Do you know the muffin man? Don’t bother in this case, he’s on the wrong side of the story. Classically, he’s seen as walking the streets of London hawking his wares, which are a yeast based, disk shaped, and soft bread dish. In fact, the name is a derivation of the French word moufflet meaning soft, and that version was a UK peasant food starting about a thousand years ago.
We’re going to stay in the US though, with the version of a quick bread, often sweet, baked in cups or molds. But the ultimate distinction is the leavening. Instead of yeast, these muffins use a chemical reaction. That part of the background is intriguing because the history of these muffins is tied completely to the leavening.
You could make the argument that people in colonial America were just bad at naming things. The first American cookbook published in 1796, simply named ‘American Cookery’ uses ‘pearlash’ (because that sounds tasty) for leavening. Pearlash is a refined version of potash (also an iffy mealtime name) and was commonplace until almost 1860 when the first baking powder was developed.
These brought about quick breads as we know them. Fast forward to the 1950s, with more refined leavenings, and you see the advent of mixes, allowing folks to easily make muffins and such at home. With the American penchant for sweet, muffins evolved to the cake like versions seen today, from blueberry to poppy seed and lots of flavors in between.
Sometimes it is a pretty slim distinction between a muffin and a cupcake. If it weren’t for the frosting as a giveaway, you might not be able to tell…although having seen carrot muffins with a dollop of cream cheese frosting, there is obviously no great effort to distinguish.
Of course the grand-daddy of savory muffins is a corn muffin, basically cornbread shaped for single serving. Cheese muffins were a fairly common side dish for dinner. Back in the sixties refrigerator bran muffins were all the rage, straddling the line between sweet and savory, the batch size was large with the idea you cooked what you wanted and saved the rest, as long as 6 weeks. These initiated the idea that a muffin was breakfast food.
There is a surge of interesting savory muffins around now, as Americans become more health conscious. Everything from quinoa to kale is showing up in recipes. And for hearty folks, there are great recipes using bacon, cheese, sometimes potatoes, for a full meal muffin.
There is some continuity throughout most muffin recipes. Oil works to develop and maintain what we think of as ‘moistness’. Egg binds the cake together for shape and a good crumb. Like most quick breads muffins do not do well with over mixing. Generally recipes call for just a few quick strokes until evenly blended.
Leavening will vary somewhat with baking powder being the most predominant. Soda will show up, it begins reacting with liquid contact, and is appropriate when baking immediately. One variable however, is how full you make the cups. For some folks, the muffin top is the best part, there are even specific pans that are very shallow and broad so you can bake just the ‘tops’. Most recipes will leaven into a nice bloom up and slightly out at the top. Two thirds full will generally keep the muffin right at the top of the cup. Almost full and you get the crowned top.
Become the muffin person…
Beyond the basic, there is lots of room to include the flavors and styles that suit your tastes, and your family’s tastes. We’ll walk you through a few of our favorite recipes, looking at a few styles of muffins.
It only makes sense to start with the most ubiquitous, the blueberry muffin.
Blueberry muffin recipe
We like the bigger muffins. Not necessarily the straight sided monsters so common in grocery stores, these are called a ‘Texas muffin pan’ and make a really nice size. This recipe makes 6 nicely bloomed muffins. In a traditional sized pan it will easily make a dozen muffins.
Our main admonition is to gently fold in the blueberries. This dough is pretty firm, so you truly fold it over the berries, trying not to crush them in the process, until they are evenly distributed. Frozen blueberries work just fine. Do not thaw them out. It may add a couple minutes to the bake time, but you will get nicer intact berries in your muffin and none of the blue-gray streaks from crushed berries.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
In a bowl, add;
- 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
In a one cup measure, add;
- 2 eggs
- Approximately ¾ milk, enough to have one cup fluid total
In a bowl add;
- ½ cup canola or vegetable oil
- Eggs and milk
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, add the liquid and mix until just blended with a few quick strokes.
- 2 cups blueberries
Gently fold the berries into the batter, trying not to crush the fruit.
Fill the cups evenly with batter, should be to within a quarter inch of the top.
