Ultimate Guide to Muffins

Ultimate Guide to Muffins tests out small variations in 8 batches of muffins to discover exactly what makes muffins moist, tender, dry, crumbly, or tall!

It’s been quite a while since I’ve created a new Ultimate Guide post so I figured it was time to get experimenting and make another huge mess in my kitchen in pursuit of recipe perfection!
Ultimate Guide to Muffins - what makes muffins soft, tender, tough, crumbly, or tall! Click to find out!

I do these posts, which may make me seem like a lunatic baker to anyone watching, because I think that actually seeing and reading about how a single ingredient or technique can impact a baking recipe is SO immensely helpful. Based off your feedback, it seems like you guys find these posts helpful too! I believe everyone should be able to create their ultimate version of any recipe, that baking shouldn’t be a source of confusion or frustration, and I want to help you by sharing my experiments.

So today I’m diving into the magnificent world of muffins. I’ve had a few requests for an Ultimate Guide to Muffins and I’m happy to say it was such a blast to experiment with them! If you’ve ever had questions about muffins, or wondered why your muffins turn out too short, crumbly, dry, bland, etc., you’ve got to read this post! Some secrets to ultra tender, moist, flavorful, and beautifully tall muffins are just below.

Tools and Ingredients Used:

I made every effort to replicate each batch as perfectly as possible, using the same exact tools and ingredients whenever applicable. I used a food scale to measure ingredients to ensure 100% accuracy and used an oven thermometer to gauge exact baking temperatures. Each batch was baked for exactly 20 minutes, except the high to low temperature batch which I’ll get to in a moment. I used paper liners for each batch and coated them with nonstick baking spray to ensure the muffins wouldn’t stick.
Chicago Metallic Uncoated Standard Muffin Tin
Large OXO Scoop
Oven thermometer
Escali Digital Food Scale
Best Quality Reynold Standard White Cupcake Liners
Pillsbury No-Stick Baking Spray with Flour
-Gold Medal All-Purpose Flour
-Table salt
-Large eggs
-Whole dairy milk

Control Recipe

Ultimate Guide to Muffins Control Recipe
Whenever I do these Ultimate Guide experiments, I base every experimental batch off one control recipe that I feel represents the most basic and standard recipe possible and the same goes for this muffin control recipe. I decided to bake just plain muffins, with nothing mixed inside to give the most pure results. Every batch following this control will include one small change, keeping everything else the same so we can see how that change impacts the final result.

Yield: 12 muffins

Ingredients:

2 cups (254 g) all-purpose flour
½ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon fine salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup whole milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 large egg

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a standard muffin tin with paper liners or coat with nonstick cooking spray (or both).

In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. In a liquid measuring cup beat together the milk, oil, and egg. Pour into the dry ingredients and stir JUST until combined, do not overmix. Divide evenly among the muffin tin cups. Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Overbeaten

Ultimate Guide to Muffins - What happens when you overbeat muffin batter!
When it comes to mixing up a muffin batter, things couldn’t be simpler. Muffins are easy peasy. Yet, there is one rule that can make or break your muffins: do not overbeat. You can stir the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients separately as much as your heart desires, but once they’re combined you should only beat until they are JUST combined. Streaks of flour remaining is actually fine. So I wanted to try out a batch where I intentionally over-beat the batter to show you the results, so you can understand exactly why this rule exists.

As you can see right off the bat, these muffins are by far the tallest with the most dramatic domes. They are also the most pale in color. While they make look nice and tall and smooth (almost like cupcakes), these muffins were dry and they were dense. Not pleasant at all. If there were any questions about overbeating muffin batter, I think these muffins here answered them. Don’t do it unless you want dry little hockey puck muffins!

High to Low Baking Temperature

Ultimate Guide to Muffins - Start off your muffins at a high temperature then drop it for beautiful tall muffins!
This batch was based off a few pins I’ve seen floating around Pinterest that show how much taller and domed muffins and cupcakes are if you start them off in a hot oven then turn the temperature down slightly. This made sense to me in theory, knowing that baking powder is partly activated by heat. So for this batch I took the control recipe and started it off by baking for 5 minutes at 450°F, then turned the temperature down to 400°F and continued baking for slightly less than 15 minutes. These muffins were beautifully tall, attractive, moist, and soft. Win!

Brown Sugar

Ultimate Guide to Muffins - Brown Sugar
For this batch I removed the 1/2 cup granulated sugar from the control recipe and replaced it with 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar. The resulting muffins were slightly darker, with a more craggy rough appearance which made for a slightly crunchy exterior which I quite enjoyed. Not to mention the flavor was really nice and well rounded. I liked the brown sugar muffins a lot!

