I have been thinking for months about a quote I heard from the wonderful cellist and person, YoYo Ma: “I remember as a five-year-old, at an age when people begin asking children what they want to do when they grow up, I thought that what I really wanted to do was to understand.”
In the last year, Dan and I have taking a long look at what we do and why we do it. And we realized that, whether it is through cooking or writing or teaching, we have the same goal. To be in the moment, discovering.
That’s why we are changing things up here, to talk less about ourselves and more about the mysteries of baking and cooking.
And so I have spent quite a bit of time in the last month trying to understand muffins.
What is a muffin? Is it any different than a cupcake? And can we make muffins without gluten?
More importantly, to be practical, how can we set up a gluten-free muffin mix to keep in the pantry for the days when we want to give the kids a homemade treat, with efficiency?
What is a muffin?
A muffin is not a cupcake.
I’m adamant about this. Look at packages of muffins on grocery store shelves and you might not be able to tell the difference. Muffins now are loaded with chunks of chocolate, bulging with berries, and mostly stuffed with sweetness. The tops of them glisten with oil and sugar mingling. Frankly, I find most commercial muffins a little gross. I don’t want muffins the size of my head. I want a small snack, a little treat in the afternoon that yields most of its sweetness from berries or bananas, cinnamon and nutmeg. I do not want a cupcake.
Here’s a secret: I rarely want a cupcake. They are merely sweetness. They are generally considered incomplete without frosting. I want a treat with nuance. That’s a muffin, to me.
Let’s take muffins back.
Yes, but isn’t a muffin really like a cupcake?
Yes. That’s true. Muffins and cupcakes have many similarities. They both use flour, fat, sugar, and form little domes in liners in a tin with holes indented in them.
However, there are a few differencess.
Generally, we make cupcakes by creaming together butter and sugar to make a structure. In order to create a strong structure, we need more sugar for a cupcake than we would for a muffin.
When we make a muffin, we don’t need a stand mixer. (They are lovely, however.) Instead, whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk together the liquids in a glass measuring cup and pour them in. Mix them very gently. Muffins are tender for that.
Muffins should have less sugar than cupcakes. There’s that difference.
But then, where do get the structure for the muffin to hold together?
Muffins generally have about 1 cup of milk for the entire batch. Cupcakes might have a few tablespoons of milk. Or not at all. Aha! There’s the difference.
The proteins in milk help provide the structure for a muffin. The natural sugars in milk help build the flavor of the muffin. Milk is pretty vital to a muffin.
Does that mean you need cow’s milk to make a muffin? Nope. Almond milk, soy milk, homemade oat milk — these will all work in a muffin batter. Will the structure and taste of a non-dairy muffin be different than a muffin made with whole cow’s milk? Of course.
What in this world is perfect? More importantly, what in this world is the same every time? Make the muffin that works for your family.
I like buttermilk best of all. You might prefer rice milk. Go ahead and play.
Can we make muffins without gluten?
Of course, silly.
Muffins don’t need gluten. Gluten provides elasticity and sturdiness. Gluten is great for breads and pizza doughs. Muffins? Nope. In fact, much of what we do to make a muffin with wheat flour is to prevent the formation of the gluten. A gluten-free muffin? Worry-free!
The key to great baking is not gluten. The key is to have the right ratio of fats to flours to liquids to eggs to sugar. Know the backbone of the baked good you are making and you can make it a dozen different ways.
That’s why we do this. I’ve made dozens of batches of muffins in the last month, to make sure we had the right amount of flour in this mix. 12 ounces? They came out solid and a little too dry. 8 ounces? They fell apart. We found the middle way.
We recommend our gluten-free flour for making this muffin mix. Why? I worked for years to understand flour, to think about protein and starches, to make a mix that would work well for baking. I didn’t want to replicate the look of white flour, as so many of the gluten-free flours on the market do. I wanted to make a great baking flour.
We still use our own flour for baking every day. We tried to make it easy for you too.
But if you have more time on your hands than those of us with small children do, feel free to play with different flours. Make a teff-oat flour muffin with cacao nibs and raspberries. Try a corn muffin with bits of prosciutto and balsamic. There’s no end to the flavors you can experience.
This is the basic form. Now you can create your own.
Variations on a theme.
What we’re offering here is the basic muffin recipe. But other than for testing purposes, I never make a plain muffin like this.
Here is where you can make your own, based on your flavor preferences and also whatever you have in the house.
Spices. I like a little nutmeg, just a few scrapings on the microplane, in the basic muffin mix. You might not. If so, take it out. But think about the tastes in the muffin you are making and choose a spice for it. Cardamom. Cinnamon. Cloves. Ginger.
For real daring, make a savory-ish muffin with corn flour and ingredients like salami or prosciutto and use something like smoked paprika or ras-el hanout in your muffin. It might not be for everyone but it’s darned good.
Dried fruits and nuts. These are the basics here. Cranberry and pecan muffins. Blueberry and walnuts. Cherries and pistachios. Raisins and cashews. These are always a hit.
(We buy our nuts from Nuts.com, which has a great protocol for celiacs.)
