How Muffin Pans (and Liners) Can Affect Your Favorite Recipe

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

In search of the perfect muffin, we've all baked a few duds. Whether our muffins are too brown, too pale, or too dry, or not domed enough, tall enough, or fluffy enough for our liking, we blame the recipe first. And, while bad formulas certainly abound, it's worth noting that our muffin pans may be the most overlooked variable of them all.

As I discovered during my pie-baking marathon, how heat is conducted to the dough can be a make-or-break factor in the texture of a crust. With enameled ceramic or heavy stoneware, which slow the transfer of heat, crusts are more likely to turn out greasy and dense. With tempered glass, which speeds the process along, crusts more often turn out light and crisp.

The same concept holds true for muffin pans, although different factors come into play. How quickly a pan conducts heat will influence how long the batter needs to bake and how deeply it will brown along the edges, while the texture and shape of the pan itself will determine the proportions of the muffin's dome.

To better understand how all that works, I whipped up a batch of plain muffin batter, made with baking powder and milk for a more neutral pH. (Alkaline batters brown more deeply, while acidic batters tend to be pale.) It's not the tastiest batter in the world, but its simplicity highlights how the pan itself can influence browning.

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First up: standard aluminum. This is the sort of muffin pan commercial bakeries favor. Aluminum is extremely conductive, more so than stainless steel, allowing batters to bake rather quickly. It also reflects light, including the thermal radiation all ovens produce, which can help minimize browning—a real asset when it comes to delicate white cupcakes, though it makes for rather anemic-looking muffins.

Aluminum can warp when subjected to rapid temperature swings, like when you rinse a hot pan in cold water, so be sure to look for one that's reinforced around the edges (usually with steel). I have a Nordic Ware muffin pan at home (which I use mostly for cupcakes), and, while it's hand-wash only, aluminum won't rust, so I can leave it to air-dry without any concern.

For most bakers at home, the far more common sort of muffin pan is nonstick. Underneath their polytetrafluoroethylene coating, most are stainless steel. That means they conduct heat more slowly, which can bump up the time needed for a batter to cook through, a delay that will improve the rise of some batters. (These muffins baked a full quarter inch taller than those baked in an aluminum pan.) On top of that, the dark nonstick coating absorbs light, which can lead to more browning in the oven.

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For me, the better browning and lift that nonstick muffin tins provide outweigh the fact that it's a pain to clean and care for the delicate material. Since the coating seems ready to flake off at the slightest provocation, washing can be especially tedious when you've baked well-endowed muffins loaded with juicy fruits or sprinkled with sugar, either of which will readily caramelize and defy Teflon's nonstick claims.

I have two nonstick Wilton muffin pans at home, and I love that they're wider than most. This leaves more room between each cup, so you can make jumbo-size muffins without worrying that they'll all fuse together into one freakish Frankenmuffin.

Silicone's the newcomer to the muffin-pan party, so bright and cheerful you can't help but want to add one to your collection.

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On paper, it sounds great. Silicone can be formulated to mimic the conductive and reflective properties of aluminum, as well as the nonstick properties of Teflon. While that's a hypothetical hurray, my feelings are decidedly humbug. It's too floppy to stand on its own, which means it can be used only in conjunction with a baking sheet. So not only do the muffins now require twice as much equipment, they'll invariably brown too much along the bottom where the silicone touches the metal.

Even though the silicone cups I tested were the same dimensions as the other pans (three inches across and just over one and a quarter inches deep), the muffins rose a quarter inch less than those baked in an aluminum pan due to the seamless funnel shape of each cup, which allowed the muffin tops more spread.

Though the pan's flexibility ostensibly makes it easier to pry a muffin loose, in practice I wound up squishing several of my muffins instead. Silicone's collapsible nature makes storage something of a pain as well, as the pan can't slide into a cabinet or storage rack on its side, but, if placed on a shelf, can be crushed if heavier items are put on top. If you've got plenty of storage space, that may not be a problem, but in my cramped kitchen, it was such a hassle that I wound up giving my silicone muffin pan to a friend (and later learned he threw it away).

What's true of any individual muffin pan will hold true even if you add a liner, but the type of liner you choose can influence the shape and appearance of the muffin, in addition to speeding cleanup. The cheap paper liners you buy at the store will get the job done, but they're thin and quick to dissolve from moisture, so I wanted to put a few other options to the test, with some blueberries thrown into the mix to show how each stood up to the juicy fruit.

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Humble waxed parchment liners performed admirably, although their translucence and waxy texture can make the muffins look and feel a little greasy. I was pleasantly surprised by how well heavy colored paper liners held up. In the photo above, the stain is the result of overflow rather than bleeding berries.

The many nooks and crannies of folded tulip papers made for weirdly shaped muffins, while the unusually tall papers caused the muffins to brown unevenly as well. I also found them difficult to use, as the papers were slightly wider than the bottoms of the muffin cups, yet not designed to stand on their own.

My unexpected favorite, however, proved to be the simple foil liner. Its sturdy construction seemed to help the muffins form a more rounded dome, and, perhaps because of that, none of my muffins showed any evidence of overflow; it was as if the corrugated foil funneled all the juice back in. Perhaps a lucky coincidence, although 0 in 12 is surely more than chance. This type of wrapper is sold in most grocery stores, albeit in plain silver, making it a fairly practical option as well.

So, next time you bake up a batch of muffins (and yes, my favorite recipes will be coming up rather soon), don't forget that your choice of pan and liner may play a bigger role than you think.