What is the difference between a chocolate cupcake and a chocolate muffin?
May 12, 2011 5:19 AM   Subscribe

At what point does a cupcake become a muffin? Or a muffin become a cupcake? What is the technical difference between the two?
posted by anastasiav to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
A muffin becomes a cupcake when you put frosting on it.
posted by BigVACub at 5:20 AM on May 12, 2011 [14 favorites]

posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:21 AM on May 12, 2011

It used to be that muffins had far less fat in them than cupcakes. Muffins were a kind of quick bread, and cupcakes were cake. But that was then, and this is now. We are currently approaching the end of the Great Convergence, and the only way to tell them apart is the frosting.
posted by yarly at 5:29 AM on May 12, 2011 [28 favorites]

Best answer: Well, in my mind a cupcake is a cake. That means you make it like a cake (ie, creaming fat and sugar as in a pound cake or whipping together eggs and sugar as in a sponge cake). You do everything you can to avoid toughening up the batter.

A muffin is usually made like pancakes or quick bread. You mix a bunch of stuff up, then leaven with baking powder/soda.

Obviously there's a bit of a continuum between the two, but that's how I see it.
posted by pjaust at 5:30 AM on May 12, 2011 [10 favorites]

Cupcakes are made with cake mix.
posted by k8t at 5:30 AM on May 12, 2011

I disagree. I bake cakes (only rarely in cups) and I bake muffins. The cake batter still has far more fat and sugar.
posted by jon1270 at 5:31 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: They are typically made using different mixing methods, which can account for their difference in texture. (And they do have different textures, at least when made properly.) There can also be a difference in fats, with oil used in muffins and solid shortening used in cakes/cupcakes. However, the Great Convergence has also had an effect on recipes, and you'll see these mixing methods used indiscriminately.
posted by cabingirl at 5:32 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Commercial muffins and cupcakes are very similar, if not identical in some cases except for the frosting, and adding fruit and/or toppings. This is due to the fact that added fat and sugar act as preservatives.

My mum makes traditional muffins, and I love them. Put icing on those and it would be a baffling experience as the flavours just wouldn't gel.
posted by Harpocrates at 5:34 AM on May 12, 2011

Best answer: According to Wikipedia:
A muffin is an American English name for a type of bread that is baked in small portions. Many forms are somewhat like small cakes or cupcakes in shape, although they usually are not as sweet as cupcakes and generally lack frosting. Savory varieties, such as cornbread muffins, also exist. They generally fit in the palm of an adult hand, and are intended to be consumed by an individual in a single sitting.
Outside the United States of America, muffin can also refer to a disk-shaped muffin, usually called an English Muffin outside of England. As American-style muffins are also sold in Commonwealth countries, the term muffin can refer to either product, with the context usually making clear which is meant.

A cupcake (British English: fairy cake; Australian English: patty cake or cup cake) is a small cake designed to serve one person, frequently baked in a small, thin paper or aluminum cup. As with larger cakes, frosting and other cake decorations, such as sprinkles, are common on cupcakes.
So the difference seems to be one is a bread, the other a cake, though there's a lot of overlap. Frosting has nothing to do it as it's a nasty tradition, created and perpetuated by uncivilized savages, the ancient culinary abomination should be buried at sea.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:41 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

A cupcake has a cake-like texture: moist and sweet and rich. Muffins are more like bread; dryer and more mealy.
posted by orange swan at 5:43 AM on May 12, 2011

I agree that a chocolate muffin is more like a quick bread, and a chocolate cupcake is more like a cake. Think about banana nut muffins - they are similar to banana bread. But if you've ever had a banana-flavored cake, it's something very different.

As another example, compare this chocolate bread with any kind of chocolate cake. Yes, the bread uses yeast so it's technically not a quick bread. But my point still stands, that a chocolate bread is different from a chocolate cake.
posted by LaurenIpsum at 5:51 AM on May 12, 2011

muffins are mini breads and cupcakes are mini cakes.
posted by sabh at 5:56 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Although there are infinite variations (and mislabeled recipes) of both, a muffin batter is usually mixed as little as possible, and a cupcake batter is usually beaten a little to incorporate a little air. Open them up and look at the crumb. The cupcake will be very fine and uniform and maybe a little glossy, and the muffin should look like a quickbread. Totally different beast (at least to someone like me who loves muffins and hates cupcakes).
posted by quarterframer at 6:03 AM on May 12, 2011

(or what sabh said.)
posted by quarterframer at 6:04 AM on May 12, 2011

What is the difference between a chocolate cupcake and a chocolate muffin?
Hipsters pay $7 for the former, while their parents pay 3-for-$1 for the latter?
posted by Thorzdad at 6:14 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Woah. Woah woah woah. Cupcakes and muffins are not even close to identical (UK person here, if that is relevant). The texture is completely different, a good muffin is much lighter, very soft, full of air and totally delicious. And really hard to describe, now that I'm trying, but very obvious when eating one.

