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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)

Thanks for the research on this. I'd take a muffin anyday but would rather make cupcakes just for the extra creativity they offer.

June 1 | Unregistered Commentergiz

I've seen many posts comparing cupcakes and muffins, including one I wrote, but I think yours may be the best one of the bunch. It is so thorough, fun, and creative and of course your battle drawing rocks! Great job!

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterStef

For me, a cupcake in a larger format would be a dessert; while a muffin in larger format would be a tea loaf.

I would crawl threw broken glass for a cupcake but only walk across the room for a muffin.

I always thought of a muffin as a cupcakes uglier, denser, jelous sister.

alton brown did a great show on muffins and think writes about it in his book. you can check out the episode on http://youtube.com/watch?v=J-D7zwa1vUk
you can't trust cheap starbucks etc to be a true example of a muffin. they are too sweet and just not right. anyhoo, i think its in the mixing method and basically bread vs cake.

June 1 | Unregistered Commentermelissa

muffins are just ugly cupcakes...

love both however

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Wow, the gloves sure are coming off with this one! Very cute post. It looks like I've not got much company, though - I'm a muffin girl, all the way. :)

June 1 | Unregistered Commentercookworm

Yah for the cupcake. I believe its all about the icing especially buttercream ;)

June 2 | Unregistered CommenterGolightly

I'm currently hurling both muffing AND cupcakes at the wall to really get the full effect of *poof* versus *thud*

June 2 | Unregistered CommenterEB

Cupcakes all the way! Although my mum says muffins!

like a lot of things, each has it's time and place. i think though if you were to really press me for a preference, i would choose cupcakes for sure. my latest post and trip to cupcake camp prove it!


June 2 | Unregistered Commenterjennifer

Although there is a time and place for muffins - it's all about the cupcake!!

June 2 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah

Peabody: I'm with you. I knew we liked you for some very good reasons! :-)

Aran: Oh, yes. I believe there's a time and a place for a crumb topped muffin. Of course, eating is complex--sometimes you just hunger for something different. That having been said, 9 times out of ten, health and teeth be damned, we'd choose cupcakes. ;-)

Y: Yup--the good thing about this journey is that in no way is our research totally conclusive--it's open for further experimentation and opinion, so get researching! :-)

TW: I wish you could have been part of the taste test! I also clarified after your comment, that while the tasters could taste a difference in the two, what they couldn't decide was which one was the cupcake and which was the muffin in the frosted round. And how poetically you put it--why in the world would you choose a muffin when you could have that lovely frosted swirl?

Lauren: Send us some when you do. Preferably frosted!

Ricki: Yup--I did have to clarify. There was definitely a difference between the two, but our tasters couldn't tell which different one was the proper cupcake when both were frosted! Of course it's in no way a definitive study, I think that it might turn out a lot different depending on the recipe. Although I have to say, a vanilla muffin kind of sounds cupcake-y to me... ;-)

Karen: Alas, none come to mind! However, next time I am short for bus change I may be thinking back... ;-)

Bonnie: I think it would include pancakes...and pancakes even have "cake" in the title!! Strange how people will add fruit and somehow forget all the butter and syrup and think it's a healthy breakfast....

Recipegirl: We're with you on the cupcakes!

Heidi: Thank you!

Stickygooey: Yes!! I believe pink is the most delicious flavor as well.

Isa: Ha! Glad that you won't be pining away for these answers to the important questions.

Marianna: You say that you prefer cupcakes without icing...sorry, that just does not compute here. What type of muffins do you prefer? :-)

Happy cook: Sweet!

Veggiegirl: Yup--we all believe there's a time and a place for both. Of course, cupcakes more times than muffins. :-)

Indigo: I'm intrigued by the fairycake idea. We just may be sleuthing out how that has elvolved...

Grace: You're totally forgiven--at least you didn't say leave off the frosting (oh the horror!). And I am with you. Cake is my favorite breakfast and the reason I like the day after my birthday better than my birthday.

Glamah: Ooh, well put!

Chocolate Covered Vegan: Oh, you're so good! :-

CB: While reading your comment I heard that song in my head "we're not gonna take it.... NO! We aint gonna take it..."

