While there are infinite variations on how to make muffins and quick-breads, there are some fundamental rules, tips, and tweaks that can help you lock down how to make these simple yet sometimes elusive sweet treats. Many of the tips below actually encompass all baking, but I have tweaked them to be more geared towards muffins and quickbreads. These tips and tricks that have stood me well over the years and helped me elevate my muffin game.
The Golden (Baking) Ratio
Standard muffin and quick-bread recipes usually follow the same fundamental formula: two parts each flour and liquid to one part each of egg and a fat of some kind, plus a small amount of leavener to achieve a certain finished product. The leavener is usually baking soda and/or baking powder*; baking powder for better flavour, and baking soda for browning and to support the loaf’s structure. It is possible to tweak this formula to achieve a different result, but it’s highly recommended that you practice your scales before trying arpeggios…in other words, practice the basics before you start improvising.
*Baking ammonia is often hard to find, reeks like whoa, and is more often used in commercial baking, so we won’t include that one.
Order of Operations
It may sound weird, but *how* you mix your quick-bread or muffin batter is just as important as what ingredients you’re using. The order in which your mix your ingredients can be the difference between your product’s lofty success and flat, lumpy, tunneled failure.
Firstly, mixing the dry ingredients separately from the wet ingredients is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that you can be sure each set of ingredients is well-combined before “activating” them by blending them together.
When you’re ready to combine the contents of the two bowls, best practice is to pour wet over dry, never the other way round. Make a well or “hole” in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients, then mix them together quickly but gently in as few strokes as possible. Some lumps or small streaks of flour are fine; it’s more important at this point to not overwork the batter. Lightly fold in your add-ins (fruit, chocolate chips, nuts, etc.), and using a silicon spatula scrape the batter into your baking tin.
Choose Your Own Adventure
While the above is best practice for making a standard quickbread or muffins, it’s not an absolute; you can also play around with how ingredients are combined for different outcomes. For a more cake-like quick bread, use a hand or stand mixer to cream together room-temperature butter and sugar, which adds more air to the batter. For a more scone-like result, cut cold butter into the dry ingredients, then pour in the wet ingredients and quickly mix to combine.
Not all Baking Pans are the Same
As mentioned in my previous post (Top Tips: Choosing the Right Bakeware) the decision to use metal, glass, ceramic, or silicone loaf pans/muffin tins will inform how the final result of your baked good is going to look, taste, and even smell. Using the right pan for the job will help to ensure your muffins and loaves have loft, are browned but not burned, and are baked all the way through.
The same goes for the size of the pans; there are several dimensions and volumes of loaf pans, so make sure you are using the correct volume of pan. With muffins, there are standard, mini, jumbo, and specialty pan sizes and shapes, and with loaf pans, virtually anything goes; be sure you’re using the right pan size and shape for the recipe.
A well-greased muffin tin or loaf pan can make the difference between a professional-looking product and one where chunks are missing because they’re still stuck in the pan. Use butter, shortening, or oil, or use a vegetable-oil based nonstick spray. Other options include paper muffin liners or using silicone pans, which are less likely (but not 100% guaranteed) to stick.
In addition, the best way to prevent your cooked loaves and muffins from breaking apart upon removal from the oven is to engage your patience muscles and let them cool in their respective pans on a cooling rack for 5-15 minutes before removing from the pans and transferring to the rack to continue cooling. This will give the products a chance to firm up and gain some structure as they cool; you don’t want to wait too long, however, as allowing your baked goods to cool completely in their pans can lead to a) bottom sogginess from the trapped steam reabsorbing into the product, and b) difficulty removing the product due to it adhering to the sides and bottom of the pan as it cools.
Accuracy is Your Friend
Baking relies on the chemistry of carefully considered and properly measured ingredients to create culinary magic: light-as-air biscuits, chewy cookies, flaky crusts and moist cakes.The Food Network
There’s an expression I’ve used before, and no doubt will use again: Cooking is an art, but Baking is a science. To that end, as always in science, accuracy is key. It’s vital to measure your ingredients accurately. If ingredient proportions aren’t correct, your quickbreads have a much higher chance of failure. If there’s too much liquid, quick breads may sink in the middle as the leavening (baking powder/soda) will not be strong enough to keep its structure. Alternatively, too much fat can make them coarsely textured.
