Muffin or Cupcake?

Say you decide one day to make muffins. Pumpkin muffins, perhaps. You mix the batter, pour it into paper liners in a muffin pan, bake, and—ta-da! Muffins. Good, but… you know what makes pumpkin muffins even better? Cream cheese frosting! So you whip up a batch of cream cheese frosting and proceed to frost all your muffins. But wait! Are they still muffins? Or are they now cupcakes?


I feel like this ageless question could well be inspiration for The Killers’ next single. “Are we muffin? Or are we cupcake?” Mm? Maybe not.

I have my own opinions on this question; however, I decided to do a little research first to better inform myself of other scholars’ foodies’ opinions. Unfortunately, Google yielded nothing useful for my straightforward “muffin or cupcake?” search. Nothing, that is, except this picture (original artist sadly unknown):

Anyway, research has never been my strong point, so with that said, here are my two cents on classifying small round crumbed desserts as either cupcakes or muffins, based solely on my own observations and baking experience.

The first thing you must do, to actually answer this question, is get rid of the binary. This is not a binary question, folks! THE BINARY IS FALSE GET RID OF IT GET RID OF IT NOW. The idea of something being a cupcake OR a muffin is just silly:  a nice, easy structuralist approach that we have been socialized to accept as true, but which does not address the complexity of reality. Instead, I propose we view the cupcake/muffin identity in terms of a spectrum:

Much better.

“Okay, but what are these air-quoted ‘cupcake’ and ‘muffin’ characteristics? Can we just get to the point already?” I understand your impatience, young one. But, in the spirit of good Socratic education, I must turn the question back on you. What do you associate with the words “cupcake” and “muffin”? After all, you are the one constructing these misleading labels in the first place. So! Let’s make a graphic organizer.

Yay Venn diagrams!

On second thought, let’s try something with a little more structure, just to get started:

The first way we might distinguish muffins from cupcakes is the context in which we eat them. Muffins are often thought (in the US, anyway) to be a breakfast food, something you would eat with your coffee or tea. Cupcakes, on the other hand, are considered dessert. Moreover, they have recently acquired enough social standing as to even be an elegant, sophisticated dessert. You could serve cupcakes at your wedding. You would never serve muffins at your wedding. While context is immensely important, notice that this characteristic is completely based on social norms and definitions existing outside of the physical nature of the dessert.

A second way we might classify muffins and cupcakes is their decoration. Note how, in the introductory anecdote to this post, the dessert’s identity fell into crisis upon the addition of frosting. An increasingly visual society, we might be tempted to think that frosting is a clear indicator of muffin/cupcake status. But what if I were to bake a devil’s food cake in the form of cupcakes and then neglect to frost them before allowing the vultures that are college students to descend upon their chocolatey crumbs? Would they still be—er, have been—cupcakes? Or what if I make poppyseed muffins and cover them in almond glaze? Does the glaze count as frosting? (Ahhh what about glaze and frosting??? Are they the same thing??? Tune in next time…) On the other hand, muffins are often (not always) topped with streusel, that sweet crunchy crust that muffins are famous for. I have yet to see a streusel cupcake, but I’m sure it exists somewhere. And of course not ALL muffins have streusel toppings. Don’t generalize. You know better.

My second post on the blog was Pear Spice Cake, which was, in fact, a quick bread. To do what I just told you not to and ~generalize,~ cupcake batter can alternatively be baked as a cake, in cake pans (and cake batter can always be turned into cupcakes); muffin batter is quick bread, baked in loaf pans. Examples of quick breads would be zucchini bread, banana bread, pumpkin bread, etc. The difference between a cake and a quick bread, however, is no sharper a line than that between a muffin and a cupcake; it’s less of a useful characteristic than it is a thought tool, i.e. you might distinguish between a cake and a quick bread more easily than the cupcake/muffin mess, if only because they are different shapes. O, ye of shallow perceptions.

On the other hand, more useful divisions can be created based on ingredients. I have chosen to address three common (mis)conceptions around muffin/cupcake ingredients here, but I’m sure there are more. The first is that muffins generally contain less sugar than cupcakes, thereby making them healthier. This is, sadly, largely untrue. (There’s a reason muffins still taste good.) The second distinction—and perhaps the most accurate of any on this list—is that muffins are generally made with oil, while cupcakes are generally made with butter. This also contributes, somehow to the idea that muffins are healthier (and thus fit for breakfast), though from a baker’s perspective, the difference lies in the method of preparation required. An oil recipe requires separate mixing of wet and dry ingredients, finally mixed barely together at the end (“mix until just combined;” “do not over-mix”). A butter recipe, by contrast, requires creaming the butter and sugar together as the base of the batter, and the rest of the ingredients are slowly added and mixed thoroughly (except the flour and milk, which are alternately mixed in at the end, again stirring lightly and being careful not to over-mix). Finally, the third distinction, which is pretty useless (in my opinion), is the idea that muffins are more likely than cupcakes to contain fruit pieces. This, again, is a stereotype; a generalization based on a few popular ideals. Chocolate cake has no fruit; blueberry muffins do. Therefore all muffins have fruit and no cupcakes have fruit. FALSE, my friends. Just straight-up false.

Now that we have explored some of the characteristics commonly attributed to muffins and cupcakes, I hope you are ready to approach the dessert world with your newly-opened mind and learn to recognize and appreciate these characteristics in your baked goods without using them to pass judgement on said baked goods’ “proper” labels. And when someone asks you why you are eating a cupcake for breakfast, tell them it’s all the same, cupcakes are a social construct; for goodness’ sake, go read a book.

7 Responses to “Muffin or Cupcake?

  • [shawandr]
    11 years ago

    This response transformed from a nom-licious foodie post to a Grinnellianization of binaries verrrrrry quickly, lol. 😀

  • You are great at deconstructing our preconceptions of baked goods, but have provided little in the way of a useful heuristic for understanding the goods we eat or bake. What difference does it make in our lives if we move past this binary essentialization? You’re like those a$$holes who take joy in pointing out to people that tomatos are fruits and not vegetables.

  • I really appreciate this post. Living abroad really limits the amount of conversations I can have that include the words “binary” and “social construct”. Those are phrases I miss hearing and using.

    It’s really accessible to take a sticky topic like race, gender, religious, etc… binaries and put them in the form of something that is (perhaps) less controversial. While your intention may have been just to discuss the topic of baked good that are baked in muffin/cupcake pans I think the arguments can be applied to these more sensitive topics as well. This gets you to think about these issues outside of their social constructs which is often the first step in breaking down the binary generalizations that bind people and baked goods alike.

    Nice post.

    • I like the idea of using something simple and non-controversial, like muffins and cupcakes, to teach about concepts like “binary” and “social construct.” I was just having fun, but it’s nice to think it could be useful!

  • Baked goods + social theory together? Two of my favorite things! This post was GREAT and I can’t wait to read more. 🙂

    • [vaidhees], I was especially thinking of you when I wrote this; glad you enjoyed it!

  • [wangstep]
    11 years ago

    I’m SO glad I read your comments, so great. I enjoyed this post, especially the last lines. I remember when I used to ask you what was the difference between a muffin and a cupcake you’d say it was like the difference between a quick bread and a cake and after you walked away I was like, “What?? What’s the difference between…” I’m glad to finally get a satisfying response, well done!! 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *