Muffin clinic: creating the best muffin recipe
The ultimate in food is an utterly personal ideal and, to a large extent, selfish in the best possible way. It’s all about your desires, making sure that particular flavour combination or texture is brilliantly highlighted even if you’re alone in liking it. So if you like muffins, as I do, then what you need isn’t the “best muffin recipe” so much as tips on changes you can make to correct the bits you don’t like to create your own personal best.
American cake-type muffins, as opposed to the flat English hotplate variety, are interesting here because the best ones are typically home made and fairly low-tech, meaning that the methods to achieve the best result can usually be found in every home. If I go back to an old recipe from 1931, out of a book I have called “The Baker’s Weekly Recipes” there appear to be two key methods traditionally used:
The all-in method: the liquid and eggs are beaten before the flour is folded through
- Lorraine Pascale’s Pumpkin Rosemary Muffins
- James Martin’s Lemon Drizzle Muffins
- Jill Dupliex’s Banana Muffins
The cake method: the butter and sugar and beaten, the eggs added, then the flour
Each type owes its final result to the proportion of fat, flour, liquid and sugar, and to some extent the individual characteristics of each ingredient. For example, the bleached all-purpose flour available from some of the bigger American millers (it’s not sold here by law) has the curious ability to hold more fat and sugar in suspension compared to out UK plain flour. The type of sugar you use can affect the way the muffin curves on top, as dark brown sugar can cause the muffin top to flatten. And if you use a cooking margarine rather than butter, you do get a lighter crumb from the emulsifiers it contains.
I asked Andrew Janjigian, associate editor at Cook's Illustrated Magazine, where they’re obsessed with finding the most foolproof way to bake everything, about the common mistake they see in muffins. “They’re either far too delicate and overly rich,” says Andrew, “or dry, crumbly and dense. People mistakenly think that since muffins are a breakfast food, they should be ultra-healthy, and then don't make them rich enough.” So it’s the middle ground you want in the best muffin, says Andrew, avoiding extremes but “closer to a quick bread than a cupcake”.
Getting that really lofty rise to your muffin is often just down to baking it right. “Just like with bread,” says Andrew, “the key to a high rise muffin is getting the mixture to spring upward in the oven. That means setting the oven temperature higher than you might otherwise, letting ingredients or the batter come to room temperature before baking, and even placing the muffin tin on a preheated pizza stone.”
One last big tip. Keep you flavour on the dry side and intense for the best flavour, use slightly more spices, flavourings and what factory bakers call “inclusions”, or “the bits you stir in” in plain English. So more chocolate chips, more blueberries…you get the idea. Instead of stirring the pieces of fruit or chocolate through the mixture, try alternating small spoonfuls of the mixture with pieces into the paper cases. This will control just where the pieces end up after baking.
When we made Paul Hollywood's blueberry muffins, all the berries went on top for show!
So here are my key tweaks for perfecting your muffins:
- If the muffin top is too flat and smooth, try slightly reducing the sugar and fat in the recipe by 20% to see if that makes a difference.
- If the crumb of the muffin is too dense, try slightly increasing the amount of egg (especially egg white), slightly decrease the flour, and for every 150g wheat flour replace two heaped teaspoons of flour with the same measure of cornflour. This helps to create a finer crumb structure.
- If the crumb of the muffin is too coarse, try reducing the number of times you fold in the flour. As you fold in the flour, count 30 beats of the spatula through the mixture. You maw still see a few lumps when you spoon the batter into the paper case, but your muffin crumb will be more delicate.
- If your muffin bakes a little dry, increase the oven temperature and decrease the baking time.
Do you have a favourite method for achieving the ultimate muffin? Let us know.