Peaked or Flat?

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.

22 thoughts on “Peaked or Flat?”

  1. Ah! This is the very question I asked a bit further down the entries. I’m glad to feel somewhat vindicated that I never “achieved” the high peak that I hoped for. Still, how to let go of the archetypal image of such a muffin? Can’t I have both? As I said, I got some success by preheating the tin to a very high temperature and then dropping back the oven temp once the batter was loaded in. My working theory was that setting the perimeters quickly left the rising batter no where to go but up. And maybe that’s the best I get to hope for…

    I got a lot of practice and opportunities to experiment when my middle school aged son decided that nothing but muffins for breakfast and fast food or pizza for the rest of the day would pass his lips. Thank god I could prepare the dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately at night and just combine and bake in the morning. There’s nothing like that slight crispiness on the margins where the sides meet the top with the steamy, tender interior!

    1. Hey Rainey!

      Yes I think what you were getting was an explosive (if limited) rise due to the very high heat, and that helped push the top up. But I’m with you on fresh-baked muffins. They’re like fresh-fried doughnuts…they have that little but of wonderful crispiness, but only for a while! Where’s the milk?

      – Joe

  2. Great topic. You’re right about the idea that most of us have regarding muffins needing to have a nice “muffin top”. Whenever my wife bakes muffins / cupcakes I always ask her why they don’t have tops and I always thought she just didn’t put enough batter in the mold. I’m going to appreciate her baking abilities a bit more now! Thanks for the great post.

    1. Hey Geoff! Thank you and yes, the missus deserves appreciation! Despite the Seinfeld episode on the subject, tops are overrated!

      – Joe

  3. Dear Mr. Muffinman,

    Do you know the answer to these questions?

    (1) Does letting the batter rest for 1/2 hr or more do the same as overmixing the batter? I’ve never mixed muffins enough to create a dome top, but I have baked the same batch of batter with different resting times (not because I wanted to, but because my oven only lets me bake 12 muffins at a go, but I often want to make at least 24). The batter get partitioned into tins at the same time. The ones that rest while they wait their turn to bake always have much bigger domes.

    (2) Why haven’t I noticed a big textural difference between the two batches?



    Muffin maker

    1. Aha, an EXCELLENT question. You get high domes with a rested batter for the very same reason: developed gluten. For the truth is, it isn’t just agitation that causes gluten to develop. Gluten molecules that are near each other in a wet environment will bond to each other whether they’re agitated or not. The no-knead bread phenomenon is predicted on this very behavior. The wetter the environment, the faster the gluten will develop on its own. And as you well know, muffin batter is pretty darn wet! Thanks so much for that, Mari!

      – Joe

      1. I’ve always wondered about resting cake batter, and muffin batters especially. I thought that resting would actually ‘lighten’ up the gluten, rather than vice versa? Don’t we rest cookie doughs and puff pastry for that reason?
        Also, Shirley Corriher in Bakewise says that baking muffins at a higher temperature (400+) also sets the edges more quickly so that one can get a more domed top! What do u think about this?

        1. Cookie doughs and puff pastry have mostly fat in them. Gluten gets developed by either motion (kneading etc) or by leaving it surrounded by wetness over time. If it’s surrounded by fat and you’ve developed it by working, it will relax if you rest it. If it’s surrounded by water or similar it gets more developed with resting.

        2. I disagree with Bronwyn that activated gluten has to be surrounded by fat in order for it to relax. Bread doughs will indeed relax given a little time, and they have no fat in them to speak of. The key factor is really moisture. As the water content increases you’ll get more gluten development, that’s as true for wet (high hydration) bread doughs as it is for muffin batters.

          So the question then becomes: why does relaxing time benefit bread dough but not muffin batter? The answer to that, I believe, is gravity. A lump of dough sitting on a countertop wants to spread, and that puts steady pressure on the gluten networks until eventually they break. A liquid batter sitting in a muffin mold isn’t subject to those forces.

          – Joe

          1. Hi Joe,

            My mom (who is not really a baker, it must be stated) always said that anything leavened with baking powder or baking soda had to go into the oven as soon as possible after mixing since the reaction between the powder and the liquid in the batter would only last for so long. That makes sense to me, but this discussion about high domes on muffins that have rested suggests otherwise.

            What do you think? Was my mom “out to lunch”?

          2. I don’t think gluten actually relaxes in bread given more time – it disintegrates. From my understanding the relaxation of gluten is when the strands separate from each other, but given MORE time what happens is that proteolysis starts happening and the gluten strands themselves start to fall to bits. You see this in sourdough starter that’s been left too long.

          3. Yes but that take hours, does it not? It happens when the dough has completely over-proofed and goes absolutely slack.

            – Joe

          4. I’ve also noticed that muffin batters that have been left to rest for a bit actually rise higher, but I would have to taste again to see how the textures differ.
            Question: what about resting the batter for madeleine? Here’s an example where resting is commonly encouraged so that the cakes form a domed top. Des the domed top ‘happen’ because of increased gluten formation too?
            I always thoguht that resting gives flour more time to gelatinise with the liquids in the dough/batter and therefore brings about a finer texture, and the different flavours mingle better. It seems that this isn’t necessarily the case…

          5. I think both things happen, certainly the gluten formation, though you really need heat if you want flour to gelatinize in a significant way.

            – Joe

        3. Ah yes, regarding your other question, Shirley Corriher and I have different tastes in many things. She likes domed muffins with crispy edges (which you get when you go for an explosive rise via a high-heat bake). I can’t explain that since I think both domes and overdone edges absolutely ruin the tender texture of a muffin. But then Shirley also considers cakes made via the one-bowl method to be of inferior quality relative to cakes made via the muffin or two-stage method. Again I disagree. It’s a style thing. 😉

          – Joe

          1. Illuminating points Joe! What about resting crepe or pancakes batter? Isn’t that meant to be beneficial to the finished product? From what’s been said here it would actully activate even more gluten, no?
            And, what do u think about resting butter cake batters, in general? I always feel that it makes for a finer texture, as chilling cookie doughs do.

          2. The main reason for resting those types of batters is to let bubbles rise out, as cooked-in bubbles make things like crepes and blintzes stiff, which means they break when you try to roll them. There’s no question you’ll have gluten development as they sit, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for such thin little cakes.

            As far as resting cake batters, I confess I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I’ve rested pans full of batter for up to an hour (in my old bakery while I was panning a large volume of cake), but I don’t remember noticing a difference in the crumb. That’s not to say there wasn’t a difference…I just don’t remember. But cake batters don’t suffer from resting like muffin batters do. Cake batters are so full of fat and sugar that gluten molecules have a hard time getting close enough to bond to one another. That’s not to say cake batters can’t be overworked (they can), but a little sitting generally does’t hurt them much.

            – Joe

            – Joe

    2. Oh yeah, almost forgot. I’ll bet if you did a blind taste test to determine which was tougher/chewier you could tell the difference.

      – Joe

      1. Yup, I’m definitely going to have to do that now. Bake a batch immediately, with a 1/2 hr rest, and an 1 hr rest. See if I can tell a difference taste-wise… and I should probably cut them in half and take pictures to see differences in tunnel development.

        That will have to wait until after spring break though. If I don’t, too many muffins will end up in my belly instead of other peoples bellies!

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