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Aug 15, 2010 12:18 PM

Muffin problem

I decided to totally master muffins so that I could whip up a batch in nothing flat. In the past couple of weeks I have baked a lot of muffins. Sometimes they "sink" in the middle but I can't figure out why. Two clues: 1. It only happens with muffins where the recipe has come from a "non professional" site [no problems with recipes from Epicurious, Food Network, etc.] and 2. It only happens when the leavening agent is baking soda.
Things I have tried:
1. Purchased new baking soda - didn't help.
2. Using cupcake papers vs greased pans - didn't help.
3. Never, ever open oven door - didn't help
4. Moving super quickly to get them in oven after combining dry & wet ingredients - didn't help

I am at a loss. HELP! I am fed up with muffins that taste great but look like ugly, little craters.

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  1. Baking soda requires an acid to form air bubbles. Are you using the acidic ingredients specified in the recipe? And more importantly, why not just stick to the successful recipes?

    1 Reply
    1. re: greygarious

      Yes, I am using the acidic ingredients specified in the recipe. The reason I have used recipes from "reader's/reviewer's" sites is because I have been making different fruit muffins and the professional sites don't always have a recipe with ingredients that my husband likes - e.g. ginger with pear- or any recipe at all for the fruit that I have. [Made pear, strawberry, etc] But I think you are totally right that I will just have to stick to successful recipes. Am making peach tomorrow and then, THAT'S IT IF THEY SINK!!! : )

    2. Baking is about ratios. Have you compared the proportions of the wet and dry ingredients in the recipes that work to the ones that don't? You might just need to add more dry stuff. I would also suggest checking your oven temp, because the bad muffins might be underbaking, but I think you'd have noticed if they were soggy in the middle.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Isolda

        My oven thermometer is new and accurate so I don't think that is the problem plus the muffins are baked in the centers. I will look at the ratio of wet and dry as that could be the problem.

      2. How much baking soda? What's the acid? Sometimes fruit recipes have just enough baking soda to balance the acidity of the fruit, and still use baking powder as the main leavening agent.

        How about oven temperature? Same as for professional recipes? And older Joy of Cooking book as a brief section on muffin problems, mostly traced to oven temperatures that are too low or too high.

        One alternative is to modify the flavorings of recipes that work. Changing the spices shouldn't affect the baking. If you start with a recipe that calls fruit puree, you should be able substitute any puree with similar consistency. Also pay attention to the consistency of the batter; it should be similar to the unmodified recipe.

        1. Here is my recipe - I used it professionally and personally - it doubles, but doesn't work for larger batches than that - it works for all kinds of fruit.... and lot's of other mix ins.... I barely even measure the ingredients - just make sure that the dry ingredients are well mixed - the butter, sugar and eggs are very well mixed (till lighter colored) - add the milk after that - then mix the fruit into the flour mixture -then mix all together just until mixed - not too much

          Basic Muffins
          With mix in ideas

          2 cups of flour
          2 tbs baking powder
          ¼ tsp salt

          1 cup sugar + 2 tbl for topping
          2 eggs
          ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter - softened
          1 cup milk


          Preheat oven to 350 degrees
          Grease your muffins tins – this recipe makes 12 medium or 6 large muffins
          Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
          Note: if you are using salted butter, omit the salt in the flour mixture.
          In a separate bowl whisk 1 cup sugar and eggs until light yellow in color and ribbony in texture.
          Whisk in butter until mixture is smooth and thick
          Whisk in milk

          Combine dry and wet ingredients – do not over mix – lumps are ok!
          Add mix in ingredients (see list below)
          Divide batter evenly between muffin cups – sprinkle sugar over top
          Bake for 25 minutes
          Allow to cool a few minutes before removing from the tins.

          Mix in ideas:
          1 cup blueberries
          Add 2 tbl chopped crystallized ginger or zest from one lemon
          1 cup frozen raspberries
          1 chopped apple (add ½ tsp cinnamon to flour mixture also)
          1 cup chocolate chips
          Add ¼ cup peanut butter to wet ingredients
          Top each muffin with your favorite jam and swirl into batter – then sprinkle w/ sugar
          2 mashed bananas
          1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
          ¾ cup dried cranberries w/ zest from one orange
          ¾ cup drained & chopped canned pineapple
          ¼ cup shredded coconut

          6 Replies
          1. re: harryharry

            Thank you for the recipe. A couple of questions: 1. Can you add nuts to for example, the banana muffins? 2. On the peanut butter muffins, do you use a brand like Skippys or can you use an all natural peanut butter like Cream-Nut? 3. Can you add the coconut along with the pineapple? Thanks again.

            I use the Cook's Illustrated Blueberry Muffin recipe - it is a winner.

            1. re: Bethcooks

              Yes... nuts! Any peanut butter... yes, coconut - use the flakes (unsweetened if possible) - I really experiment and most stuff turns out....

              Coconut milk instead of milk makes them very dense.

              don't forget the sugar on top... it makes a huge difference!

              I don't use vanilla - but you could - I like candied ginger or lemon zest w/ the blueberries.... or try using some corn meal instead of some flour (3/4 c) - also you could add 3/4 c maple syrup in place of equal amount sugar - these are awesome....

            2. re: harryharry

              Hello, Do you add vanilla in the blueberry ones? Or any others? I used to have a really good muffin recipe book, now out of print I believe, that had really good basic recipes with add-ins. Have a glut of blueberries right now so wanted to make something other than crisp and buckle.

              1. re: cathodetube

                Have you tried the Cook's Illustrated Best Blueberry recipe? It is awesome - my husband has purchased blueberries 3 weeks in a row just so I can keep making them. The freeze well so he has at least one muffin every day

                1. re: Bethcooks

                  Thanks. Found that and will try it. I now have a glut of blackberries and thought I might add those to muffins but wondered if they needed anything else. Made a tasty cobbler the other day with some which involved putting the batter on the bottom and spooning macerated in sugar blackberries on top.

                  1. re: Bethcooks

                    I agree with Beth, and other comments about the Cook's recipe for Best Blueberry Muffins. I've tried lots of recipes, but these were a huge success. Thought they would overflow, but formed the most beautiful and best tasting muffins. Ever. Here's the link to the post on my blog.
                    Also loved the Ina Garten recipe for Banana Crunch muffins.

              2. Are you saying that muffins that use baking soda alone sink or that muffins that use soda in addition to baking powder are the problem?

                I'm not sure soda alone is sufficient but I don't know that I've had problems with muffins and quick breads made with the combo of soda and powder. I have had things fall when they weren't fully cooked but that doesn't seem to be what you're experiencing.

                This site as very good recipes for a variety of muffins. I certainly haven't made them all but the ones I have have worked very well even tho I substitute and monkey with them wantonly. King Arthur also has a lot of very good and reliable recipes. Their Chocolate Breakfast Muffins are sensational baked as muffins, quick bread or a bundt cake. Speaking of which, if you have a favorite quick bread or tea bread recipe that you feel you can rely on, you can simply bake that batter in a muffin tin. Just watch the baking time a bit.

                To prevent under baking I now rely on a heat sensitive probe. Much more reliable than the toothpick method, I think. If you want to try it with a digital thermometer 195˚ at the center is about right.

                23 Replies
                1. re: rainey

                  Yes, it is baking soda alone where I have the problem. You have a good point - the soda alone may not be enough especially since the batter is heavy with fruit. Also, I have noticed that the professional sites and the professionals use much more leavening agent - like 2 T. compared to 1 tsp. The leavening sounds like it is the problem.
                  The frustrating thing is that I read dozens of reviews on these sites before I make the muffin of the moment and NOONE else mentions this problem.
                  Thanks for the website info - will definitely try those Chocloate Muffins.

                  1. re: Bethcooks

                    1 tsp of baking powder per cup of flour is a common ratio; about what is used in self rising flour.

                    1. re: Bethcooks

                      I have read in more than one baking book, and/or seen on cooking shows, the mention that increasing leavening can actually make baked goods fall - the reaction happens too fast, so the gas escapes before the batter has solidified, and there's not enough bubbling for a proper rise.

                      1. re: greygarious

                        That is interesting - this recipe used 2 tsp baking soda to 3 cups of flour. The link is Paulj [below] suggested it might be that the pears I used did not have enough acid. I thought when I was making them that there might not be enough acid??? Actually my thought was: Where is the acid for the leavening to work?