Sprinkle the tops with about a teaspoon each of demerara sugar, or another larger crystal type sugar.
Bake for approximately 30 minutes, until a tooth pick inserted into the center comes out clean. It will likely have some blueberry coloring, but make sure there is no batter stuck to the pick.
After 5 minutes, move to a rack and cool. Serve and enjoy!
Bran Muffin Recipe
Talk about a recipe that lends itself to fun variation, you can customize this a fair amount. We used 1 cup wheat bran and ½ cup oat bran. All wheat bran is just fine too. This is the actual bran, a very small lightweight flake. Not to be confused with the All-Bran type cereal often seen in recipes. Like many of you, we don’t keep buttermilk at all times, so, one teaspoon at the bottom of a measuring cup, topped off with milk to one cup and allowed to rest for 10 minutes is the best substitution. This recipe we baked in a ‘standard’ size muffin/cupcake pan.
A dollop of molasses will darken the muffin and make it richer. Pick a dried fruit; from Craisins to dried cherries or blueberries, diced dry apricots, or the most common substitution, chopped dates. They all will give flavor to what is, honestly, a very mild flavored item. We like a little butter when it is time to enjoy these warm from the oven.
In a bowl, add the following:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup wheat bran
- ½ cup oat bran
- 2/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
Whisk together, making sure to break any brown sugar clumps that may be present. In a separate bowl combine the wet ingredients:
- 1 cup buttermilk
- ½ cup light vegetable oil
- 1 egg
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Whisk those together. Pour into dry ingredients, and add;
- ½ cup raisins
Mix all together with a few quick strokes. Let sit for 5 minutes. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Prepare your muffin pan by either oiling the cups or using paper inserts. Evenly distribute the batter between the cups.
Bake for 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted t the middle comes back clean. Let cool for 5 minutes then transfer to a cooling rack until ready to serve.
Savory Muffin Recipe
Another versatile recipe, this one has its roots in Mediterranean cooking as you would guess from the herbs and cheeses employed. That will allow you to take it any direction you want to match a meal that you are making. Maybe sharp cheddar is the right choice, or tarragon, or whatever makes the best accompaniment for you.
It is a great recipe just the way it is too. This one will deliver a flavorful and hearty side item that you can enjoy with many meals.
In bowl add;
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup whole wheat flour
- 2 Tablespoons white sugar
- 1 Tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- 1 Tablespoon dried sweet basil (not finely ground)
- 1 teaspoon rubbed dry rosemary
Whisk the dry ingredients until blended, then add;
- 1 cup fine shred mozzarella
- ½ cup fine shred provolone
- ¼ cup shredded parmesan
- ½ onion very finely minced
Stir together until cheese is dispersed and coated with dry ingredients, then make a well in the center.
In a separate bowl, whisk together;
- 1 egg
- ½ cube butter, melted
Whisk into the egg mix, until blended;
- 1 cup milk
Pour into the center of the dry ingredients and stir quickly to form a sticky batter. It is almost a dough, just not quite as firm, and definitely sticky.
Preheat oven to 400. Prepare your tins either with a coat of spray oil, or with paper liners.
Distribute the batter evenly between your cups to make twelve almost full muffins. Bake 25-30minutes until lightly browned, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes back clean. Let set for 5 minutes then remove and serve warm…with butter!
This is a straightforward version of the classic sweet bread dish folks were often raised with. Zero clutter. You can add nuts if you choose, or cinnamon, or vanilla…but as is, this recipe delivers a clean rich banana flavor.
Being muffin sized you get that nicely browned crust flavor, without the heavy crust from cooking a thicker loaf.
In a bowl combine;
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup white sugar
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
Whisk until smooth.
Melt one cube butter, set aside.
In a bowl add;
- 3 ripe peeled bananas
Mash well and stir in melted butter. Add;
- 2 eggs
Whisk all together until smooth.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare muffin tins either with spray oil (our recommendation) or with paper liners.
Combine liquid ingredients with the dry ingredients to make a thick batter. Spoon the batter equally into twelve muffin tins. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes and remove from the pan to cool on a rack.