Whole Wheat

Ultimate Guide to Muffins - White Whole Wheat
I decided testing out a batch of whole wheat muffins would be interesting. Since muffins are often eaten for breakfast, I wanted to see if it was possible to make them a little bit lighter and “skinner.” So I removed all the 2 cups of all-purpose flour and substituted in 2 cups of King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour. I used white whole wheat flour because it has the same nutritional value as regular whole wheat with a more subtle wheat flavor, perfect for muffins in theory. These muffins were definitely darker, I was actually surprised by how dark they were considering I used white whole wheat flour.

This batch had a lovely tall domed top with a firm, slightly crumbly texture and slightly nutty flavor. Overall the result was good, though if I were to make muffins with white whole wheat flour again I’d probably add a touch more liquid since wheat flour absorbs more moisture. These muffins were lacking just a bit of moisture.

Buttermilk

Ultimate Guide to Muffins - Buttermilk vs. Milk
The control recipe calls for 1 cup of whole milk, so I was curious to see how switching that out for 1 cup of buttermilk would impact the muffins. The buttermilk muffins had a finer crumb texture, meaning they weren’t as loose and filled with holes. However, they were SUPER moist and flavorful. I absolutely loved this batch and don’t think I’ll make muffins without buttermilk again, which surprised me. I didn’t think I’d be such a huge proponent of buttermilk because it means grabbing an extra ingredient at the store, but it’s so worth it!

Applesauce

Ultimate Guide to Muffins - How does substituting applesauce work?
For the last 2 experiments I wanted to play with the fat in the control recipe, the 1/4 cup vegetable oil. First I wanted to see if I could again make the muffins a little lighter by substituting the oil with 1/4 cup plain (unsweetened) applesauce. I really thought this would work wonderfully, but was sadly surprised by how tough and strangely chewy these muffins were. Since there is a relatively small amount of oil in muffins, I think I’ll stick with normal fat. Using applesauce, at least in this way, was not worth the nutritional payoff at all. Muffins should not be chewy!

Melted Butter

Ultimate Guide to Muffins Melted Butter vs. Oil
After the sad applesauce batch, I wanted to see if using butter instead of oil would possibly improve the control recipe. I melted 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter to replace the oil, proceeding with the recipe normally. The melted butter muffins were beautifully moist and had wonderful flavor. It was a win!

Side-by-Side Comparison:

Ultimate Guide to Muffins - what makes muffins soft, tender, tough, crumbly, or tall! Click to find out!

So which was the best?

The buttermilk muffins were my favorite, though overall all the muffins were pretty bland since there were no mix-ins! I also really liked the effect of the high to low temperature method, and will absolutely be using that for muffins and cupcakes in the future. Stay tuned for this Friday, I’ll be sharing my Ultimate Muffin Recipe based on the results of my experimenting! Which would be your favorite? How do you bake your muffins?

More Ultimate Guides:

The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies from HandletheHeat.comUltimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies

The Ultimate Brownie Guide - what makes brownies chewy, fudgy, or cakey!Ultimate Brownie Guide

The Ultimate Cupcake Guide shows how different ingredients and techniques make cupcakes light, greasy, fluffy, dense, crumbly, or moist! from handletheheat.comUltimate Cupcake Guide

*This post contains affiliate links.

35 Responses to “Ultimate Guide to Muffins”

  1. #
    Ruth — October 20, 2014 at 5:34 am

    My muffins are similar to yours with a couple of changes. We’re trying to reduce a bit of calories and fat, so here is what I do: 2 eggs, but only 1 TB of canola oil. Instead of a 1/2 cup of sugar, I use about a TB less.
    High heat (500deg) dropped down to 400 for the usual 20 minutes.

    The results are that they are well baked and not dry. The taste is terrific, you don’t notice the smaller amount of sugar. Where there seems to be a difference is in the texture on the first day. Because of the lesser amount of oil, the outside of the muffins is a bit tough. But, put them in a zip-lock bag when they’ve cooled off and in a few hours, they are wonderful. Plus, I like that the texture is not that of a cupcake but of a muffin. It’s not a bad solution to watching calories and such. I figured out one day, that, barring add-ins, the average calorie of a muffing is approx 150 calories. Pretty good.

