Happy National Muffin Day! Because I’m more of a muffin fan, I celebrate one of the iconic breakfast foods in the United States. Personally, I also love muffins as a pick-me-up in the afternoon. One of the reasons I prefer muffins is because cupcakes are a pain to eat. If you don’t eat a cupcake with a fork, you will most likely end up with frosting on the nose.
The line between muffins and cupcakes can be blurred. So today I will tackle a burning first world question is “What’s the difference between a muffin and a cupcake?”
The most glaring difference is what’s on top. Muffins can be topped with a sprinkling of coarse sugar, a thin glaze, or just be “naked.” On the other hand, the definitive feature of a cupcake is the application of a sweet frosting.
For the most part, the main ingredients for both muffins and cupcakes are the same: flour, eggs, butter, sugar, and milk. The ratio of ingredients for muffins is 2-3 parts flour to 1-part sugar to 1-part fat while the ratio of cupcakes is 1 part each of flour, sugar, and fat. By ratio, cupcakes have a higher amount of butter and sugar.
Muffins can use different flours such as whole-wheat, oat, or nut flours. Cupcakes are made with cake or all-purpose flour. Also, muffins can use liquid fat like vegetable oil instead of butter. I find that using vegetable oil makes for a moist muffin.
Muffins usually have stir-ins such as nuts, fruits, or flavored chips like chocolate or butterscotch. Muffins can be sweet but they can also be savory, with the addition of ingredients like bacon or cheese. Typical cupcake fillings are frosting, fruit compote or ganache. But if you watch shows like Cupcake Wars, some cupcakes cross the muffin/cupcake line with the addition of some savory ingredients.
The mixing method creates a difference in consistency and texture for muffins and cupcakes. Muffins are made by separately mixing the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) and the wet ingredients (milk, eggs, fat, sugar). Sugar? – yes! It is considered a wet ingredient because it adds moisture because when sugar is heated, it turns into a liquid. Muffin batter is beaten briefly and doesn’t require an electric mixer. The resulting batter is denser and drier, and it’s perfectly okay if small lumps remain.
Cupcakes are made in the creaming method which the same way most cakes are made. Butter and sugar are beaten together until fluffy, preferably with an electric mixer, with eggs added one at a time. Then dry ingredients are added in parts, alternating with milk or water. The batter is beaten for a longer time, introducing air into the batter to make it light and smooth.
Also, muffins are baked in either regular 12-cup or bigger commercial-size 6-cup pans while cupcakes are baked in smaller 12-cup or mini 24-cup pans.
Muffins are baked at a higher temperature (375o-400oF) then the temperature is lowered to about 350oF to continue baking. This creates crusting and the batter rise quickly to make that desirable muffin top. (Remember that Seinfeld episode?). Cupcakes are baked at a lower, steady temperature (usually 350oF) which gives it a relatively flat top that is the perfect seat for frosting.
Often, muffins are considered the healthier option so it’s a popular breakfast food. Cupcakes are classified as a dessert item because they are richer and sweeter making them more of a special occasion food. But are muffins really healthier?
A large plain muffin has 470 calories with 16 grams of fat. A standard-size cupcake with vanilla frosting is about 350 calories and 14 grams of fat. I suppose if the muffin has healthier ingredients such as whole grains, fruits, and nuts, the higher caloric count is offset by its nutritional value. And if eaten earlier in the day, a person has more time to burn them off. Cupcake calories come from refined ingredients which have less nutritional value.
Taking all these differences into consideration, muffins are mini-quick breads and cupcakes are mini-cakes. So, there you go – I hope I made the difference between muffins and cupcakes clearer. My favorite differentiation I came across while researching this topic comes from Bratannia, a commenter on a englishforums who said: “If you threw a cupcake against the wall, you will hear something of a ‘poof!’ If you threw a muffin, you would hear a ‘thud!’