and all the wet are mixed up in another bowl. Then, the wet ingredients are mixed into the dry ingredients. Any mix-ins such as fruit or chocolate chips are then gently folded into this batter. Apportion the batter into your muffin cups, bake and voila – you have muffins. Recipes written with this method in mind have all the dry ingredients listed together and all the wet ingredients together.

Cupcakes are really just small cakes and therefore, use a method more appropriate for cakes. There are multiple methods for cake making but the one called for in my recipe is what is termed the Creaming Method. In this method, softened butter and sugar are mixed up until light and pale yellow. Eggs are gently whisked together and gradually added to the mixture. Finally, the dry ingredients are mixed together and gently folded into the batter. There may or may not be milk also added, usually alternating with the flour as you mix it. The longer beating results in a tighter and more even crumb. The batter tends to be softer and smoother than a sturdier muffin batter. When you see “softened butter and sugar” in the ingredient list, you are probably going to use the creaming method.

Ingredients are another distinguishing factor. Although they do tend to call for very similar ingredients, cupcakes tend to have more sugar and fat than muffins. One expert source quoted a ratio of flour to sugar at 2-3 cups of flour to 1 cup sugar for muffins (a ratio of 0.5-0.33 sugar to flour) and 1½ cups flour to 1 cup sugar (a ratio of 0.66 sugar to flour) for cupcakes. Most cupcakes probably call for AP or maybe cake flour. Muffins often vary this by adding in a whole grain flour or other “healthier” flour.

Cupcakes usually use butter as the fat while muffins will often substitute a type of oil. Cupcakes also often have other “cakey” ingredients such as vanilla but do not normally have many add-ins or fillings. Muffins, though, are a great base for adding nuts, fruits, etc. Cupcakes are generally frosted whereas muffins are not. If muffins are topped with something, it will more likely be a crumb topping, a sprinkle of coarse sugar or a thin glaze.

You will also notice Textural differences, which is a result of the different mixing methods. Think of a great cupcake you have eaten. No doubt that it was soft and very easy to take a bite of. Contrast that with a muffin – the muffin will be denser and a bit harder.

Size/Shape – Although not 100%, cupcakes do tend to be smaller than muffins. Muffins often flow out of the cup in which they are baked. Many people love these “muffin tops”. Cupcakes do not generally do that.

So, what about my recipe? Was it a cupcake or a muffin? The author of the recipe called it a “muffin” but, let’s take a look at it.

  • Method – it used the creaming method
  • Flour to sugar ratio – 2½ cups flour to 1½ cup sugar, which is a ratio of 0.6 sugar to flour
  • Fat – butter, no oil
  • Other ingredients – it called for vanilla, milk and sour cream
  • Add-ins – orange zest and chocolate chips
  • Final texture – it was very soft and easy to eat but a bit denser than many cupcakes
  • Size/shape – no muffin tops here
  • Toppings – none

By most of the above measures, this does appear more of a cupcake than a muffin although you might be a bit confused when eating it. As my husband said, it’s a little bit of both muffin and cupcake. Despite what you call it, it was very yummy and just might make it onto my Holiday Brunch table!