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Cupcakes Vs. Muffins: An Epic Battle and Some Big Questions

Faceoff time
Muffins versus cupcakes. It's a heavy--nearly epic--subject to tackle, but we've bravely wandered into this storm to better understand this mighty battle of the baked goods: who are they? How are they different? And ultimately, which is more lovable?

Cupcake, Magnolia Bakery, DowntownMuffin
Part 1: The Difference between Cupcakes and Muffins

First off--is there a difference between the cupped treats? There are certainly different schools of thought, as we found out:

According to our dictionary, a cupcake is defined as "a small cake, the size of an individual portion, baked in a cup-shaped mold," whereas the muffin is defined as "a small, cup-shaped quick bread, often sweetened." Strangely, the definitions don't touch on the subject of frosting, which to many seems to be a defining characteristic of a cupcake. However, they do touch on the subject of sweetness, citing that muffins are "often" sweetened, thus leaving it open to interpretation that they are often but not always sweet, and it does touch on their texture by defining them as a quick bread, which is often more dense than cake (think of the difference between say, a dense banana bread and the oft-lighter Hummingbird cake).

Or, as a commenter in an internet forum says, "If you threw a cupcake against the wall, you would hear something of a 'poof!' If you threw a muffin, you would hear a 'thud!'"

EATS Market CupcakesChocolate Cream Cheese Muffins, Metropolitan Market
While the above seems to lean toward differences in texture and sweetness, these days the line can be even further blurred with the addition of products such as carrot walnut muffins with a cream cheese glaze or black-bottom cream cheese and chocolate muffins (which kind of sound like cupcakes to us). To that point-- In a recent New York Times article, when one of our favorite food writers Melissa Clark asks a pastry chef friend what the difference is while devouring one of his particularly sweet and buttery muffins, his opinion on the difference between cupcakes and muffins is as follows:

'Nothing,' he said, explaining that when it comes to breakfast, Americans have a Puritanical inhibition. 'Muffins are just an excuse to eat cake for breakfast'

Vanilla Buttercream Cupcakes at Saint CupcakeMuch Ado about Muffin
And as a bit of curiosity: We also noticed that there's a difference between the words when used in slang. While both words are used as a term of affection (say, to refer to a child or loved one), "muffin" also has a negative connotation--the term "muffin top" rather indelicately refers to "the phenomenon of overhanging flesh when it spills over the waistline of trousers or skirt in a manner that resembles the top of a muffin spilling over its paper casing." Owch.

Cupcakes. And Muffins.
Part 2: We put it to the test

After having researched the above, we were left unsatisfied--so we decided to do a little experiment. What did we do? Well. We baked one batch of muffins, and one batch of cupcakes, with recipes found online--both for batches of 20 in a similar flavor, apple spice. They're both pictured above. Can you tell the difference?

Now, we realize that there are all sorts of recipes out there, so we're not saying this is going to be true in every case, but with our two recipes, the major differences were as follows:
  • Oven temperature and baking time: the cupcakes were baked at 350 for 30 minutes, and the muffins were baked at 375 for 25 minutes.
  • Mixing: With the muffins, our recipe said to mix until the dry ingredients were mixed with the wet, but not until smooth; with the cupcakes, we creamed the butter and mixed longer, until there were no lumps.
  • Flour: There was significantly more flour in the muffin recipe.
  • Sugar: No difference! Both recipes called for the same exact amount of sugar for a batch of 20.
Not a Cupcake.This is a Cupcake.
We then did two taste tests: on the first, we served one from each batch frosted: a frosted muffin (left) and a frosted cupcake (right). And you know what? Nobody could tell which one was the muffin. *Although to clarify, our tasters could tell that each item was different, they couldn't say with confidence which was the muffin and which was the proper cupcake.

On the second taste test, we served both varieties unfrosted. This time, all of our tasters could tell the difference instantly--without that sweet mask of frosting, the difference between texture quickly betrayed the muffin as the more dense and bread-like cupped treat.

Part 3: Our Conclusion

We do believe that there are differences between cupcakes and muffins--to our way of thinking, cupcakes will always be the finer-crumbed, delicate and sweet treat, whereas the muffin is the more dense and hearty option, more likely to have savory flavors or "healthy" stuff added. However, we also believe that the line between the two is blurry in our current age, with more and more sugar and sweet toppings creeping into muffin recipes.

And our preference? Well, duh. Ultimately, it's the cupcake that is first and foremost in our hearts--because for us, cupcakes are always frosted, and that's simply the icing on the cake.

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Reader Comments (32)

I think I would understand the difference better if I saw, for instance, a chocolate muffin recipe and a chocolate cupcake recipe side-by-side that yielded the same amount of product.

April 14 | Unregistered CommenterShirese

I had no idea so much thought could be put into the differences, but hey I did type "muffins vs cupcakes" into my google search bar so I guess I asked for it. For the record, I haven't eaten a tasty muffin since I was 13, so my vote goes to a yummy blueberry muffin.

May 17 | Unregistered CommenterPunita

woops, I meant I hadn't had a tasty cupcake in years... not muffin... durr

May 17 | Unregistered CommenterPunita

my poem !! thanks to your site

Cupcakes and Muffins

The light, delicate sponge- craving to indulge
The taste of the frosting swirled above.
Sugar strands sprinkled everywhere,
With the Cupcake flavours on different layers.

Muffins, so large and heavily baked
Having varieties to taste are hard to find.
Excessive sweetened bread bulging over top
With looks that do not attract.

Muffins are not ones to be chosen
So dense with a savoury zest.
The cupcakes will always be exceptional,
Finer-crumbed and a sweet treat for all.

May 27 | Unregistered Commenterkinzxox

I will always love cupcakes more because muffins are just ugly, naked cupcakes!

cupcakes are the best

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We have a batch of chocolate muffins going that blurs the line of both of the muffin/cupcake spectrum and sanity itself.

I vote muffins. cupcakes are just small cakes.
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I baked a batch of apple cinnamon cupcakes last night for teacher appreciation day. As I was trying one, the thought occured of the difference between cupcakes and muffins. This cupcake was very good without the icing, but with the icing made it a little too sweet. The texture was definitely light and fluffy- as of a cupcake, but without the frosting- wouldn't it just be a muffin? But, I have noticed that some cupcakes NEED the help of icing to make it taste good- like red velvet, you simply can not have it without that wonderful cream cheese frosting! A muffin can be eaten alone- and sometimes that's not good! Because then I find myself actually forming a "muffin top" on my own body! Haha! The icing does play a big part in the difference, as to the time of day you choose to eat it! If you want an excuse for eating cake in the morning....then call it a muffin! Want dessert? You can create a cupcake by simply adding frosting! Either way....it is all soooo good!
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