Antonia: How interesting. We have a jumbo size muffin thing going on in the US too but I hadn't even considered size in the article. I'm going to be thinking about that and telling my fellow cake gumshoes to as well!

HoneyB: Thanks!! And Almond Joy Muffins...well, you know what we're thinking.

Cakebrain: HA!!! Exceedingly well put!

Krysta: Sorry, you're banned from the site. Oh, ok you can stay, because I suspect your muffins are probably delectable.

SoHo: Ours too!

Giz: Good point--they are far more beautiful I think.

Stef: Oh, thanks! I am adding a link to your article for those wanting to do more research into this important issue!!

Dana: That's a nice comparison--and I love how you've measured your love. really, we can all relate to that! :-)

Jade: ooh nice! I like that one!

Melissa: Fantastic!!! Thank you for the link, it's so nice to know that so many people think about this stuff. That Alton is awful cute.

Anonymous: So true.

Cookworm: I don't know if they'll ever really get along!

Golightly: I agree!!

EB: Sweet! Send pictures of your jackson pollock-esque walls after, please!

Charleyrogue: really, what type of muffins does she like?

Jennifer: Ah, so nicely put. You're so kind to both baked goods. But really, I think your heart is on team cupcake. I suspect anyway.

June 2 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

I am so glad you wrote this blog post! As I've been making a lot of cup-shaped treats lately, my boyfriend and I have often wondered what made some muffins and some cupcakes.

One of my coworkers said that it was, hands-down, the frosting that made the difference. I countered her argument saying that I'd seen many frosted muffins.

Now I know! :) (In a blurry, not extremely positive way.)

June 2 | Unregistered Commentermandybee

i made muffins recently and also had some leftover cupcake frosting, so i decided to smear the frosting over the muffin. instant cupcake? not quite. delicious, yes, but the addition of frosting did not a cupcake make.

June 2 | Unregistered Commenterkickpleat

I always wondered...I think I may like muffins best then, since I'm not a huge fan of frosting. But then I say that and look at the amazing first picture in the post and think I may be a dummy, lol.

June 2 | Unregistered CommenterMom Quixote

I would suggest that since muffins (particularly the store-bought variety) are typically more sticky, sweet, sugary, cloying, belly-cramp-inducing and rich, the muffin is more like cake than cake itself.

And of course, a truly honest cupcake is always delicious, never "too much" and never sags over its baking paper. In short, there is no expression like "cupcake top" because cupcakes are classy enough to know when to say when (and a cupcake would never buy pants too tight).

June 2 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

finally someone not afraid to tackle the tough question! thanks, cakespy!

btw, i tagged you for a meme on my blog. if you have time for such things...thecleanplateclub.net

June 2 | Unregistered Commenterkate

I love the icing on cupcakes. I want little cupcakes that are just crappy food coloured icing with hardly any cake. My idea of food porn!

I'm not much of a muffin fan, but I've rarely meet a cupcake that I didn't like.

June 2 | Unregistered CommenterGeggie

Cupcakes hands down anytime for me - just love to add icing and sprinkles :)

Rosie x

June 2 | Unregistered CommenterRosie

I made chocolate chip and vanilla cupcakes for the office once, but wasn't feeling well and didn't want to spread germs via uncooked buttercream, so off they went with a co-worker, unfrosted.

Folks thought they were muffins. =(

Which, sadly, may be a testament to my lack of finesse with cupcake batter thus far and not to their discerning tastebuds.

June 2 | Unregistered CommenterOwl Chick

The icing of course! :) Hmm I think everyone would lean towards cupcakes anyway only because the drawn muffin looks like an angry brown cloud.. tee hee

hm, I think the actual conclusion is that all muffins should be frosted too. Can't we all just get along? But I guess your conclusion is ok too...

Cupcakes are my favorite. I suppose if muffins tasted nice with dollops of frosting, the choice would be more difficult.

By the way, I LOVE that little sketch of the muffin vs. cupcake! Their little angry eyes and frowny mouths! Too cute.

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