muffin of the month, march 2016: muffins versus cupcakes


previous monthly muffins

11/15, pumpkin streusel | | 12/15, gluten-free sweet potato | | 1/16, muffin history | | 2/16, vegan ginger muffins

Muffins and cupcakes are not the same thing. There may be plenty of overlap in recipe or preparation: both use chemical leavening (baking soda/powder), and you can make either with butter.

A frosted muffin is still a muffin and a glazed cupcake is still cake, and while you’re here, let’s just forget about the health implications of either (I’m not thinking of my spare tire when I frost cupcakes, y’all.)

When I first learned cupcake techniques at an internship (at a bakery that specialized in cupcakes) years ago, I scoured the Internet for a definitive answer to “what’s the diff?” and found some useful information. Inexplicably, I can’t find any of that information to share with you today, but fortunately, I remember most of it. Looking through the crooks and nannies (er….nooks and crannies?) of Google today, easily 95% of the information you’ll find says that there is no difference, that if you frost a muffin it becomes a cupcake, and if you glaze a cupcake it magically becomes a muffin.

I certainly can’t claim to be an expert in much, and I welcome any debate or disagreement with open arms, but to say that a frosted muffin is no longer a muffin is fundamentally unfair to muffins worldwide.

Don’t hurt muffin’s feelings, y’all.



The difference is not on top of the pastry, but inside: Cupcakes are cakes baked in cups, while muffins are actually a type of bread.

As I mentioned in an earlier monthly muffin, American muffins are a descendant of yeasted English muffins, small rounds of bread fried in skillets. American muffins are (usually) made with chemical leavening: sodium bicarbonate (baking soda/powder.)

Muffins are quickbread baked in cups.

The nature of quickbread is a topic for a future post, but it’s basically bread made with baking powder.

Cake (non-vegan) is made by beating solid, softened butter* with sugar until it fluffs up and turns pale, then gradually beating in the rest of the ingredients (eggs, vanilla, salt, flour, and baking powder) until smooth and uniform. The batter is delicate and needs to be beaten for a few minutes.

*Vegan cupcakes made with vegetable oil instead of butter are still cupcakes. Here, the definition becomes a little fuzzy, but vegan cupcake batter is beaten longer than vegan muffin batter and has more non-animal fat, too. 



Muffins, on the other hand, are heartier and more forgiving. A liquid fat (melted butter, canola oil, etc.) is whisked together with other liquids (fruit purees, milk, vinegar, eggs, etc.), while flour, salt, and baking powder are mixed together in a separate bowl. Then, the wet and dry mixtures are quickly whisked together, just until incorporated, apportioned into the baking cups, and baked.

In muffin batter, there is a higher ratio of liquid to fat or flour, while in cupcakes, the fat in the butter and eggs is vital to the texture. Something something fat inhibits the formation of gluten blah blah blah. As a result, muffins are denser than cupcakes (if you can’t decide whether what you’re eating is cake or bread, throw it against the wall. If it poofs, then you’ve just wasted perfectly good cake. If it thuds, it was probably bread and you’ve just wasted that, as well.)

But of course I joke.

It’s true that cupcakes are nearly always frosted, taking on the characteristic curvy cupcake silhouette, and muffins are often glazed or topped with dry ingredients. This, however, is simply tradition. Brioche in the shape of a crescent, filled with chocolate, is still brioche (or maybe pain au chocolat.) It doesn’t become a croissant because of the shape or filling.




The muffin versus cupcake debate is deep, confusing, and eternal. It may never end, to be honest, and despite everything on the Internet (including these words), when all is said and done, what you call that soggy bit of deliciousness turning to mush in your mouth is completely up to you. If you want to call a cupcake a muffin so you can justify the extra calories, then I am with you…helping you eat the other 11 straight out of the pan because, personally, I couldn’t care less about calories.


I don’t yet have any of my own cupcake recipes on this blog, so here are some muffins:

vegan banana nut muffins | | whole wheat lemon muffins


See you later, muffin eaters,

Nick P.

Categories: Breads, cake, muffins