ISO a blueberry muffin recipe and corollary food science explanation
November 8, 2020 4:04 PM   Subscribe

When I make blueberry muffins (or any muffins), they turn out sort of scone-like and bready, not cake-y like a grocery store muffin. The tops are crunchy instead of soft like a store muffin. I understand the grocery store may brush syrup on the top for moisture, but I suspect this is not the only difference. I would also say storebought muffins have a much more open crumb.

I am looking for a muffin recipe that will make something resembling store-bought style muffins. I’m not concerned with the fat or sugar content in the slightest, and I understand commercially produced muffins likely have more of both, as well as other additives that might be hard to find.

I would also like to know the food science reason for the difference in tastes and textures. Is this a reverse-creaming scenario like cake mixes vs. homemade cake? Why can I not make a commercially produced tasting muffin no matter how hard I try or how many recipes I use?
posted by unstrungharp to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

Overmixing can cause muffins to come out tough and flat. Google to find instructions on mixing but generally you should mix muffins as little as possible. Then let the batter rest for at least an hour before baking. Lastly you can bake for the first few minutes with a very hot oven (like over 400) which causes a big steam buildup and might make your muffins more fluffy. Remember to turn it down after 6 or 7 minutes! Good luck!
posted by yogalemon at 4:18 PM on November 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Cake recipe in muffin tins works for me.
posted by freethefeet at 4:21 PM on November 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've been happy with my results using Smitten Kitchen's Perfect Blueberry Muffins recipe.
posted by verity kindle at 4:27 PM on November 8, 2020 [9 favorites]

Try making a recipe that uses oil rather than butter.
posted by vunder at 4:30 PM on November 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

Also look into the age of your leavening agent(s). They do weaken over time.
posted by janell at 4:31 PM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

store bought is going to have vastly more sugar than typical homemade, and oil instead of butter.

both of those ingredients (liquid oil; sugar) make baked goods moist and soft.

so say the smitten kitchen recipe - a good baseline - has 1/2 cup (100g) sugar to 1 1/2 cups (c200g) flour. You want them to come out soft and storebought like, so you double that sugar. That will give you the same amt of sugar as flour by weight; which is the ratio for cake, which is what you want. Substitute oil for butter, and you should be golden. Also make sure there is enough salt in there -- storebought will have salt, homemade doesn't always.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:43 PM on November 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

Not an overmixing issue. I’m savvy to gluten formation and mix pretty minimally given my search for a muffin with an open crumb. Pretty sure I’m looking for a recipe with different ingredient profile / ratio than typical homemade muffins; looking for an explanation based in food science of the differences.
posted by unstrungharp at 4:59 PM on November 8, 2020

The last Crunchy muffins that I made from box mix got gooey tops after I put them in a ziploc bag over night.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:15 PM on November 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I make muffins a lot, and I add bran, sometimes half a can of pumpkin, walnuts, and fruit (blueberries or dried apricots), and I often use whole wheat flour. All that stuff makes more work for the leavening. Add an egg, and separate all the yolks and whites. Add the yolks to the oil, beat the whites and fold them in last. I don't eat dairy and substitute OJ or cider; make sure you are adding sufficient acid to activate the baking powder. I use Mark Bittman's recipe and 3 eggs, for leavening and nutrition.
posted by theora55 at 5:22 PM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Why can I not make a commercially produced tasting muffin no matter how hard I try or how many recipes I use?

What recipes are you trying? Are you weighing your ingredients (including your egg yolks and egg whites)? What protein percentage is your flour? Do the commercial muffins you like have an ingredients list and if so are you trying to find a recipe that is similar (i.e. oil or butter or shortening, use of added lecithin, milk powder, etc etc)?

looking for an explanation based in food science of the differences.

Maybe take a look at the books of Rose Levy Beranbaum or Shirley O. Corriher? I suspect you'll find interesting info in The Baking Bible or Bakewise.

so say the smitten kitchen recipe - a good baseline - has 1/2 cup (100g) sugar to 1 1/2 cups (c200g) flour. You want them to come out soft and storebought like, so you double that sugar.

I agree with the advice to look for higher-sugar recipes—the recipe I like for blueberry muffins isn't quite as high as equal parts (225g sugar to 300g flour) and it also uses half oil/half solid fat.
posted by bcwinters at 5:27 PM on November 8, 2020

I'm not sure but it seems you are well poised to do some light scientific experimentation. Some of this is down to your specific oven and pans and other idiosyncrasies.

Add a little extra oil and/or sugar and/or leavening to any recipe you mostly like? Then refine/repeat. You know, for science :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:54 PM on November 8, 2020

I have tried smitten kitchen’s recipe and Jordan Marsh’s NYT cooking recipe, as well as a handful of other, less well known recipes. SK and NYT muffins both turn out like very good homemade muffins, which is not what I want at all- I’m looking for something like the jumbo muffins from Costco. Very sweet, very processed, cake like, not too many berries, squishy tops. Definitely no added fibre.
posted by unstrungharp at 5:55 PM on November 8, 2020

Some of your density may be coming from your blueberries. They're high in pectin, and as a gluten free baker I use pectin to create protein structure imitating gluten. Using thawed and well rinsed blueberries (which have had their cell walls exploded in the freezing-thawing process) is a start, but insufficient.
Dense and crunchy tops are definitely results of moisture escaping early in cooking, once you pass the boiling point of water. Oil instead of butter is the classic answer to this, as well as the finest pastry flour you can find. You want higher loft, which low protein flour gives you because the gluten "frame" is more fragile, and bigger pockets where moisture can live in that frame. Also, use baker's sugar, not normal grind. All your ingredients should be the finest sift you can find to help make the batter weightless and softer.

