Muffins are a deceptively simple thing to bake. Child’s play. One of the early recipes kids learn to make, along with cookies and cupcakes. And yet, like many things that appear simple, a truly excellent muffin takes–not more effort–but more know-how to achieve. No matter your favorite recipe, any batch of muffins can be taken to the next level with a little more knowledge than shows up in the ingredients list. Here are my top 10 muffin hacks gleaned from my Etsy bake shop experience baking enough muffins to wrap around the planet. (I’ve baked the umpty-billion muffins to learn all this so you don’t have to! You can just bake enough for you!)
1. Use room temperature ingredients. I learn a lot of things by accident. When I’m baking muffins for hours, I’m not putting milk, butter, and eggs in and out of the fridge. I leave them out on the counter at the ready. I started realizing that an hour or two into baking, the muffins looked fluffier than the first few batches. When ingredients are at room temperature, eggs, butter, and milk more easily form an emulsion, which traps air and creates lighter, fluffier baked goods.
2. Use yogurt or sour cream in your recipe. If your recipe doesn’t call for yogurt or sour cream, replace part of the milk in the recipe with yogurt or sour cream. I recommend 1/4 cup yogurt or sour cream for a typical muffin recipe. (By typical, I mean a recipe size that will produce 12 standard size muffins.) The creaminess of yogurt or sour cream will help keep your muffins moist, and contribute to fluffiness.
3. Speaking of moist, use oil rather than butter in your recipe. Again, this is tip that contributes to tenderness of the final product. It’s what we all crave–a well-baked muffin that is both moist and delicious. There’s nothing worse than a dry muffin.
4. Don’t be afraid of baking powder. If your recipe calls for a tablespoon, use a slightly heaping tablespoon. It will be okay. I’m not suggesting going out of control here and adding a massive extra amount of baking powder, but a little extra baking powder will give you a little extra rise. We all like a beautiful, tall muffin! (Aside: I got over my fear of using extra baking powder one day when I was watching a show on Food Network and somebody asked Chef Alex Guarnaschelli how she makes fluffy pancakes. She gave some smart-sounding advice you’d expect from a chef then laughed and admitted, “I just use more baking powder.”)
5. Don’t over-mix the batter. This is muffin 101, but it’s hard to do sometimes so I’m putting it on the list. It’s the fastest, easiest way to ruin a batch of muffins. My rule of thumb is as soon as I can’t see any dry flour in the bowl, I stop mixing. Over-mixing will make your muffins tough. Stop stirring and step away from the spoon!
6. Use dried fruits in place of fresh fruits when you can. In most cases, dried fruits will yield a better result than fresh fruits in muffins. Fresh fruits are full of moisture that can upset the balance of your ingredients, make your muffins soggy, and even promote molding within a few days (due to the higher moisture content they add to the muffin–and not in a good way). When you do use fresh fruits, such as blueberries, toss them in flour before adding them to the batter–this will help keep the fruit from falling to the bottom of your muffins.
7. Want high-rise muffins like you see in bake shops? Stop following the directions that tell you to fill the muffin cups 2/3 full. Fill them 3/4 full. If you’re following all the other hacks in this post, you won’t get muffin top spread on your pan–you’ll get tall fluffy domes.
8. And on the subject of muffin tops–who doesn’t love the top of the muffin?! Especially if you can get a little extra crackly, crunchy sweet or savory effect with it? After filling your muffin cups (and before baking), spray the tops with butter spray and (depending on the type of muffin) sprinkle sugar or brown sugar, sea salt, cinnamon, crushed nuts, seeds, granola, grated cheese, etc, whatever you can think of that will complement your muffin flavor. Don’t neglect your muffin tops!
9. Bake ’em hot! If your recipe calls for a 350- or 375-degree oven, ignore it. Go for a higher temperature. I bake muffins at 425, for the entire bake. Always. A hot oven promotes “oven spring” to take your muffin tops high and glorious, but– Watch your time. I bake standard size muffins in the middle rack for 13-14 minutes. I’m not big on timing when I’m baking. I rely on my inner “done” clock for most things. But not muffins. Never muffins. Time ’em.
10. Spray muffin liners with oil spray! If you don’t follow any other tip in this list, heed this one. We’ve all been there–you’ve just baked the most stunning muffins the world has ever seen and then you peel off the liners, leaving catastrophic rubble in their wake as pieces of muffin break away, stuck to the liners. Don’t let this happen to you. I know it sounds counter-intuitive–aren’t the muffin liners supposed to keep the muffins from sticking? Yeah, not so much. The muffin liners keep the muffins from sticking to your muffin tin. You still have to keep the muffins from sticking to the liners. Seriously, this hack will change your life, try it.
Sugar. Sugar promotes tenderness and browning in baked goods, but don’t be afraid to consider the amount of sugar in a muffin recipe to be no more than a suggestion. If you like a sweet muffin, use more sugar. If you like a less sweet muffin, use less. For a sweet muffin, I use up to 1/2 cup of sugar, but for a savory muffin I use as little as a tablespoon.
Size of muffin cups. Consider how you plan to use the muffins, and the people who’ll be eating them when choosing your muffin pan. The most gorgeous muffins to behold are jumbo size muffins. You see these in bake shops quite often. You can find them in the dictionary under food porn. These are humongous muffins, though–a jumbo muffin is equal to two standard size muffins. A jumbo muffin is a bit overwhelming for many people. Mini muffins are less than half the size of a standard size muffin. They are perfect for bite-size treats, parties, children, and anyone who wants to feel like they’re not eating as many muffins as they really are. Because they go down in a hurry. They’re definitely fun-size. The majority of people vote for standard size muffins. (By vote, I mean order.) They aren’t as impressive as jumbo muffins, nor are they as fun as mini muffins. They’re just practical.
Vanilla extract. You can use it in muffins if you want, but I don’t recommend it. Many muffin recipes call for it. I rarely use vanilla extract in any baked goods anymore. Instead, I opt for baking emulsions. What is a baking emulsion, you ask? A baking emulsion is a flavor in a water base, as opposed to a baking extract which is a flavor in an alcohol base. Emulsions don’t bake out the way extracts do. They come in all sorts of different flavors. I’ve never seen baking emulsions in any grocery store around here, but thanks to the internet, these pro bakery flavor bombs are available to home cooks. I use a lot of emulsions in various flavors depending on what I’m baking, and I buy them in the 16-ounce size. If you don’t do a lot of baking, they do come in smaller sizes. Stop wasting your money on extracts. Move up to emulsions! You–and your family–will be glad you did!
Pictured on this post: Cranberry Orange Pecan Muffins. This is one of my favorite muffin flavors. I’ll post the recipe, separately, in a few days!