  2. #
    Dulcistella — October 20, 2014 at 11:57 am

    Hi! Sorry for my deep ignorance (I’m Italian and muffins & co. don’t belong to my traditional pastry baking), but what is actually the difference between a muffin and a cupcake? Is it only that the cupcake is supposed to be frosted?
    Thanks!

    • #
      Tessa — October 21, 2014 at 9:14 am

      There really is no technical difference between a muffin and cupcake. Typically a cupcake is made by beating the butter and sugar together, while muffins are made by just stirring the ingredients together however even then there are many exceptions. And yes, cupcakes are traditionally frosted and muffins aren’t.

  3. #
    Charlotte Oates — October 21, 2014 at 10:30 am

    I absolutely love posts like this, I’m the sort of person that wants to understand why a recipe works rather than just following the steps so this is perfect. Thanks for sharing as I know it must have taken a lot of time and effort to write.

  4. #
    Teresa — October 21, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    I love your ultimate guides! I don’t have the time I would like to cook and bake and experiment myself. You save me that time and improve my baking. Thank you, thank you, thank you not only for investing the time but sharing what you have learned.

  5. #
    Sarah @ SnixyKitchen — October 22, 2014 at 11:28 am

    This ultimate guide is so great! I was recently googling “what makes a perfect muffin” to find out what the consensus is and I found that people tend to prefer all different textures of muffins. I prefer light and fluffy, but some people insist muffins be dense. Your guide helps me understand how different ingredients/techniques actually influence the final product!

  6. #
    Coty and Mariah@quirksandtwists — October 22, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    This is super informative, I really enjoyed seeing the difference between them all. Thanks for this!

  7. #
    Gaby — October 23, 2014 at 9:27 am

    I love the ultimate guides! Having pictures of everything is so helpful!

  8. #
    Arek — October 24, 2014 at 7:13 am

    Thank you very much for this side by side comparison. It helps to know right away (in one recepie) what works and what does not. These are articles are awesome, keep up the good work!

  9. #
    Appetite Deluxe — October 24, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Love this!!

  10. #
    Barb — October 27, 2014 at 3:56 am

    I love your ultimate guides! I was wondering if you could try substituting the oil for yogurt and see how that compares. My friend swears by this and after the buttermilk bran muffins my college friends dad used to make us, they are the best I’ve had. She lets the mixture sit for awhile before adding the dry ingredients. Thanks Tessa, I love following your blog, you provide great info as well as awesome recipes!

  11. #
    Kathryn — October 29, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    This is great!! Love the comparison – I usually bake mine on a higher temp for the first 5 minutes then lower for the rest – and they come out looking like yours, that high top and slightly cracked. Definitely seems like the best method for muffins. Instead of oil though, I usually use yoghurt and they come out delightfully moist and soft, but I think I’ll try out using oil next time to see if there’s any difference! Thanks for another great ultimate guide!! 🙂

  12. #
    Angelina — November 3, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    I love your ultimate guides. Can you do an ultimate guide for pizza dough?

  13. #
    GrammyG — November 16, 2014 at 6:41 am

    Tried the buttermilk version.
    Buttermilk is a MUST for cornbread also. My husband has a gluten sensitivity, so I substituted an all-purpose GF flour and followed the recipe exactly. Definitely a winner – leftovers were a nice topped with jam or jelly.
    Thank you…

  14. #
    Rose — February 4, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Hi, I wanted to try using buttermilk in my muffins as you have but wondered of the changes to the acidity. Would I need to replace some of the baking powder with baking soda? Thank you.

  15. #
    Taelor — August 4, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Thank you so much for taking the time to do these posts. they are super helpful. I have been trying to work with whole wheat in my baking lately and while researching I found that if you let your batter set for ten to twenty minutes it gives it times to soak up the moisture making your baked good not so grainy.

  16. #
    Nana Linda — March 14, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    Tessa, thanks so much for sharing your recipes and all the information from your experiments.
    I am a grandmother who has always enjoyed cooking. I am self taught
    and find cooking for family and others very creative and loving. I appreciate so much your
    wisdom and generous spirit.

  17. #
    bibi — March 29, 2016 at 6:53 am

    Thanks so much for this post, I just baked a batched of muffins on the weekend with less oil than mentioned in the recipe and my muffins came out dry, so next time I will add buttermilk. Thanks for sharing.

    • #
      Tessa — March 29, 2016 at 10:29 am

      Good luck!

  18. #
    Summer castelli — March 31, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    Thank you!! I really appreciated understanding the ‘why’. Very informative!