Measure by weight, always, especially when working with ingredients of a different grain size than expected.

Lastly, the classic sneaky trick to this is to make chiffon batter instead of whole eggs together. Whip the whites separately to soft wet peaks and fold them in quickly to your mix right before you partition it into your muffin tins. Use the largest tins you can fit to allow for maximum poofing. You'll get closer to the crumb you want so long as you use low protein flour and not-butter.

There're huuuuge effects of heat from commercial ovens that are difficult to replicate at home and I don't know much about, given that I don't cook with wheat. But typically large commercial kitchens cook their baked goods much more quickly than home baking.
posted by Grim Fridge at 5:57 PM on November 8, 2020

I can't find a legible photo of the Costco muffin ingredients list on the internet, but don't commercially baked products have all kinds of dough moisturizers and conditioners developed by the army e.g. for soft-baked cookies?
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:58 PM on November 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thanks for asking this question, unstrungharp. It saves me having to do so, as a relative of mine has been asking for exactly the same thing.
posted by sardonyx at 6:03 PM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Further: palm oil is maybe part of the industrial Costco crumb/texture? It often does things other fats can't do... Also perhaps HFCS, corn starch, etc. Corn products are very attractive to industrial bakers and casual googling suggests these are all at play, though maddeningly everyone is trying to tell me how to make a healthy version at home, and not how to emulate!
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:06 PM on November 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Commercial muffin mixes (and your "grocery muffins" are all from premixes - volume bakeries rarely use scratch ingredients) use oil and add starch. This one, as an example, has soybean oil and wheat starch.
posted by niicholas at 6:22 PM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

So far my guesses are:
Coconut oil/other tropical oil (palm?) in lieu of butter
Dough conditioners/additives (I don't mind seeking out obscure things)
Mixing fat into the dry ingredients before adding wet ingredients, so it coats the grains of cereal (this is how cake mixes are so fluffy)
More sugar
Tops brushed in simple syrup

Thanks everyone for supporting my strange desire to make Costco muffins myself instead of buying them! It will surely be more costly and arduous, but for me there's nothing more satisfying than reproducing industrially produced food at home.
posted by unstrungharp at 6:23 PM on November 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Lecithin is one of the emulsifiers / lubricants that commercial bakeries rely on that is relatively available to home cooks. It is commonly used in those super moist, cakey muffins. You might try experimenting with that.
When you buy it, I think there is a difference between the kind sold as nutrition supplement and the kind sold for baking, but I am not certain that is true.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:27 PM on November 8, 2020 [4 favorites]

I also can't find a nutritional document for Costco's muffins online (which is kind of weird in this era of food allergies). But I found a document with their coffee cake listed, which has sugar as the first ingredient (and therefore the ingredient with the greatest weight—more sugar than flour). It also calls for bleached flour (if you're using "good" flour like King Arthur it's probably unbleached), both soybean oil and palm oil, corn starch, soy lecithin (which you can get at health food stores), and a whole bunch of commercial gums/emulsifiers/stabilizers.
posted by bcwinters at 6:32 PM on November 8, 2020

In case this helps, here is the label from some grocery-store muffins of exactly the characteristics unstrungharp has described (and that my relative wants to duplicate).
posted by sardonyx at 6:39 PM on November 8, 2020

I haven’t tried this recipe, but this is the first search result I see for a copycat Costco blueberry muffin - it does start with a cake mix, and it sounds like you want to start with flour.
posted by lakeroon at 6:40 PM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

I’ve made these muffins in the past and they taste like blueberry cake, so I’d suggest trying them as part of your experiment.
posted by Champagne Supernova at 7:08 PM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've tried so many recipe with your same goal. I liked Stella Park's recipe. I increased the sugar a bit, to 1 cup. I liked the brown sugar on top. It still wasn't a commercial muffin, though. I happened to freeze the leftovers and one of these defrosted is perfect. They seem to be sweeter and moister after having been frozen (wrapped up individually, in a zip bag).
posted by miscbuff at 7:26 PM on November 8, 2020

I think the Costco muffins might be real, but many store-bought blueberry muffins don't have actual blueberries but use cheaper flavored bits to emulate. There's a non-fruit soy version and a fruit version that uses a cheaper fruit paste with blueberry flavoring. It's why you rarely notice seeds or bite into a whole blueberry in a store-bought muffin.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:37 PM on November 8, 2020

I know part of the answer! To get soft tops, you must wrap them individually in plastic wrap or put them into an airtight container *while they are still very warm*. All that trapped steam from the hot muffins softens the tops and makes the overall texture more cake-like. This is what nearly every commercial bakery does.
posted by ananci at 7:10 AM on November 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

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