Fresh fruit. If you use fresh fruit, like bananas or fresh blueberries in season, then mix them in with the dry ingredients, fully coating them, before adding the liquid to the muffin batter. This will give them a little buoyancy. There’s no way to prevent sinkage entirely — because duh, gravity — but this trick seems to help a little.
How to make an applesauce or pumpkin muffin. If you want to add a cup of applesauce or pumpkin puree for autumnal muffins, then you need to make a few changes. Since those purees are so wet, drop the milk to ½ cup, the oil to ¼ cup, and the egg to 1 egg. Don’t forget the cinnamon, ginger, and cloves! But the muffin mix you are going to make will be the same.
Sweeteners. Make a muffin with all white sugar if you want a super tender, soft muffin. If you want more flavor variation but a bit sturdier muffin, mix white sugar and brown sugar. For a much heartier muffin, like a morning glory muffin, use all brown sugar. If you prefer coconut sugar — I’m a big fan — it acts more like brown sugar than white sugar.
Liquid sweeteners, such as honey or maple syrup, are a different animal entirely. They will create a different kind of muffin. They also require some tinkering. We’ll do a post soonish on how to bake with honey or maple syrup. But if you want use them now, I recommend this piece on how to bake with honey.
Why baking powder and baking soda?
In order to get a rise out of our muffins, we need leaveners.
You might know this already. However, it’s good to remember.
If you use only baking soda in a recipe, you have to work fast. As soon as the acid in the batter — yogurt or creme fraiche or buttermilk — hits the soda, it starts to work. That means the batter has to go into the oven right now. That’s not always convenient. And if you use only baking soda, you have to make sure that you include something acidic in the recipe.
Baking powder is much more useful. As the incredible Stella Parks writes in this great piece about baking powder for Serious Eats: baking powder is “…a two-in-one chemical leavening that combines a powdered alkali (sodium bicarbonate) with a powdered acid (originally, tartaric acid). When moistened in a dough or batter, a chemical reaction takes place that produces carbon dioxide gas, inflating cookies, cakes, and pancakes. Because baking powder combines both an acid and a base, it eliminates the need for ingredients like buttermilk or sour cream to activate the sodium bicarbonate, allowing milk or even water to set off the reaction.”
Commercial baking powder is “double-acting,” meaning that an added ingredient in there produces even more leavening. It cannot activate with the acid until it reaches 140°. That means the muffin will start to rise as it heats up inside the oven.
Baking powder is a great workhorse. In fact, as I have written about before, hydration, even overnight, helps muffin batters to create better-tasting and higher-rising muffins. That doesn’t work as well with a recipe that uses only baking soda. Baking powder might be fine by itself.
Do you need baking soda in this recipe? Not necessarily. However, if you’re going to add anything acidic to the basic recipe — sour cream, lemon juice, creme fraiche, lemon zest, etc. — it doesn’t hurt to have some baking soda in there to make those muffins rise higher.
Do you have anything more to say about muffins?
Plenty, believe it or not. I could go on for pages more. However, we’re going to make lemon almond poppyseed muffins next week here, so there will be more space and time. Make yourself a couple of these mixes, then buy some lemons, slivered almonds, and poppyseeds. Get ready to play and make some muffins.
We’ll talk more next week.
And frankly, I probably already lost a lot of you with the technicalities of baking powder and soda, so it’s time to end this here.
Let’s make some muffins.
And hey! If you do make muffins and like them, put them up on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #gfgmuffins so we can find them. That’s the best part about social media: inspiring each other with our ideas.
We will be live with a video on the gluten-free girl Facebook page next Wednesday, November 2nd, about 10 am PST, to show you all this and make some muffins together.
gluten-free muffin mix
Do yourself a favor. Pull out gluten-free flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg. Find 5 plastic bags of the size you want. Line them up. Pull out the scale.
Make yourself a bunch of batches of this gluten-free muffin mix. You’re going to want to make many for yourself.
Combine the dry ingredients. Whisk together the gluten-free flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg in a large bowl. When they are thoroughly combined, put the dry ingredients into a large plastic bag or jar. Label it “gluten-free muffin mix.”
When you are ready to make the muffins….
1 cup milk
1/2 cup oil
1 cup add-ins
Prepare to bake. Heat the oven to 425°. Line a standard muffin tin with liners.
Combine the wet ingredients. In a large glass measuring cup, whisk together the milk, oil, and 2 eggs. When they are thoroughly beaten together, pour them into the well in the dry ingredients.
Finish the batter. Gently, fold the dry ingredients into the wet, making sure that everything is entirely combined. Use a rubber spatula to fold in any add-ins here. (If you are using a wet add-in like berries or bananas, see note in the post.) Fill the muffin liners ⅔ full.
Bake the muffins. Bake the muffins at 425° for 5 minutes, then change the heat to 375°. Continue baking until the muffins are browned on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 15 to 20 minutes.
Pull the muffin pan out of the oven. Let the muffins cool for 5 minutes, then turn them in the pan until each muffin is sideways. This will help the bottoms of the muffins to cool entirely.
Cool until room temperature, about 20 minutes. Eat when you want.
Makes 9 to 12 minutes, depending on the size of the muffins you make.