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What is the difference between a muffin and a cupcake?

I've always thought of it this way: a muffin is something you'd eat for breakfast while a cupcake is for dessert. The cupcake is likely a bit sweeter and with a lighter texture.

But this recipe (below) for Cocoa Muffins, from Leite's Culinaria (a wonderful recipe site), makes me wonder. They're described as "dense and chewy," and the recipe method (combine wets and dries separately, then mix) is certinaly muffin-like. But cocoa! Not for breakfast (at least, that I'd admit to).

What do you all think?


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  1. I think a muffin should be way less sweet and have a bit more nutritional value with the use of fruits and nut and fiberous grains such as oatmeal or whole wheat.
    A cupcake is nothing more than sweet yummy indulgence, topped with icing.
    I can't say I like the looks of that cocoa muffin recipe, but at least it is butter-less. I think you could get a cocoa muffin going with a little more nutritional value, or just give it up and call it cake.

    1. Old quote from NYTimes Manhatttan Diary: (overheard) "Thank heavens for the word "muffin," otherwise I'd be eating cake for breakfast every day."

      1 Reply
      1. re: oldhound

        Yeah, I was going to say that I think people use the word "muffin" for "cupcake" when they are wanting to make themselves feel better about eating cake for breakfast! Me, I've been to known to have chocolate cake with a side of vanilla ice cream for breakfast! :-) I agree with Ida Red's assessment of what a muffin should be and what a cupcake should be.

      2. My favorite muffin from Whole Foods is their chocolate chip, but I certainly don't eat this for breakfast. For one thing, it's about the size of a small cauliflower. It's also fairly cakelike with a fine texture, though not as rich as some cupcakes which generally have more egg in the dough. I prefer muffins because I find cupcake frostings way too sweet.

        1. I was told a muffin does not have icing and a cupcake does...would that be accurate?

          1. There are some differences despite the flavors. Muffins are a quick bread and are mixed differently than a cake batter like you would use to make cup cakes. A true muffin is mixed very lightly and still has some dry lumps in the batter and if over mixed will become tough with holes and very poor texture.

            5 Replies
            1. re: Candy

              Candy, You answer is correct.
              It is about the method that is used to make the product. When baking muffins, you combine all the wet ingredients and all the dry ingredients separately, and then you combine the wet and dry together with a quick mixing. Muffin batter tends to be slightly lumpy.

              Cupcakes are made with a standard cake batter, and the only difference is the pan that it is baked in.

              1. re: Kelli2006

                No, muffins are not always mixed as you describe. There are two ways to make muffins, one is to fold all the wet ingredients into dry, then bake. This produces a muffin with a relatively open, coarse crumb which most of the posters in this thread regard as typical.

                You can also mix muffins using the cream-in method, creaming butter and sugar, then adding liquid and dry ingredients alternately much as in making a cake. This makes a muffin with a more tender, fine crumb. I make all mine this way because I prefer the texture and I also prefer the flavor of creamed butter rather than oil or melted butter.

                This link has more detailed information:

                1. re: cheryl_h

                  I should have differentiated between the creaming method, a hybrid of both methods, and the standard muffin method.

                  1. re: cheryl_h

                    With the cream-in method, is it possible to get the classic dome-top muffin shape?

                    If not, maybe that explains why commercial muffins almost always look like the "wrong" illustration in Joy of Cooking.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Yes, I always get nicely domed muffins. I've been trying to replicate the humongous muffin heads that Whole Foods' muffins have - they're ALL dome with little bottoms.

                      I find that creaming the butter and sugar gives me a more viscous batter than the traditional muffin method which is runnier. Putting the muffins into a really hot oven for a few minutes, then turning the temperature down to finish baking also gives more spring.

                      I've done this often enough now to conclude that Whole Foods is using extra-deep muffin pans so there's more batter in each muffin. So while I get nicely rounded tops, I'll never get the monster muffin head unless I find deeper pans. The texture of my muffins is comparable with WFs so I think they're also using a creamed technique.

              2. The difference? Frosting.

                1. A cupcake is cake (batter is combined well), a muffin is made with, as explained above, a batter whose ingredients are just combined, this makes a coarser crumb. A cake crumb is finer/smaller.
                  Cupcakes can be made with a cake batter & they may be frosted if desired.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: morebubbles

                    "Coarser crumb" - exactly. It's a question of density and - to borrow from the wine world - "mouthfeel".

                  2. Generally, about 20 grams of fat.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      I disagree somehwhat...muffins aren't generally that healthy, unless you set out to make a low-fat muffin.

                      Ever had a chocolate chip or cappucino "muffin" from Costco.

                      Perkins' Muffins have over 20 grams of fat in some of them.

                      Besides the fact they are made different, I agree that the major difference is that people will have less guilt eating a muffin or convince themselves they are eating healthy. (Caesar / Ranch Salads fall into this category as well)

                      "But it has bran and flax in it!" I suppose that's better than cupcake, but there is still oil and/or butter in that muffin.

                      1. re: newJJD

                        I think we have our signals crossed.

                        I meant to say that the difference between a muffin and a cupcake is that the muffin has an extra 20 grams of fat (not the other way around).

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          Yes, it was it a mix-up, and I agree with the second part of your post.

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            Could go either way depending on the recipes. Most cupcakes have around a tablespoon of butter in the batter, plus whatever's in the icing. Some muffins have under a teaspoon, which is sometimes oil rather than butter.

                          2. re: newJJD

                            I don't think "low fat" is healthy. Mine are full fat with butter, thank you.

                            1. re: newJJD

                              I disagree. I find low-fat to be horribly unhealthy for me. Give me the butter and fats. Low fat just adds girth. Also cup cakes with icing/frosting are so full of sugar they make me shudder.

                          3. Although the lines may have blurred recently, I believe that Candy is correct: A muffin is a small quickbread, and a cupcake is a small cake.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: pikawicca

                              The traditional distinction is exactly as Candy says. I have a lot of old cookbooks and have never seen a creamed method cupcake in them. That seems to be something that started around the 1980s - about the time that muffins started to include chocolate chips and other stuff that make the modern muffin pretty much an unfrosted cupcake.

                              My mother and gradnmother used to make cheese muffins out of the old Fannie Farmer cookbook. I think there may be a tablespoon of sugar in that recipe, but no more. It's relatively lean, too, if I remember correctly. Of course, the difference between an old-fashioned muffin like that and modern low-fat muffins is that the older version didn't try to be anything it wasn't. It was crumbly and coarse in texture, not cakelike at all.

                              Personally, I'm not a big cake eater, and I'm not crazy about creamed-method muffins. I like a not-two sweet, somewhat coarse-crumbed muffin, and no chocolate. My favorite muffins were my grandmother's bran, which were not just less sweet than most bran muffins, but less dark. I would have guessed that she used honey instead of molasses if I didn't know that she was an old Canadian maritime woman who used molasses in everything. Probably she just didn't use much. No raisins either. But you could taste the flavor of the bran and feel its texture in the muffin. They were great.


                              1. re: curiousbaker

                                Yes, I think you are right. Those creamed muffins are a departure from the traditional "quick bread" muffin. Even though they have a coarser texture and are still supposed to just blend the wet with the dry and have streaks of flour showing in the batter, they are just too cake like to be real muffins. They need the coarser texture to absorb the added butter after baking.

                            2. Okay - I just want to point out that I know the difference between "too" and "two." Typos are so embarrassing...