So, cupcakes are just muffins with frosting on top, right? The difference between cupcakes and muffins consists mainly of other culinary elements.
What makes them different? There are quite a few differences between the two desserts, from their ingredients to their baking style to their final presentation— even how long the batter is mixed. But, if there’s much more to it than just icing, how are you supposed to tell a muffin from a cupcake?
The Difference Between Cupcakes and Muffins: The Short Answer
To put it simply, muffins are sweet or savory baked goods, while cupcakes are scaled-down versions of a real cake.
The quickest way to tell a muffin from a cupcake (besides the taste) is that cupcakes are typically served with frosting on top, while muffins rarely have frosting.
Another key difference is that cupcakes are almost always sweet, but muffins can be sweet or savory depending on what the baker wants.
But these are far from the only differences! Muffins and cupcakes have different baking strategies, ingredients, procedures, and— of course— tastes.
There are many different kinds of muffins and cupcakes that make the lines between them much more blurry.
And, while there are general differences between the two types of baked goods, there are no hard and fast rules that make it easy to separate them— all bakeries have their own muffin/cupcake recipes.
Let’s dive into the details of what gives cupcakes and muffins their unique deliciousness.
Cupcakes And Muffins Use (Slightly) Different Ingredients
While many bakers use their processes, recipes, and favorite ingredients for their muffins or cupcakes, there are a few baking trends that many people use different strategies for the two confections.
For example, while most muffins and cupcakes are made with butter, milk, eggs, and sugar, some bakers use all-purpose flour for cupcakes but prefer something different for muffins. Bakers can use oat, whole wheat, or even nut-based flours to get that perfect muffin consistency. Some bakers even use cake flour to make cupcakes fluffier.
It’s also common to mix additional ingredients into muffin batter— and not cupcake batter— for little sweet or savory treats in the dessert. Chocolate chips, blueberries, dried fruit, or walnuts are often stirred directly into the muffin batter.
On the other hand, cupcakes often use more butter and sugar than muffins for a sweeter, more dessert-like baked goodie. Muffins sometimes use a different form of fat entirely, such as substituting vegetable oil for butter.
Additionally, cupcakes almost always require the ingredients to make the frosting as well as batter. While some muffins have a sugar-based glaze that is made similarly, they typically don’t need as much sugar and butter as making cake frosting.
One thing about cupcakes is that they can be made with basically any cake batter, so the flavor possibilities are nearly endless. Any cake that you can bake in a pan— red velvet, carrot cake, white cake, chocolate— can be easily translated into cupcake form.
Cupcakes also have multiple options for frosting, such as a buttercream base or a whipped cream base. The choices are almost endless with the varieties of ingredients, colors, and types of icing to top cupcakes.
The Baking Process Is Different
If you’ve ever eaten a cupcake and muffin back-to-back, you might have noticed that cupcakes tend to be lighter and fluffier than their denser baked good cousins, muffins. This fact is because the baking process, just like the ingredients, is different between the two desserts.
Muffin recipes typically don’t call for too much beating in the batter. Once the ingredients are all mixed thoroughly enough, the batter is usually ready! This quick-mixed batter typically stays at least a little bit lumpy and uneven up through the baking process.
Some bakers say that to make muffins, it’s best to mix the dry and wet ingredients in separate bowls, and then stir the two together in a bigger bowl once they’re fully combined.
For cupcakes, the dry and wet ingredients can often all go in one big mixing bowl— but the order and process for mixing the ingredients in is highly specific. A typical cupcake baking process involves creaming the butter and sugar together first. After that, the baker usually beats the eggs in, mixes in the milk, and carefully sifts the flour into the mix.
Cupcake batter is generally beaten for much, much longer than muffin batter. The purpose of this is to fill the batter with tiny air bubbles consistently throughout the mix. This leads to the airy fluffiness that makes cupcakes so light and much less dense than muffins.
When it comes to baking the treats, some dessert enthusiasts insist that there is one more difference: cupcakes almost always use liners or wrappers, while muffins tend not to have these. That being said, muffin liners are sometimes used, especially in bakeries, but may be replaced with things like tulip baking cups since there’s no frosting.
Luckily, muffin pans and cupcake pans are exactly the same, so you’ll be able to make both kinds of baked goods with just one pan. However, be sure to use a nonstick or greased pan for muffins, since there’s no liner to keep them from sticking.
So What Will The Batter Look Like?
Good question! Muffin and cupcake batter do generally come out very different in texture and consistency. The difference between cupcakes and muffins is easy to determine from their batter types.
Since cupcake batter requires more mixing and beating, it ends up smooth and silky, just like cake batter ready to pour in the pan. The emulsion process and how the flour is added is essential to achieving this lump-free ready-to-bake mix.
On the other hand, muffin batter is often lumpy. This is particularly true if there are any additions to the muffin mix, such as nuts or fruits.
Because the flour is generally added in simultaneously, and the recipes don’t call for too much batter mixing, the result is a lot lumpier than cupcake batter. This is even true even if no extras have been added to the mix.
If the batter looks like it could be poured into a cake for a smooth, easily-frosted birthday cake, it’s cupcake batter. If it would look more at home in a bread pan, it’s muffin batter.
Does That Mean You Can Make Muffins And Cupcakes With Alternate Ingredients?
Though the full answer is a bit more complicated, essentially, yes, mixing and baking bread-like ingredients in the muffin method will result in muffin-like baked goods. That means a dense, course-crumbed dessert, even if you are using cupcake batter.
Similarly, mixing the ingredients and beating the batter for a long time— as per the cake mixing process— will create cupcake-like desserts with a more light, airy texture.
Truthfully, the way the ingredients are combined is as important as the ingredients themselves when differentiating cupcakes and muffins.
Muffins: Are They The Healthier Choice?
It’s a common opinion that the average muffin is healthier than the average cupcake. But is this correct?
Yes and no. By definition, muffins do not have to contain healthier ingredients or less fat than cupcakes— both are bread-based baked goods, after all. Muffins can be just as unhealthy as cupcakes, and they usually have lots of butter and sugar. They can have fruits, veggies, or even bacon added to the batter.
However, many muffin recipes call for healthier ingredients, such as whole wheat flour and dried fruit instead of cake flour and frosting.
Talented bakers can also pack nutrients in their muffins in the form of whole grains, fruit and nuts, seeds, and even vegetables. To get some nutritional value from a delicious snack, you can try carrot muffins or muffins topped with pumpkin seeds.
Additionally, many muffins are made with health- and allergy-conscious ingredients (or can have their components swapped out for other options). In the proper bakery or kitchen, you may be able to find muffins made without dairy, gluten, or eggs.
Since cupcakes are traditionally made with cake ingredients, it can be more challenging to find vegan or gluten-free versions— unless you make them yourself or find a bakery specializing in healthy baked goods.
Since cupcakes are generally topped with a sugar-based frosting, glaze, or even candy toppings, these are not usually regarded as the healthiest dessert choice unless they baked them specifically to be a low-sugar or reduced-fat cupcake recipe. For this reason, while muffins are generally not the healthiest snack, they tend to be better for you than cupcakes.
Are Cupcakes And Muffins The Same Shape?
Often, cupcakes and muffins don’t come out exactly the same shape, and there’s a purpose for that.
While it’s not typically a baking rule, cupcakes generally have a flatter top than muffins. That’s to make sure that there’s an even, accessible surface to apply frosting— and lots of room for toppings and treats.
Muffins, by contrast, are usually domed. They also usually have big, coarse crumbs when you take a bite, whereas cupcake crumbs tend to be finer. Muffins typically have enough batter contained in the cups so that the cake barely flows over the wrapper.
Are Cupcakes Or Muffins More Popular?
While it’s difficult to quantify which treat option is the more favored choice, there is one undeniable fact that does make one of these desserts very popular: cupcakes tend to look more appealing with all their decorations than muffins.
With their towering frosting swirls, eye-catching toppings, and tons of options for customization, cupcakes are more at home in specialty bakeries— and in food blogs. There’s no denying the visual appeal of a colorful swirl of icing dotted with rainbow sprinkles on top of a miniature cake.
When it comes to parties and special occasions, cupcakes are by far the more popular option— with their beautiful decorations and colorful aesthetics, it’s easy to see why. Unlike muffins, cupcakes are generally suitable at home in a highly decorated area, making for more vivid and vibrant pictures.
Muffins, on the other hand, tend to look more modest and less exciting. However, what they lack in bright colors and candy bits, they make up for in versatility. Cupcakes are excellent desserts, but muffins can be a perfect choice for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, or a sweet treat depending on the ingredients.
This makes muffins a trendy choice for those with strong dietary preferences, as it’s typically easier to find a gluten-free muffin at a bakery than a cupcake without flour. Muffins are also beloved by those who do breakfast on the go— a bran muffin on the road is a great way to start your day with a delicious and at least slightly nutritious treat.
Can Both Cupcakes And Muffins Have Frosting?
We all know the iconic cupcake recipe involves a good dollop of frosting on top of the dessert. The question is: can muffins have frosting too?
Well, yes and no. Muffins traditionally don’t have frosting like cupcakes, but they can top them with sugary deliciousness in other forms.
Some muffins have a thin, sugar-based glaze on the top to add a sweet bite to the dense pastry. However, most muffins don’t have anything on top, as their filling or flavor is strong enough without any extra whipped sugar added on.
Some muffins are topped with dried fruits, crushed nuts, or even meaty treats like bacon on the savory side. It’s not as common for muffins to have toppings, but many of them do.
Are There Any Other Differences?
Depending on who you ask, the differences between cupcakes and muffins are many.
Some people insist that cupcakes should be eaten cold, while muffins could be hot or cold depending on the type of muffin or preference of the eater.
For the most part, cupcakes don’t have filling on the inside, while it’s pretty common to have fruits or nuts in the batter for muffins. However, that’s not a definite rule— some cupcakes do have fillings, like confetti or an icing center.
Often, muffins don’t have any yeast. Some people even insist that a muffin is just a cupcake that you eat for breakfast, but the jury is still out on that one.