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How to Make Perfect Muffins

Every parent should know how to make a decent muffin – that staple breakfast and snack of so many kids (and grown-ups, if you peruse any coffee shop). Once you know how to make a basic muffin, you can do anything with them – turn them into bran muffins, or banana, oat, chocolate – anything goes. Once you can effortlessly turn out a batch of muffins, you’ll be set for breakfast, lunchbox treats and after school snacks as long as you have access to an oven.

Muffins and quick breads are generally made using the “quick bread” method, which requires you to combine the dry ingredients, then the wet ingredients, and then gently stir them together. The only important thing to remember is not to over mix your batter or your muffins or bread will turn out tough. Once flour comes into contact with liquid and is stirred it creates gluten, which you must minimize in order to keep your bread light and tender. The more you stir, the more you develop the gluten. Blend the batter together by hand as quickly and gently as you can, just until it’s combined, and don’t worry about getting all the lumps out. A rubber spatula is the best tool for gentle blending it enables you to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl as you stir, and use a minimum number of strokes to combine your ingredients.

Troubleshooting:

Muffins are too dry/tough/have tunnels: the batter may have been over mixed, the muffins overbaked (as a result of too much time or an oven that was too hot) or too much flour was added. It’s important that flour always be stirred or sifted before it is lightly spooned into a measuring cup when you measure it just like brown sugar, flour can get packed down as it settles in its bag or canister, and when you scoop it up, one packed cup can actually be up to 1 1/4 cups of flour. Remember to level it off with a knife or other flat edge to avoid adding too much.

Muffins stick to the pan: the pan wasn’t greased properly, or the muffins cooled completely in the pan. Tip them on an angle in the pan while they’re still warm to allow steam to escape, and so they don’t stick as they cool.

Muffins don’t rise: Some people wind up with disastrously flat muffins simply because they’re using old leavening agents – some people don’t realize that baking soda and powder lose their punch over time. To test their effectiveness, stir a teaspoon of baking powder into 1/2 cup of hot water – it should bubble immediately. To test baking soda, stir 1/4 teaspoon into 2 teaspoons of vinegar – it should bubble immediately. If they don’t react this way, toss them out and buy fresh. Baking powder should last for about 6 months after you open the container; baking soda has a longer shelf life and will last indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place.

Basic Muffins

Since all muffins are more or less the same when you take away the extra ingredients, a basic recipe to play with is the best starting point. To this basic batter you can stir in all kinds of additions to suit your taste try a cup or so of fresh or frozen (unthawed) berries or chopped fruit, a handful of dried fruit, chopped nuts, grated cheese, chocolate chips, oats, grated apples, carrots or zucchini, mashed pumpkin or banana, and/or flavorings such as cinnamon, citrus zest and different extracts to create any type of muffin you like.

2 cups (500 mL) all-purpose flour (or use half all-purpose, half whole wheat)
1/2 cup (125 mL) sugar
1 Tbsp. (15 mL) baking powder
1/2 tsp. (2.5 mL) salt
1 cup (250 mL) milk
1/4 cup (60 mL) butter or margarine, melted, or canola oil
1 large egg
Any additional ingredients you like, such as fresh or frozen berries, chopped fresh fruit, dried fruit, chopped nuts or chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Spray muffin cups with non-stick spray, or line them with paper liners.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

In a medium bowl, stir together the milk, melted butter or oil and egg. If you are using wet additions such as pumpkin or mashed banana, add it to the liquid ingredients. If you’re adding grated cheese, add it to the dry ingredients and toss to combine.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Gently stir with a spatula, and add any extra ingredients you like after you’ve stirred a few strokes. Mix the batter just until it’s blended. Don’t worry about getting all the lumps out – over mixing will make your muffins tough.

Fill your prepared muffin cups almost to the top and bake for 20-30 minutes, until the muffins are golden and springy to the touch.

Makes about a dozen muffins.

Other things you can do with them:

Make a streusel by blending together 1/3 cup flour, 1/4 cup packed brown sugar, 1/4 1/2 cup chopped nuts, 2 Tbsp. butter and a pinch of cinnamon. Sprinkle on top of the muffins before baking.

Sour Cream Muffins: Increase sugar to 1 cup. Use 1 1/4 cups light or regular sour cream in place of the milk. These are good with the addition of fresh or frozen berries, chopped fresh fruit or dried fruit.

Banana Muffins: Replace half the milk with a cup of mashed overripe banana. Add a handful of nuts and a pinch of cinnamon to the dry ingredients, if you like.

Double Chocolate Chip Muffins: Replace 1/2 cup of the flour with cocoa, and add 1/2 to 1 cup chocolate chips to the batter.

Cranberry-Orange or Lemon Muffins: Add the grated zest of an orange or lemon to the wet ingredients, and stir 1 1/2 cups of fresh or frozen (unthawed) cranberries into the batter.

Cheese Muffins: Add a cup of grated old cheddar cheese to the dry ingredients, tossing to blend and break up any lumps of cheese.

Cheddar, Bacon & Green Onion Muffins: Add a cup of grated old cheddar cheese to the dry ingredients, tossing to blend and break up any lumps of cheese. Add a few slices of cooked, crumbled bacon or about 1/2 cup of chopped ham, and a few chopped green onions to the batter.

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