Shopbought muffins are sometimes cake-like, and that is always a huge disappointment to me when I buy them.
posted by stillnocturnal at 6:14 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

A muffin becomes a cupcake when you put frosting on it.

The principle investigator at the Utility Research Muffin Kitchen would disagree, as evidenced by his application of frosting onto a muffin:

Some people like cupcakes better. I for one care less for them!

Arrogantly twisting the sterile canvas snoot of a fully charged icing
Anointment utensil he poots forths a quarter-ounce green rosette (oh ah yuk
Yuk... lets try that again...!) he poots forth a quarter-ounce green rosette
Near the summit of a dense but radiant muffin of his own design.

posted by ian1977 at 6:25 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Although the distinction has become more blurred as of late, muffins are denser and less sweet. Muffins have always been a healthy and hearty snack, like bran or blueberry or pumpkin. Cupcakes traditionally have frosting and are much sweeter and are eaten as a dessert. I blame Starbucks for blurring the line and making muffins that will send you into sugar shock.
posted by JJ86 at 6:29 AM on May 12, 2011

The muffins at the grocery are very sweet & full of fat. The texture is still muffin, but the ingredients are cake. The selection includes "muffins" with chocolate chips. This is not a good thing.

Sadly, I recently bought some hipster cupcakes, thinking that the 4 varieties would be different. Nope. 4 spongecake cupcakes, with a too-sugary filling added, and different icings. That's what I get for being suckered into buying hipster goods.
posted by theora55 at 6:35 AM on May 12, 2011

As some folks above note, muffins are individual servings of breads where cupcakes are (duh!) individual servings of cake. Muffins tend to be denser, cupcakes fattier and sweeter.

But with the line so blurry between them nowadays, I've gotta go with BigVACub: cupcakes have icing, muffins don't.

(And apparently I belong to a religious sect BrandonBlatcher considers heretical: I adore icing.)
posted by easily confused at 7:04 AM on May 12, 2011

Woah. Woah woah woah. Cupcakes and muffins are not even close to identical (UK person here, if that is relevant). The texture is completely different, a good muffin is much lighter, very soft, full of air and totally delicious. And really hard to describe, now that I'm trying, but very obvious when eating one.

I think what you all call muffins are what we call "English muffins" here in the US, with "nooks and crannies". Regular muffins here are not airy, frosted or not, and look a lot like cupcakes physically, not having the saucer shape of English muffins.
posted by sweetkid at 7:10 AM on May 12, 2011

Sweetkid - After a quick google, I'm not sure thats what I'm referring to.... maybe muffins here are just different, but theyre still sweet and served in cupcake style cases and have stuff like blueberries in them (mmmmmm blueberry muffins). But they are definately "softer" than cupcakes. And definately different, and I should know having visited almost every coffee place in this city searching for the "best" muffins available.

I'm sure the lines in the middle are blurred, but a standard cupcake and a standard muffin are definately not easily confused, even if both are without icing.

Ugh, trying to figure out UK-American food equivilents confuses me
(lets not even get into cookies vs. biscuits)
posted by stillnocturnal at 7:22 AM on May 12, 2011

Less fat and sugar in muffins is the basics I guess. A lot of muffin recipes use oil instead of butter
posted by stillnocturnal at 7:23 AM on May 12, 2011

Commercial cupcakes are also often "filled" with "vanilla-crème filling" or other fillings (as in Hostess cupcakes, and Flowers Industries Aunt Hannah brand cupcakes), whereas muffins generally are not filled thusly.
posted by paulsc at 7:24 AM on May 12, 2011

I'd be interested to see the difference in recipes for commercial muffins and cupcakes. In terms of nutrition, sweetness, and texture, there's very little difference anymore.

One of the distinguishing features is that (commercially made, US) muffins often contain fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, etc. and have flavors/ingredients commonly associated with breakfast. Cupcakes are eaten with frosting and don't need the extra bits for flavor, so the cake part is plain. They're often variations of frosted layer cakes, which also rarely have bits. So chocolate muffins often have chocolate chips; chocolate cupcakes do not. This isn't a defining feature (carrot cake is a notable crossover), just a common difference.

For further evidence of the Great Convergence, take a look at these "muffins":
This muffin starts with a sweet shortcake base, and is filled with fresh sliced bananas, banana flavored crème and Heath Bar toffee. The dessert is finished off with a chocolate drizzle and powdered sugar.

A mild vanilla muffin is hand filled with Bavarian Crème and finished off with a homemade fresh chocolate icing.
Bluffin' with their muffins. I wouldn't refuse one for breakfast, but I wouldn't pretend it's not cake.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:25 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Clearly you guys need to try really good muffins. They should not have the same texture as cupcakes. (?!) This thread upsets me (as someone who far prefers muffins to cupcakes), I refute this convergence and am going to my favourite muffin shop now.
posted by stillnocturnal at 7:31 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the baking technique differences, but if you have one variant and are trying to determine the difference (and you didn't bake it yourself), I'd put it through the topping test.

