Muffins vs Cupcakes: What’s the difference?

In my last post for honey, orange and ginger muffins I mentioned how I never really know whether to name my recipes muffins or cupcakes, when really, they could very much be either. It would have still worked if I’d called them honey, orange and ginger cupcakes, right? There are no rules as such, and there seems to be a lot of overlap. So what is the difference between muffins and cupcakes? I decided to find out.

IMG_3910 (4)
Vanilla cupcake with vanilla buttercream and decorated with crushed chocolate eggs
Blackberry muffin

The first thing I did was look up the dictionary definition of the two terms. According to Oxford Dictionaries, a cupcake is “a small cake baked in a cup-shaped foil or paper container and typically iced” whereas a muffin is “a small domed spongy cake made with eggs and baking powder” or “a flat circular spongy bread roll made from yeast dough and eaten split, toasted, and buttered”. Hmm. I can’t say that this made it any clearer. I set about to investigate further.

Muffins can quite often be healthier than cupcakes, containing ingredients like whole wheat four, and dried fruits and nuts. They can be savoury as well as sweet, whereas cupcakes tend to be much sweeter. However, to say that muffins are inherently healthy is wrong; muffins that you can buy at bakeries can often contain well over 500 calories. Cupcakes are miniature (or, I suppose, cup-size) cakes. More often than not they have some sort of icing or frosting decoration on top.

Muffins have a dryer, denser texture than cupcakes. This is because when making muffins, it is best not to stir the mixture too much; a lumpy batter is always better. Muffins are basically miniature quick breads. A traditional cupcake is made by creaming together butter and sugar so have a lighter and more consistent texture. Eggs are then beaten in, followed by flour. Sometimes milk, or yogurt or something of the like is added too. Cupcake batter is beaten for much longer than a muffin batter which creates air bubbles. Muffins however tend to be made by mixing the dry ingredients together, separately mixing the wet ingredients together, and then combining the two. The amount of butter and sugar in cupcakes is higher than in muffins. In a muffin you can replace the butter with a liquid form of fat, such as vegetable oil.   However, to confuse matters, cupcakes can be made using other traditional cake methods, such as the genoise method and the all-in-one method.

Now I don’t want to confuse you further, but English muffins differ from American muffins. The muffins that we normally see and think about are American. But traditional English muffins are round, flat, unsweetened breads, often toasted and eaten for breakfast. Confused? Don’t worry, I will talk about this in a future post!

So, there are a lot of similarities between muffins and cupcakes, which is why there is so much confusion. As time goes on and people experiment more and more with ingredients for both cupcakes and muffins, the overlap between cupcakes and muffins seems to grow. However, they are actually inherently different. I hope that I’ve managed to explain the differences between them, and helped to differentiate between the two. Ultimately, they are both just delicious!

What do you think? How would you distinguish a cupcake and a muffin? I’d love to hear from you!


6 thoughts on “Muffins vs Cupcakes: What’s the difference?

  1. I liked the clarification re: muffins being a quick bread. A lightbulb went *ding* above my head – that’s true!

    Thanks for investigating this. There were a lot of factors that I would never have thought to consider.

    Liked by 1 person

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