Mixing, Over-Mixing and Muffins

Reader Mark writes:

Love the discussion of mixing! My question is, why do you get big holes in muffins when you mix the batter a lot? That seems to be contrary to what you wrote earlier this week, that more mixing usually means smaller holes.

Great question, Mark! I did indeed write that, yet also mentioned that the world of mixing is a wide one, and the same rules don’t apply to everything. Mixing a lot does yield a smaller crumb in the case of cake layers and brioche, both of which are quite high in fat. Muffins are quite a bit leaner than either one of those, which means that when you mix the batter a lot, you get a relatively strong gluten network.

That microscopic network catches and holds steam bubbles as the muffin bakes creating large bubbles, “tunnels” through the muffin’s crumb and a tell-tale conical peak on the top. The peak is the result of the added volume: the center heats last and the expanding batter has nowhere to go but up. Muffins that look like that should be avoided since they’re bound to be rubbery on the inside. The same goes for tea breads that look like treasure chests. The big hump means a tough interior. Know well-mixed, tender muffins and tea breads by their low, gently sloping crowns. Thanks Mark!

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15 Responses to Mixing, Over-Mixing and Muffins

  1. rainey says:

    Well thank you!!! You just delivered me from years of frustration and disappointment.

    I’ve always had the iconic image of exactly the muffins and quick breads you’ve just warned us to avoid. I’ve diligently followed the advise to avoid overbeating and could not understand why, if I was doing it “right”, I wasn’t getting the look I so wanted. Now, altho I’ll still never get the profile that strikes me as so emblematic, at least I’ll fully appreciate that I came out on the winning side of the compromise I made.

    • joepastry says:

      Definitely, Rainey! But I suggest trying an experiment. Make some good, gently mixed muffins, then head out to the local coffee shop and buy a conventional cone-shaped one. Do a taste test. You’ll be able to tell the difference just picking them up!

      Thanks for the comment!

      - Joe

  2. Evan says:

    For tender muffins, why don’t we just first mix the flour with butter (maybe even melted) to coat it with fat and thus prevent water contact and gluten formation?

    • joepastry says:

      That’s a great question, Evan! My feeling is that by using the traditional muffin method and mixing ever-so-lightly, you can achieve even less developed gluten than a fat-first one-bowl-type mixing method. But it’d be worth a side-by-side test if you’re up for it! Send pictures if you try it!

      - Joe

  3. Vicki says:

    Reading your highly educational posts makes me feel so much smarter :)
    I always made my ‘muffins’ with yolks, liquid, flour added to beaten butter then adding whites whipped to a meringue, like sponge cake. Most muffin recipes I see don’t require separating the eggs and I find they produce the unwanted holes and high top. Joe, can I still call my muffins, muffins?

    • joepastry says:

      Fascinating, Vicki!

      And thanks so much for the generous comment! I feel I should warn you however that prolonged exposure to Joe Pastry content has been found to lower IQ’s in apes. Read at your own risk!

      Where did this recipe come from if I may ask? I’d love to see it. They’re certainly not “muffins” as we’d define them these days I don’t think. Are whipped whites the only leavening?

      - Joe

      • Vicki says:

        The recipe is for banana muffins, from my mom’s Chinese cookbooks. Here it is translated:
        A: Butter 1/2 cup, sugar 1/2 cup
        B: 3 yolks, 3 ripe bananas
        C: Flour 1.5 cup, baking soda 1/2 tsp, baking powder 2 tsp
        D: 3 whites, sugar 1/4 cup
        Cream A, add B, add mixed C, add whipped D. Bake at 325F for 45 minutes.

        I’ve also substituted the bananas for grated carrots and zucchinis – it turned out delicious as well. Would this recipe be more like a sponge cake?

        • joepastry says:

          Fascinating, Vicki!

          I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. How old is the cookbook do you know?

          Thanks!

          - Joe

  4. Heather says:

    Thanks for that info, it’s great and I too had always wondered why instructions said to go lightly on the mixing :)

  5. Mrs M says:

    wow this IS a scietific explanation of the mystery of the pastry! Just happened to be here and i loved it! Congrats!!

    • joepastry says:

      Welcome Mrs. M, and thanks!

      Please some back often and don’t hesitate to ask any questions. Nice blog by the way, I shall return often!

      - Joe

  6. Pia says:

    Hi Joe!

    I have a question concerning conical muffins: Is the chimney-like top always a result of over-mixing or does the temperature of the oven or the amount of leavening agents affect the end result as well?
    I mean, if a recipe was flawed and called for too much baking powder than needed or the muffins were baked at too high a temperature?
    I’m thinking that they might have some affect.
    I did a test batch of muffins with an unfamiliar recipe and even though i mixed my muffins ever so lightly to just combine the ingredients, something went wrong and i ended up with towering monstrosities. :) But at least now I know, that the recipe can’t be trusted without tweaking it.

    -Pia

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