  19. #
    Christina — June 26, 2016 at 10:15 pm

    Thank you so much for this guide. I just made a batch of failed muffins and now I know why. Part me and part the recipe. Thanks again

    • #
      Tessa — June 28, 2016 at 9:18 pm

      Awesome, Christina! It’s always nice to figure those things out so they don’t happen again 🙂

  20. #
    shirley — July 10, 2016 at 5:59 am

    This is definitely a forever post! For me, your post here is forever relevant and excellent. I just went through a failed batch of muffins and was doing research on how to solve my particular problems when I ran across your site. Just wanted to thank you so much for taking the time to test and publish your results with wonderful comments. I’m encouraged to try muffins again– today.

  21. #
    Donna — September 13, 2016 at 4:36 am

    Thank you for your wonderful guides. Our local bakery makes THE BEST blueberry muffins ever! They have the high dome and the top is a nice hard crunchy texture. How can I duplicate that texture? Most restaurants have a sticky, tacky texture to their muffin tops . . very unappealing.

  22. #
    Gramma Kaye — November 4, 2016 at 7:28 am

    Some of my favorite recipes call for buttermilk, but it doesn’t keep well, and I never had it when I needed it. Many years ago I started using the buttermilk powder, which worked really well. Then I read a tip in a magazine about a great substitute that I have been using ever since – vinegar. In place of 1 cup of buttermilk, add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to 1 cup of room temperature milk and mix well. Let sit for 15 minutes, stir again. Use as you would buttermilk. Always handy, always convenient, cheaper than buttermilk. Plus, these days it’s hard to find a buttermilk that is not low fat, so by using the vinegar trick, you can use whole milk for a richer, tastier result. Try it, it’s great!
    PS – lemon juice works just as well as vinegar.

  23. #
    Lori — November 29, 2016 at 11:55 am

    I stumbled upon this while searching for best temperature to bake muffins. Great tips and I love the side by side comparisons! Thank you for sharing this information! Awesome!

  24. #
    Vicki — December 7, 2016 at 9:09 am

    My muffins are forming a “hill” in the centre, not a gentle mound, butt a pointy hill, what I theproblem?

  25. #
    Diana Edwards — December 30, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    My son-in-law and one grandson are allergic to dairy. I substitute almond milk. The flavor is fine but sometimes the texture is not as soft. Any suggestions?

  26. #
    Tsepang — January 28, 2017 at 2:58 am

    Hi Tessa!

    I want to know if it’s possible to sub the all-purpose flour for self-rising and if so would I still use the same quantity flour minus the baking powder of course.

  27. #
    Christina — March 16, 2017 at 9:43 am

    This guide is awesome. Thank you so much for all of the info. Now I know why the one time I made muffins with applesauce were disgusting. I have a question about substitutions between yogurt and sour cream. How would that work like for instance you have one as opposed to the other.

    • #
      Tessa — March 16, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      Yogurt and sour cream swap out really well. The sour cream will be a tad richer and tangier in flavor, but that’s a super easy sub 🙂

  28. #
    Jewjew — April 20, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    Hi Tessa, love your site btw! I recently made double chocolate muffins which called for plain yogurt and milk as well as oil. They were a bit dry though. What can I do to ensure they’re moist next time around since the chocolate flavor was really nice and rich?

    • #
      Tessa — April 23, 2017 at 8:56 am

      Measure your flour by weight! It’s really easy to accidentally add too much when measuring with measuring cups.

  29. #
    Staci — April 26, 2017 at 5:27 am

    Thanks for sharing this information–being able to see each muffin variation helps a lot! I absolutely agree about the buttermilk. It improves texture and has the added benefit of less fat than whole milk. (It does change the acid/base balance of the batter, though–something to keep in mind when adding other ingredients.)
    A word on using applesauce: its high water content means that evaporation will cause baked goods to rise before the interior is set enough to either support the rise or hold the moisture. The result is a dry, chewy texture. To make it work, reduce the temperature by 25°F and the baking time by 5-10 minutes.

  30. #
    Rebecca — June 11, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Hello. Would you happen to know reasons for some cupcake/muffin liner problems?

    First of all, peeling of the liner? I let my cupcakes/muffins sit for 5min after baking in the tin before removing and sometimes they peel.

    Secondly, bottom of the cupcake/muffin is hollow. Baking started about 1/2 centimetre up from the bottom of the tin. The bottom 1/4 of the cupcake/muffin is typically raw looking (not as fluffy as the top).

    Lastly, the last problem I sometimes see is that the liner sucks in at the sides.

    I am not sure why this sometimes does or doesn’t happy. Any help would be great.
    Thank you 🙂

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