While you know that I’m a huge proponent of using weight for measurement instead of volume for the best accuracy, I’m also keenly aware that most recipe books are written with the home cook or baker in mind, and those recipes have been converted to use volume for that reason. So to that end, if you’re going to use volume measurements, use dry measure cups (the kind without a spout) for flour and similar dry ingredients, and liquid measuring cups for milk and other liquids. Use measuring spoons for small amounts of wet or dry ingredients; while the amounts may seem small enough to not matter, there can be a huge difference in the final product (have you ever eyeballed adding salt to a baking recipe and regretted it afterwards? Don’t be that guy).
In the same vein of accuracy, check the accuracy of your oven’s temperature; as little as a 25°F difference above or below the temperature stated in the recipe can make the difference between success or failure.
Quality Is as Quality Does
It should go without saying, but I can’t recommend enough that you use fresh, good quality ingredients; in fact, I advocate using the highest quality ingredients that you can afford. This, however, can be a bit tricky for some ingredients; be aware of what you are buying as the wrong ingredient regardless of its price can have a negative effect on your final product.
Case in point; flour is flour, yes? Actually, no. If you were to substitute grocery store All Purpose flour, which is perfectly fine to use (I often use it myself) with a quality flour with a higher protein content, this may affect the texture and crumb of your baked goods. When following a recipe, I always take into account which products the recipe may be steering me towards; obviously a recipe for muffins from Robin Hood or Swan is going to advocate using their own product as the main ingredient, but oftentimes the recipe will give you clues as to why they are choosing one product over another.
When it comes to substitutions, an easy to remember rule of thumb is: any substitutions you make will affect the final outcome.
Now, this may be a minimal, nigh-unnoticeable change, or even one for the better. But keep in mind that the recipe you are following was developed with those ingredients in mind. As people who read this food blog know about me, I’m a HUGE proponent of creativity in the kitchen; I strongly advocate for making substitutions in a recipe and trying new things…but there is a caveat to this enthusiasm; while I don’t expect everyone to have a Gordon Ramsay-like knowledge of and experience with food, it is important to understand your ingredients, even a little, before making change willy-nilly. In other (simpler) words, substituting like-for-like is good, but substituting a random ingredient in for a critical or structural ingredient is fraught with pitfalls.
For example, substituting shortening or firm coconut oil for butter in a quickbread or muffin recipe is often fine (there will be a taste difference, but structurally these ingredients are often interchangeable). However, if you substitute that butter with olive oil or peanut butter, or applesauce or pureed prunes, you will need to make other alterations to the recipe to accommodate the missing fat or your recipe may fail.
The same can be said for sugars; white granulated sugar can often be replaced in a quickbread recipe 1:1 with golden yellow sugar or brown sugar, or even the super-trendy these days coconut sugar, but I would recommend testing out whether you can replace it with, say, corn syrup, glucose, or another liquid sweetener, or for that matter replacing the sugar with mashed banana or the aforementioned prunes or applesauce. Some is probably going to be ok, but all may be problematic without maybe searching out an alternative recipe that was developed with those specific substitutions in mind.
Give Me Space
After so much work is put into creating a quickbread or muffin recipe, one of the most annoying negative outcomes is when your product either is unimpressively small, or overflows the pan. It can be difficult to judge how much of your batter to add to your baking vessel, especially for variously-sized pans, so it’s easier to suggest a “fill line” instead of a volume measurement.
As a general rule, fill your loaf pans and muffin cups about ¾ full, which should leave enough room for your product to rise without making a mess (if the recipe you’re using directs otherwise, then by all means use those instructions instead). Don’t give into temptation to add “just a little more” because you have bit of batter left; it’s better to make a small “baker’s snack” muffin with the leftovers than to overfill.
Well, that covers everything I can think of when it comes to baking the perfect quickbreads and muffins. There are, I’m sure, more tweaks and methods that can help you on your journey to muffin nirvana, but these should definitely help you achieve at the very least a quality baked product you can be proud of.
And that’s really what it’s all about, dontcha think?