How to Make Old-School Bran Muffins From Scratch

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

When I was a kid, my mom made Martha White bran muffins all the time. In the olden days, the mix came in a small paper bag, so she could just tear off the top, stir in some eggs, and have the muffins baked off by the time my brother and I got up for school. We'd split 'em open and just pile on the butter, neutralizing whatever health benefit they might have offered. So while there may be glitzier muffins out there, simple bran muffins occupy a very cozy corner of my heart, where everything's warm and safe and wholesome.

Funny thing is, it's nigh impossible to find a decent bran muffin recipe online. Most start with an entire box of bran flake cereal, which seems like a rather convoluted way to incorporate whole grains into the batter. Besides, with my limited pantry space, I'd rather stock a small bag of wheat bran that can produce ten batches of muffins than be forced to deal with that many boxes of cereal.

The thing about wheat bran is that you can't just sprinkle some into your muffin batter; the dry flakes are so incredibly absorbent that even an ounce or two is enough to suck up every last drop of moisture from the entire batch. Without access to that water, the gluten-forming proteins in the flour can't interlink, which weakens the structure of the batter, leading to fragile muffins that crumble apart at the touch. For that reason, bran needs a water supply of its own: four ounces of boiling hot water for every ounce of bran.

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Heat helps the flakes hydrate a little faster, but it can also melt the butter in the batter, turning it soupy and thin. Thin batters tend to bake up flat, which is great for a nice and level cake but sad when it comes to a muffin. To keep the batter thick, for muffins with a nice round dome, the hot bran mash needs to be cooled to room temperature. You could do that passively by just waiting around, or instantly by stirring in cold yogurt and eggs.

I like using Greek yogurt because it's strained, which keeps the batter nice and stiff, ensuring that each muffin bakes up with a beautiful crown. Since the bran mash is already loaded with water, trading Greek yogurt for milk, buttermilk, or even plain yogurt would only thin the batter, leading us back to those sad, flat-topped muffins.

With the wet mix squared away, the basic technique for bran muffins is the same as the one I use for classic blueberry and pumpkin spice muffins: Combine all the dry ingredients and soft butter in a bowl, then mix until mealy and dry. From there, the cooled bran mixture is stirred in to form a super thick batter.

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Before portioning up the batter, I like to fold in a cup of golden raisins for their subtle sweetness, but any dried fruit will do. In fact, so long as your "mix-in" doesn't contribute any additional liquid to the batter, it could be anything from toasted pecans to chocolate chips. That said, the muffin batter can stand on its own, so you don't have to add anything at all.

I've been known to top the batter with buttery pumpkin seed streusel, but more often than not I take the lazy route and just throw a handful of raw pecans or flaxseed at the muffin pan and call it a day.

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I like the delicate crunch flax brings to the table, but as with the raisins, it's totally optional, so don't feel compelled to buy a bag if you don't have any on hand. Another option would be a light sprinkling of wheat bran flakes, which will dry and crisp a bit in the oven, but there's nothing wrong with keeping bran muffins plain and simple.

Regardless of any additional toppings, don't be surprised at how high the muffin batter will be heaped up in the pan. Because the batter's so incredibly thick it won't spread out all over the place in the oven, but instead will rise straight up.

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The result is a tray of big, hearty muffins with magnificent, craggy domes. They're lightly sweet (thanks to a modest helping of sugar) and aromatic with cinnamon, but mostly they're all about the hearty, graham flavor of whole wheat. Thanks to the infusion of water bound up with the bran, they have a nice shelf life, too—about two or three days in an airtight container at room temperature.

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That said, they're best fresh out of the oven, split and slathered with butter, because let's get real: That's what warm muffins are for.