It’s all about dedication. In the course of my research for Interesting Thing of the Day, I have sometimes gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the articles I write. If that means drinking absinthe or eating doughnuts or trudging through Paris museums, well, these are the sacrifices a responsible journalist must make. I even enlisted my wife’s assistance to undertake a tedious and grueling muffin-baking experiment, subjecting myself to untold nutritional perils to be sure that you, gentle reader, receive the most reliable information. And indeed, I now feel qualified to hold forth on the culinary mystery of muffin tops.
Do You Know the Muffin, Man?
Muffin tops are, as everyone knows, truly the upper crust of muffindom. Most people prefer the top to the stump—at least when you’re talking about those jumbo-sized, coffee-shop muffins, as opposed to the kind you make from a mix in your kitchen. But this fact suggests several questions. Why is the top so much better? How does one go about making a muffin with the kind of top beloved by Seinfeld partisans? And how can one obtain a high-quality top without wasting a perfectly good but less appealing stump? These were the questions I set out to answer.
In my book, the ideal muffin has a top that protrudes significantly over the sides of the cup in which it was baked, thus looking rather like a giant mushroom. This large surface area is exposed directly to the hot, dry air of the oven and therefore becomes somewhat crispy, especially around the thin edges—unlike the outside of the stump which barely forms a crust because the sides of the pan hold in most of the moisture. It’s this large crispy surface that gives muffin tops most of their appeal. But most muffin recipes result in more modest, rounded-top muffins. The key, it turns out, is not to take the recipe seriously when it says to fill up the pan only halfway with batter. If you want a mega-top muffin, you have to fill the pan all the way—in fact, with a significant bulge on top. This means, of course, half as many muffins as the recipe calls for, as well as a longer baking time. A further refinement: sprinkle sugar generously on the surface of the batter before baking. This will result in a shiny glaze and a crisper, sweeter crust.
Divide and Conquer
But what you really want is a great muffin top without the bottom. Simply cutting off the bottom, while effective, is wasteful. The best solution so far has been muffin pans that are extremely shallow—only about 1/2 inch (1.25cm) deep. When loaded to overflowing with batter, these provide enough of a base for the top to rise reasonably well, while minimizing the stump. Muffin-top pans are, not surprisingly, quite popular, but they are still an imperfect solution because they don’t enable the top to get quite as large as a full-size pan does, and they still leave a partial stump. The alternative, which has met with mixed success, is to find a way to recycle the stumps. Obviously they don’t qualify as food, but technology now has a way to make oil from organic waste products. That seems to be our best hope for a muffin-stump-free future. —Joe Kissell