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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 (71)

Screw muffins, cupcakes win hands down. :) I must always go for things that are frosted!

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterPeabody

i must have some icing but i do like muffins with a moist crumb topping... hmmm... hard to choose... i think that the only good thing about a muffin is the muffin top and about the cupcake?... the whole thing!

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterAran

Never ever thought to compare the two, but I guess cupcakes, for the icing, and muffins because apparently they can be healthy on occasion (banana bran muffins for example?) Needless to say, if more research is required, I'd happily put my hand up and delve fork first into the task :-D

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterY

I vote for cupcakes, everytime! And, I'll bet I could tell the difference in a blind taste test! I'd eat them for breakfast, although my mom might find that idea a bit disturbing. Why, oh why go for the dense, overly-filling and even, dare I say, leaden, muffin, when you can have something light and delicate with a lovely frosted swirl on top?

Awesome article! Makes me wanna try a hand at baking muffins. :D

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Love that NY Times quote--though I think I'd have to disagree! I recently did a similar "bake-off" between http://dietdessertndogs.wordpress.com/2008/05/06/vanilla-versus-vanilla/" REL="nofollow"> vanilla versus vanilla cupcake and muffin and found there to be quite a difference--but maybe that's only in the vegan versions! ;) (Besides, I think I'd pick YOUR cupcakes every time!)

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterRicki

cupcakes kick muffins' butts every time! if you show me a muffin that's better than a cupcake I'll give you a quarter.

June 1 | Unregistered Commenterkaren

great article~

i love the quote~
'muffins are just an excuse
to eat cake for breakfast'

would that include a pancake too?

June 1 | Unregistered Commenterbonnie

I dig your comparison. I've always thought my muffins to be quite a bit more dense than my cupcakes (thus the THUD heard on the wall.) I prefer cupcakes (frosted), of course.

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterRecipeGirl

Funny, cute, and informative post as usual!

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterHeidi A

Clever and adorable post, as always! I must say, I'm definitely a cupcake kind of girl. Especially with pink frosting and sprinkles!

I loooove the post. And you've cleared me out of so many transcendental doubts in my life! hahah...
*Go cupcakes!

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterIsa

Interesting post :-) I prefer muffins, but maybe that's bc I've been in Europe for so many years! However, I do prefer the texture of cupcakes (always thought there was a real noticeable difference in textures between cupcakes and muffins) but I prefer my cupcakes without icing.

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterMarianna

I do agree with you cupcakes are finer.

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterHappy cook

You know, I've never really understood the different between cupcakes and muffins - to me, a muffin is more "healthy," with fruits & nuts and such; and a cupcake is reserved for more decadent ingredients, such as chocolate, carob, marshmallows (vegan, of course), etc. I love 'em both!! :0)

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterVeggieGirl

Oh wow, this is an epic battle on pirate/ninja scale. I have to say I'm on the side of the cupcake though (and I reckon I knew which was which in the unfrosted pictures).

In England, the traditional fairy cake (interchangeable with the term 'cupcake' here now) is smaller than the muffin; I think of muffins as big hefty things. But that's not really relevent since the influx (I don't know if that's a word) or American cupcake recipes swamped us, as we (or, I) use muffin-sized cups for both now. More leeway for fillings &c. &c. I think the fairy cake may just be another story.

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterIndigo

(brace yourself for what i'm about to say...)

forget 'em both, just give me the frosting!

and to that pastry chef, i say that i don't need an excuse to eat cake (or frosting) for breakfast...or lunch or dinner. :)

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

They are similar. Although the cupcake is more decadent sibling who likes to dress up more and has a bit more pizzazz. The muffin is the goody two shoes who good for you at times, plain, simple , and honest.

June 1 | Unregistered Commenterglamah16

I don't want to choose between such deserving specimens of food. Therefore, I'll take one of each!

::chanting and fist pounding::

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterCB

What a great post! I've never really thought about it although there is definitely a diference in my mind. I'm with Indigo - muffins are traditionally bigger. I also think of a good muffin being more moist and a cupcake more crumbly. I love them both though - maybe I should conduct my own little experiment... Any excuse!

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterAntonia

Great post!

Its funny - I posted about almond joy muffins this morning **blushing** Maybe I should have frosted them ;)

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterHoneyB

Cupcakes rule! Great post! Cupcakes have everything going for them: looks, taste and party-friendly traits. I've never heard of anyone wanting birthday muffins before!

June 1 | Unregistered Commentercakebrain

don't ban me from the site when i say i actually like muffins better than cupcakes. i think it's because i don't like frosting that much. anyways, i'm glad i learned something new.

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterKrysta

Great post! Cupcakes are definitely king in my kitchen.

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