                      2. re: Bethcooks

                        When you say "heavy with fruit" I hope you know that the volume of fruit isn't a particular problem. If you don't want to challenge the leavening so much cutting the fruit in smaller pieces can make a lot of difference. Some people also toss the fruit in some of the flour before folding it into the batter on the theory that the granularity of the flour on the surface of the fruit gives the batter something to grab and hold onto during the baking process. It's the same theory as "dusting" the container with grated cheese when you make a souffle or using sugar on the pan for an angel food cake.

                      3. re: rainey

                        OK, I thought I'd give that website a try, so I looked up a recipe for apple muffins.


                        I'm reading the instructions and it says at one point to alternate the buttermilk with the butter mixture.

                        GREAT! I think. Finally a way to use some of that buttermilk I have sitting in the fridge (why can't I find buttermilk in a pint or half pint instead of having to buy a quart every time?


                        Only one problem.

                        I can't find buttermilk listed in the list of ingredients.

                        Is there any way to figure out how much buttermilk the recipe takes?

                        Or could I just use harryharry's recipe with buttermilk instead of milk?

                        And come to think of it, if the OP's problem is a lack of acidity, wouldn't using buttermilk instead of regular milk (if that's what's being used in the recipes she's having trouble with) take care of that, or at least alleviate the problem?

                        Not the muffin girl!

                        1. re: ZenSojourner

                          You need buttermilk if you have baking soda because baking soda, being a base, needs an acid, like buttermilk, to react. But, in harryharry's recipe and the one you posted, baking powder is the leavener which doesn't need the acid. But, using buttermilk in place of milk, generally, isn't a problem. It'll add a little tang, a little less fat to it (since most buttermilk is lower in fat) but it would still rise.

                          The OP's recipe didn't call for milk but you're right that if it did call for milk and didn't have enough acid, she could just use buttermilk.

                          1. re: ZenSojourner

                            They blew it! They didn't list an ingredient.

                            I would say 2 cups of flour should probably need a cup of liquid.

                            I substitute buttermilk for milk in a lot of things. My theory is why not have all the flavor it's possible to have. I sub brown sugar for regular granulated and browned butter for butter for the same reason. When a recipe is not calling for buttermilk or sour milk or doesn't have another acid ingredient I compensate with a pinch of baking soda or so (depending on the amount of buttermilk I use). I don't have a formula for that -- I just do it by the seat of my pants. But I'm sure the King Arthur site has good reliable info about the proper proportions. Start here:

                              1. re: ZenSojourner

                                The banana bread in 1997 Joy of Cooking does not have any extra liquid - just the bananas, eggs, and creamed butter. A pumpkin bread adds 1/3 of water or milk, probably because pumpkin puree is stiffer.

                                I'd try the recipe, ignoring the buttermilk bit. If the batter is too stiff, then maybe add a bit of water. It has baking powder, and just enough baking soda to balance the puree (esp in the apple sauce version).

                                1. re: paulj

                                  Quite a few don't add extra liquid. I like the Joy of Baking banana muffins, too, that don't have additional liquids.


                                  As pumpkin bread goes, I like using apple cider for extra flavor.

                                  1. re: chowser

                                    For what it's worth, this discussion inspired me to grate up a giant zucchini for muffins. The zuke recipe there that I've used many times doesn't call for any additional liquid. But when you combine the grated veggie with the sugar you get a lot of liquid.

                                    Anyway, it works and it makes nice muffins without additional liquid.

                                    1. re: rainey

                                      Yeah, Zucchini is particularly moisture-some though. Ever try to freeze grated zucchini?

                                      I did. Once. What I got back was a bag full of strings and water, LOL!

                                      1. re: rainey

                                        I love zucchini muffins/quick breads but haven't made them in a while. I don't know if I've ever come across a bad zucchini bread recipe--there's something about it that just always turns out good. Thanks for reminding me about them.

                                  2. re: ZenSojourner

                                    I am really sorry if I gave you guys an unreliable link. The recipes I've used have been fine tho I freely confess I've only used 4 or 5 of them.

                                    Interestingly, one theory of getting muffins to rise high instead of spreading out at the tops is to have a dense batter. So, if the instructions don't refer to an ingredient missing from the listing (as was the case in the apple muffins) it could be that they're going for the thick batter.

