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Muffin/Cupcake Taxonomy

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Yesterday, I noticed that Jaden Hair posted a picture on Twitter:

Jaden, SteamyKitchen

Oh yeah……Snickerdoodle Muffins

I had some suspicions, so I checked the linked recipe for these Snickerdoodle “Muffins” and told Jaden that, while they did look lovely, they were not actually muffins. Because, yes, I am that picky. To which Larry responded:

Larry Gaian

  When does a muffin become a cupcake? Or vice versa?

Muffins and cupcakes are easy things to confuse. They are both roughly the same shape and size in their typical form. The most obvious physical difference is that cupcakes often have frosting on them and muffins are unadorned, but that’s simply window dressing. You could put frosting on a steak but that wouldn’t make it a cupcake. (Note: do not put frosting on a steak.) 

The hint is in the names. A cupcake is assembled via any of the popular cake methods. A muffin is assembled via the muffin method. A cupcake is a cake the size of a cup. Hence the name. So it makes sense that it uses a cake method. Whereas a big muffin is generally considered a quickbread rather than a megamuffin or something equally silly.

The muffin method goes like so: Take some dry ingredients, mix them all together. Take some wet ingredients, mix them together. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and barely combine. Pour into a muffin tin and bake. According to Michael Ruhlman’s excellent book, Ratio, you’re looking for, by weight, 2 parts flour, 2 parts liquid, 1 part eggs, and 1 part butter to make muffins, plus 1 tsp of baking powder for every 5 oz of flour.

As I mentioned, there are several types of cake methods out there, but the most common one is the Creaming Method. You take butter and sugar and mix them together until they are smooth and relatively light. Mix together your dry ingredients, and mix together your wet ingredients. Then you mix in 1/3 of your dry ingredients, then 1/3 of your wet, then 1/2 of the remaining dry, and 1/2 of the remaining wet, then the last of the dry, then the last of the wet ingredients. Pour into a paper in a muffin tin and bake. You could do the wet and dry in two sets of steps instead of three if you want to and depending on the recipe.

As I said, there are several types of cake methods, and the creaming method is just one, but I chose the creaming method because it is essentially what the recipe that we were discussing uses. And, because it’s a cake method, it’s a cake recipe, thus making it a cupcake. Why does it matter? Take a look at the muffin ratio. Do you see what’s missing from that? Sugar. Strictly speaking, you don’t need sugar to make a muffin. But sugar is vital for a cupcake, especially one made with the creaming method. 

Even so, it’s not all that big of a deal to me. Except! Except that if you remember that all muffins are made one way, and all creaming method things are made one way, then when you use a recipe that uses one of these methods, you don’t have to learn it all over again. Know the method, and you save yourself an enormous amount of thinking and worry in the kitchen. So I like to be precise on the name when I’m baking, so I know what to do without all that tedious step-by-step business.



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  • KitchenCreature | 11/06/2012

    I need some help understanding this. How big are these parts in relation to one another? 2 parts flour, 2 parts liquid, 1 part eggs, and 1 part butter to make muffins, plus 1 tsp of baking powder for every 5 oz of flour. say you have 240g flour (2cups) 4oz milk (1/2 cup) for example. The parts are different in weight and size. Can you help this click for me? I really don't get it!

  • Kipperkid | 08/10/2011

    Now see I understood that cupcakes were called that originally not because they were cup sized but because a cup was used to measure the ingredients and the recipe was a ratio of so many cups of flour to so many cups of sugar to so many cups of butter. (Don't ask me what the actual ratio was). Anyway, just saying.

  • tiyuwu | 08/07/2011

    great explanation, thank you!

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