That’s probably the biggest question most people have about muffins: should I be going for the cone on the top or not? Experts disagree on the subject but my firm feeling on the cone is that it’s a no-no. But why?
Cone-shaped muffin tops are like domes on cake layers: a sign that the batter has been over-mixed, and a sure-fire sign that you’re in for a chewy, gummy muffin eating experience.
For what causes a muffin to peak but activated gluten? Active gluten helps the batter capture and hold gas and steam. That creates overly-large bubbles (“tunnels” are they’re known in the trade) which give the muffin lots of volume. The muffin mold confines the expansion of the batter in all directions but one: up. Thus when the center — which is the last part of the muffin to finish baking — heats up it can’t expand outward. For lack of any alternative it pushes skyward creating a cone shape. Certainly you want some gas and steam capture in a muffin to give it lift. However ultimately the goal is to allow most of it to escape in the interests of crumb and texture.
For indeed the other thing activated gluten does is make the muffin chewy. That, as Alton Brown likes to say, is not good eats. At least not in my universe. A perfectly mixed muffin, I believe, should have a fairly tight and uniform crumb, and be tender to the bite. In this day and age, when so many of us have become accustomed to gummy mass-produced muffins it’s hard to appreciate the difference. You really have to taste it to appreciate it.