                                    As for muffins and quick breads being light, my thought is that they're *not*. That's what makes them different from cakes. They should be moist and that's why there's quite a high ratio of oils but that's a different thing from being "light".

                                    1. re: rainey

                                      OMG, you don't have to be sorry! I just think it's kind of funny!

                                      I'm sorry if I said anything to make you sorry, LOL!

                                      As far as "light" versus dense, I'm not saying to make them cake like. If I wanted them like that I'd just make cupcakes.

                                      But I also don't want them to remind me of bricks, and an awful lot of muffins I've had have an unfortunate tendency to remind me more of bricks than I personally care for.

                                      I mean "light" within the constraints of still being a muffin.

                                      I think we can agree that there's a range there, LOL!

                                      1. re: ZenSojourner

                                        Not to worry. I didn't interpret anything to be an accusation. I just know the frustration of following a recipe in good faith and being set up for a failure by an error in the instructions. I was embarrassed to pass along a link that had such an unreliability.

                                  3. re: rainey

                                    If you add the buttermilk or an acid, you can use baking soda and substitute for some of the baking powder but you don't need to add a pinch of baking soda. From the bottom of your link:

                                    "There is no situation where you must use baking soda, even when you have an acidic ingredient in your dough or batter. Because baking powder contains both baking soda and an acid, it will create carbon dioxide bubbles even when there’s extra acid present, such as the buttermilk."

                                    I've used many quick bread recipes, especially with a more liquidy fruit like crushed bananas, that didn't have milk, sour cream, or liquids like that, as have been posted in this thread. You can make up the difference with eggs, oil/fat, and sugar as the liquids. So, just because a recipe doesn't have milk, it doesn't mean it was accidentally omitted. Personally, I prefer it with buttermilk, sour cream or some liquid with flavor but don't add it if the recipe doesn't call for it.

                                    1. re: chowser

                                      The problem is that those recipes call for the addition of buttermilk in the directions, but don't list it in the ingredients. It's not that the recipe just plain doesn't call for it, though frankly I am suspicious of all the recipes I've seen lately that don't use the addition of liquids. I want my muffins to be light and fluffy and I don't see how you can get that without adding SOME liquids.

                                      I've found the joy of baking recipe for banana bread to be very dense and heavy so I think I'll skip that.

                                      I'm about to go make some banana muffins using a modification of several of the recipes I've seen, I'll let you know how they turn out.

                                      1. re: ZenSojourner

                                        Thanks--I just read the ingredient list, not the directions. If you want lighter and fluffy, you might look for a recipe that creams together butter and sugar first, not with vegetable oil. My favorite banana bread is from Best Recipe made with yogurt. It's not light, though, as rainey said, muffins are only so light but it's incredibly moist.

                                        1. re: chowser

                                          Those 2 recipes do use the 'cake method', creaming butter and sugar.

                                          The 'muffin method' combines wet (including oil or melted butter), and dry separately, and then joins them.

                                          For a light banana muffin, I'd start with a plain 'cake method' recipe, and replace some of the liquid with fruit puree. Too much will move the muffins into the dense but moist category.

                                          Another approach is to use the fruit puree in place of some of the fat. There are, for example, commercial butter replacements that are largely prune and apple puree.

                                          1. re: paulj

                                            It may actually be moisture that I'm reacting to most in those brick-like muffins I'm afraid of. Maybe it's not so much the difference between "light" and "dense", but "dry" and "moist".

                                            Because the ones I'm talking about trying to avoid are also pretty dry.

                                            1. re: ZenSojourner

                                              My favorite supermarket bran muffins used prune paste to keep them quite moist. They stopped making those when they switched to larger 'gourmet' ones. In their place I've been make a whole grain pumpkin bread.

                                              I start with Joy of Cooking bread, using the muffin method instead of the cake method (i.e. no creaming butter and sugar), using half white whole wheat flour, and half mixed grains (oat bran, ground almonds, oat flour etc), and cutting the sugar in half, and a generous seasoning with molasses and ginger. The result is a hearty, moist bread - and yes pretty dense.

                                              And for a change of pace I make parkin, the English oat ginger bread that I mentioned earlier. That is drier, and supposed to get better with age.