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Mixing, Over-mixing, and the Perfect Muffin

Reader Mark writes:

My question is, why do you get big holes in muffins when you mix the batter a lot? That seems to be contrary to what I’ve generally assumed, that more mixing usually means smaller holes. 

Great question, Mark! Mixing a lot does yield smaller holes and tighter crumb in the case of cake layers and brioche. However both of those preparations are quite high in fat, so the mixing doesn’t result in a lot of activated gluten, primarily because the starches get coated in fat and have a hard time latching on to one another. Muffins are quite a bit leaner, which means that when you mix the batter a lot, you get a relatively strong gluten network. 

That microscopic network catches and holds steam bubbles as the muffin bakes, creating extremely large and/or long bubbles (“tunnels”) in muffin’s crumb, and a tell-tale conical peak on the top. The peak is the result of the added volume (the center heats last and the expanding batter has nowhere to go but up).

Muffins with a high peak should be avoided since they’re bound to be rubbery on the inside. The same goes for tea breads that look like treasure chests. The big hump means a tough interior. Now I should say that I go round and round with a couple of commercial baker friends on this issue, one of them a very opinionated Brooklynite who insists that “rubbery” is what God intended a muffin to be.

Hogwash. Tenderness is the very soul of a quality muffin or tea bread. And ye shall know them by their low, gently sloping crowns. Thanks Mark!

8 thoughts on “Mixing, Over-mixing, and the Perfect Muffin”

  1. Very interesting. I have always looked for the muffin, banana bread or pound cake to be treasure chest domed and cracked. It’s the way my mother made them and what I strive for, on the rare occasion I bake sweet. The flat-topped muffins look like they weren’t made right, to me.

    I don’t find the domed goods to be rubbery, you can take a bite without the rest falling in your lap. They stand up to being buttered or toasted or covered in berries and whipped cream. But the flat ones seem to fall apart if you pick them up.

    I love the fact that everyone has their own preferences and I’ll try as many as I can. Thank you for this article.

    1. Hey Robin!

      You and Bronwyn are of like mind on this it seems. You make a good case, especially your point about eating on the go. And if muffins aren’t about that, what are they for?

      Many thanks!

      Joe

  2. Hello Joe,

    I ran across your blog while recalling just exactly how critical it is (or not so much) about sulphured/unsulphured molasses. (only food freaks care, as you know).

    I skimmed over a few of your other posts. It’s not only the information and techniques you impart…it’s how you do it. Super fun reading you, as if feels like your over my shoulder over there by the spice cabinet and 1970’s galley kitchenette I’m rendered now to bake things from.

    Thank, I look forward to reading so much more.

    B. Speeg

    1. Bonnie, you delightful woman, you. How can a comment like that not make a blogger’s day?

      So glad you’ll be back around from time to time. I’m generally good at answering questions, so don’t hesitate to send me a note should you need a clarification or an extra tip. I don’t blog as much as I used to, but I’m still around and goofing off.

      Chers and thanks!

      – Joe

  3. I’m pro-rubbery. Muffins in New Zealand are more often savoury than not, and often eaten buttered. Tender is very hard to spread butter on, and besides, tender is what cupcakes are.

    1. Pro-rubbery!

      Oh Bronwyn, after all we’ve been through together.

      Et tu…et tu?

      But I’ll agree on the butter issue. The again, if you eat them hot, it just melts on!

      – Joe

  4. Hmmmm. Muffins are for eating within an hour or so, no? Or at the very least, on the same day they’re made. If that’s not happening, I wrap and freeze. So tender is the word. But I’m also one of those people who puts nothing on that fresh tender muffin. No butter, no jam, nada. I guess there are 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, but there are hundreds of ways to eat a muffin.

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