Here’s another one of those basic mixing methods that can really mess us up. Sure, it sounds like a day at the beach: Dry in one bowl. Wet in another. Wet on dry. Stir, stir, stir. Bake and hope for the best. But then, you pull out some sad old flat-topped muffins that look like moles have been burrowing their way through them. And then, your day at the beach turns into I-left-my-sunscreen-at-home-I-lost-my-sunglasses-in-the-surf-and-there-is-sand-in-places-it-shouldn’t-be nightmare. How hard can it be to make a muffin, anyway? Slather on some cooling aloe and let me see if I can help.
You’ve got two basic options when it comes to making muffins: you can use The Creaming Method, or you can use The Muffin Method. As far as I’m concerned, the creaming method is for cakes. What you end up with when you use the creaming method to make a muffin is a cupcake. Tasty and all, but just not the same thing. So, let’s forget the creaming method for muffins and focus on the eponymous Muffin Method.
Here’s how it works. This is a method you do not want to use the mixer for. Trust me, as much as you love your stand mixer, your muffins will be better if you mix them gently by hand. More on this in a bit.
1. Whisk the dry ingredients–low-protein flour (White Lily is a nice one if you’re in the southern US, or use cake flour) together with salt, sugar, leavenings and any spices–together in a large bowl.
Whisk your dry ingredients together very well. You are looking for even dispersal of the salt and leaveners. Sifting doesn’t necessarily do a great job of this, so whisk all the dry together thoroughly, for at least 20 seconds. More would be good.
2. In another bowl or a large liquid measure, combine all the wet ingredients–dairy (milk, cream, 1/2 and 1/2, sour cream, creme fraiche), eggs, liquid fat, liquid flavorings.
Notice I said “liquid fat.” This is one of the points where the muffin method differs from the creaming method. When you add the fat to the liquid, you want to make sure that all of the liquid ingredients are at room temperature. You want the fat to be evenly dispersed throughout the batter. For this to happen, you’re going to have to have the rest of the wet ingredients warm enough that the butter won’t turn hard on you the moment you pour it in the measuring cup.
3. Pour the wet on top of the dry and fold them gently together.
Let’s take a moment to really look at what’s going on here. You’re trying to mix a lot of water-type ingredients together with flour that hasn’t been coated with fat. Remember, in the two-stage mixing method, we coated our flour with a good amount of fat to inhibit gluten formation. Here, we don’t have that luxury. In the muffin method, we are pouring a ton of wet ingredients on poor, defenseless flour. How do we keep from having dense, chewy muffins, then? First, we’re using a low protein flour, so that’s a good thing–low protein equals less gluten formation. Second, and maybe more vital is the way that you mix these ingredients together. When mixing wet into naked flour with the intention of producing a tender muffin, easy does it. You really just want to fold the ingredients together, making sure that you limit agitation as much as possible. Old AB says to stir for a count of ten, but your ten and my ten might be different. I say, fold the ingredients together until all the flour is off the bottom of the bowl and you don’t have any big pockets of flour floating around in your batter. The batter will be somewhat lumpy, and it will be much thinner than a batter made with the creaming method, but you’ll just have to trust that it’ll be okay.
4. Scoop your batter into well greased (or paper-lined) muffin tins. Fill the cavities about 3/4 full.
At this point, if you are leavening with baking powder, you can let the batter sit for 15-20 minutes. This gives the flour time to properly hydrate. It will sort of magically finish mixing itself. Double acting baking powder gives some rise when it gets wet and then some more when it gets hot, so your muffins will still rise in the oven, even after sitting out for a bit. If the recipe only calls for baking soda, skip this step, as the bubbles are all given up when the soda gets wet. With recipes that only call for baking soda, you want to get those little guys in the oven as quickly as possible before the chemical reaction stops.
5. Bake at a relatively high temperature–400 or even 425 degrees, F.
So, why this high temperature? To me, and to lots of folks, muffins are defined by their crowns–their majestic peaks. In order to get this to happen, you have to bake at a high enough temperature that the edges of the muffin set pretty quickly. The batter will set in concentric circles, from the outside, in, and as each “band” of batter sets up, the remaining batter will continue to rise. The last to set is the very peak. If you bake at a lower temperature, you will end up with a domed, rather than peaked, muffin. If you like them domed, go for it, and bake at a lower temperature. Just wanted you to know the “why” behind the peak.
6. Remove from oven. Cool in pans for about ten minutes, and then turn out to cool completely–or not. You could just go ahead and eat one.
After you’ve baked your muffins, you can test yourself to see if you’ve done an Excellent Job with the muffin method. Cut or break a muffin in half, right down the middle, from peak to bottom. Look at the crumb. It should be fairly coarse but moist. It should also be very uniform. If you have little tunnels running up through the muffins, you know that you were a little too exuberant in your mixing. The tunnels show the path of air bubbles as they passed through the batter and were caught by sheets of gluten. The gluten then sets in that bubble-path shape, a silent reminder of your enthusiastic mixing.
So, to recap:
- Whisk dry ingredients together thoroughly.
- Have all wet ingredients at room temp. Not the creaming method’s magical 68 degrees, F, because you’re not worried about the butter’s remaining plastic–it’s already melted. By room temperature, I’m talking probably 70-72 degrees, F.
- Fold gently. Stop before you think you’re finished.
- Let the batter sit (baking powder only).
- Bake at a relatively high temperature.
Here’s a basic recipe to practice with. By basic, I mean: add any fruit, nuts, spices, zests that you want. Add chocolate chips. Change up the fat–use oil. Experiment with changing up the dairy. Top with streusel if you want. Make it your own.
- 8 oz. low-protein flour
- 3.5 oz. sugar
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 6 oz. whole milk
- 2 1/2 oz. melted butter
Now, go make some tender muffins. No tunnels. Oh, and I found your sunglasses for you…
For an in-depth look at other mixing methods, check out The Two-Stage Mixing Method, The Creaming Method, The Egg Foam Method and The Biscuit Method. And for some great pictures of all the steps in the mixing method, go check out Joe Pastry’s Muffin Method Post. It is awesome.
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