1. Get a jar of butter, jam, plain frosting and knife.
2. Place in front of baked item.
3. Take knife and use it to split the baked item.
4. Pick two out of three jars.
5. Dip knife into first jar and spread topping onto top of bottom half of baked item.
6. Dip knife into second jar and spread topping onto bottom of top half of baked item.
7. Eat both halves.

If you wish you had chosen the 3rd jar and the third jar was:
butter - you have a muffin
jam - you may have a muffin or a cupcake
plain frosting - you have a cupcake

The 3rd jar test is null if butter OR frosting is a clear taste-test winner:
if butter wins - definitely muffin
if frosting wins - you need to bake more cupcakes.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:34 AM on May 12, 2011 [13 favorites]

As a spin-off question (if that is allowed): for UK people, is there a different between a fairy cake and a cupcake? Wikipedia (as quoted above) above suggests that they are synonymous, and that is how I've always seen it (where cupcake is an American term for a fairy cake).

But someone I know is strongly opposed to this definition and insists that there is a clear difference. I do find that when you buy cakes that are sold as cupcakes (from the supermarket or in coffee shops), they do look and taste different from what I would call fairy cakes. But I assumed it was just an American influence.

Given the above confusion, maybe she is thinking of muffins!

Here in the UK, muffins definitely have a different taste and consistency from cupcakes/fairy cakes. I don't know enough about baking to understand that difference, but I don't think anyone would confuse the two. (Again for the type you would buy in Starbucks or the supermarket).

Of course English muffins are something else entirely, and no one would consider them to be like cakes.
posted by maybeandroid at 7:41 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the frosting criteria, but Perkins (a big U.S. chain restaurant serving all-day breakfast) has been putting chocolate frosting their "chocolate muffins" for years. As an adult if offends my muffin-vs-cupcake sensibilities, but as a kid I loved it. It was easy to convince my parents to buy me a muffin, but there's no way they would have paid for a cupcake.
posted by vytae at 7:51 AM on May 12, 2011

Best answer: I just had this conversation the other day. As has been said above, muffins are a quick bread, cupcakes are cake and they are prepared differently. In my grade 7 home ec class, we were taught that a good muffin has holes but not tunnels. A cupcake, by virtue of different preparation, shouldn't have holes.

(Just one difference I can remember from class. There's probably others but grade 7 was a long time ago.)
posted by wallaby at 8:51 AM on May 12, 2011

To me, a muffin has the texture of quickbread/banana bread, and cupcakes have the finer, airier, less chewy texture of a standard birthday cake or stand cake or whatever. This doesn't always hold I suppose--especially when you think about the texture of fruit bundt cakes, or say, oat bran muffins--but I guess it's like indecency/pornography vs. art/erotica; I know the difference when I see it... (yes, that's a bit tongue-in-cheek)

The frosting thing amuses me if only because a) I almost always eschew frosting on cupcakes; when I bake them for parties I always reserve some for myself to leave naked b) the amount of crackly enormous-granuled sugar coating on most crappy cafe/grocery store bakery muffins has gotta be at least as bad for you...
posted by ifjuly at 8:54 AM on May 12, 2011

There are two kinds of muffins in the UK, which might be the source of some of the confusion here.

'English' muffins (so-called at Maccy D's in their breakfasts) which are round and definately a bread, and 'American' muffins (although the 'American' is usually dropped now that they've become ubiquitous) which are usually sweet and cake-like, but much larger than a fairy cake and rise a lot more over the case.

There is no difference between a fairy cake and a cup cake, but I have seen some people try to say that cup cakes are larger (often baked in muffin cases). It's just a trendy thing I think.

Fairy cakes are usually a variation on the standard sponge mix - 2oz of butter/sugar/flour for each egg. If I can ask a piggyback question - when you're measuring with cups, is there an equivalent formula?

I've never understood how muffins work, and I was planning to ask almost this exact question. Is there a basic underlying formula for a muffin? A lot of the UK recipes are obvious straight conversions from American recipes (from cups to g/oz), so I've never been able to figure out what forces are at work in muffins.
posted by Helga-woo at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2011

Best answer: A good muffin is filling. A good cupcake leaves you starving.
posted by serena15221 at 9:05 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Would you pour the batter into a regular sized cake tin, bake it, then frost it? Then it's not a cupcake.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:06 PM on May 12, 2011

Best answer: Michael Ruhlman and Alton Brown to the rescue.

A muffin is a quickbread, assembled via muffin method in weight ratio of 2(flour):2(liquid):1(egg):1(fat)

A cupcake is cake baked in muffin tins, assembled via creaming method in, typically*, weight ratio of 1(flour):1(sugar):1(egg):1(fat).

While there is of course variability and deviation among recipes, it should be evident that the core characteristics are distinctive.

Not that this has stopped bakeries from selling us heavily sweetened, liquid moistened "muffins".

(*angel food uses a different ratio, but who would mistake a devil's food cupcake for a chocolate muffin?)
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:38 AM on May 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Muffins often rise over the top of their pan, and create a rounded, bulbous top. Cupcakes don't.
posted by Ellemeno at 9:42 PM on May 13, 2011

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