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I've got some strong feelings about blueberry muffins. For starters, I'm not talking about blueberry cupcakes. Trust me, I appreciate dessert-for-breakfast more than anyone (hello, cherry pie), but real muffins are a type of bread. While they should taste sweet enough to feel indulgent, muffins also ought to be lean enough that I can smear each half with butter and still feel a little self-righteous when I'm done.
The perfect blueberry muffin is domed and delicately crisp on top, with or without a crust of sparkling sugar (yet another reason the base should be appropriately mild). Most of all, it should have lots and lots of fruit—I'm talking equal to the weight of the flour, or maybe just a little more if the berries are particularly good.
The real kicker is that blueberry muffins shouldn't disrupt your lazy weekend vibe. So, no endless creaming of the butter and sugar, or whipping eggs to fold into the dough—techniques that are great for aerating cakes and cookies (more on that here), but entirely unnecessary for proper muffins.
Quick crash course: Aeration is just baker-speak for physically incorporating air bubbles into a batter or dough. In the oven, gases like steam and carbon dioxide collect within these empty pockets, expanding as they warm and thus helping baked goods to rise.
Put a different way, aeration is all about modifying the density of a batter. If we didn't whip up super-dense ingredients like sugar and butter, our cakes and cookies would be little more than solid lumps of sweetened fat, carved with tunnels where the gases were forced to climb inelegantly up and out. In fact, tunneling is a sign of poor creaming technique in cakes and cookies alike.
But, in recipes where the sugar and butter represent a small percentage of the flour's weight (think muffins, biscuits, and scones), there's no need for mechanical aeration because such doughs are inherently light. I mean, what's fluffier than a buttermilk biscuit? You don't see anyone trying to improve that time-honored method by creaming the butter or folding in a few whipped eggs; it's just not necessary.
That's also true for muffins, which descend from the same family of "quick" breads—recipes that rely on the power of chemical leavening alone (i.e., the carbon dioxide generated by baking powder or baking soda).
So, instead of getting creamed into the sugar, the butter is blended with all the dry ingredients. In the olden days, that was easiest to do after melting, but today's food processors and stand mixers make short work of cold butter, quickly creating a dry and mealy "mix."
Chilly butter will make a batter incredibly stiff, which leads to excessive doming. While that's considered a major flaw in layer cakes, where the rounded tops must be trimmed away, doming increases the surface area of each muffin top, which most of us consider to be the best part.
To further enhance that effect, I use cold milk, eggs, and berries as well. But not all at once! The milk and eggs come first, creating the basic mix. Most recipes would then have you toss the blueberries in a bit of flour, ostensibly to prevent them from sinking to the bottom, but if that's all it took to defy gravity, we'd all have hoverboards by now.
No, the real trick is dropping a little cushion of plain dough into the bottom of each muffin cup. After that, the berries are folded in and the dough portioned up, each scoop sitting happily atop its pillow.
Because most muffin recipes start with a loosey-goosey batter that's more akin to cake batter, the dough will seem freakishly thick, but that's okay! Not only will that consistency produce muffins with a more pronounced dome, it'll also hold the berries in place by slowing their downward motion to a crawl. And, with that little pillow of plain dough at the bottom, you won't have to worry about soggy muffins again.
If anything, the blueberry distribution skews a little toward the top, which is fantastic for muffins because the heat of the oven winds up concentrating the flavor of the berries along the surface.
Even better, it means your muffins won't ever stick to the pan or dissolve the bottom of a paper liner. If you'd rather your muffins go au naturel, the type of pan you choose can have a big impact on how they turn out. You can read the full scoop on that here, but in short: If you'd like to keep your muffins soft and pale, choose a plain aluminum pan. If you'd prefer a more pronounced dome and browning along the bottom (yes, please!), then nonstick is the way to go.
Whether you decide to keep things plain and simple, or finish up with a sprinkling of sparkling sugar (and maybe a pat of butter or two), I hope my blueberry muffins will bring us one step closer to a world where fake-muffin cupcakes are a thing of the past.
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