A muffin is somewhat like a small cake, and though it does resemble a cupcake in that they both have cylindrical bases and rounded conical tops, they usually are not as sweet as cupcakes and generally lack frosting; savory varieties (such as cornbread muffins) also exist. They generally fit in the palm of an adult hand, and are intended to be consumed by an individual in a single sitting. A muffin can also mean a different baked good, the smaller, disk-shaped English muffin, although this usage is uncommon outside Britain. As American style muffins are now sold in the UK, the term can refer to either product, the context usually making clear which is meant. There are many varieties and flavors of muffins made with a specific ingredient such as blueberries, chocolate chips, cucumbers, raspberry, cinnamon, pumpkin, date nut, lemon, banana, orange, peach, strawberry, boysenberry, almond, and carrot. These ingredients are then baked into the muffin. Muffins are generally considered to be a breakfast food, but in Europe where they have tea (the meal) they are eaten then.
Farmer used the term gem for her corn recipe, which was a muffin baked in a pan of lozenge shapes rather than circular cups. With the invention of circular muffin paper cups, hard-to-clean iron gem pans lost popularity, and are rarely used today, although corn muffins baked in the form of ears of corn remain a tradition. The development of non-stick pans has allowed the production of very elaborate muffin shapes (animals, holiday motifs, etc.), but the circular muffin remains the norm.
In the 1950s, packaged muffin mixes were introduced by several companies, most noticeably Spacey's (American) and Cadbury (British). By the 1960s, attempts were being made to treat the muffin like the doughnut as a franchise food business opportunity. Coffee shop-style restaurant chains appeared, featuring a wide variety of muffins. These tended to be regional, such as The Pewter Pot in southern New England. No such business has emerged nationally in the US (although doughnut chains have edged into the business), but Australia's Muffin Break has spread to New Zealand and the UK, featuring the American-style muffin.
A somewhat odd combination of circumstances in the 1970s and 1980s led to significant changes in what had been a rather simple, if not prosaic, food. The decline in home-baking, the health food movement, the rise of the specialty food shop, and the gourmet coffee trend all contributed to the creation of a new standard of muffin.
Preservatives in muffin mixes led to the expectation that muffins did not have to go stale within hours of baking, but the resulting muffins were not a taste improvement over homemade. On the other hand, the baked muffin, even if from a mix, seemed almost healthy compared to the fat-laden alternatives of doughnuts and Danish pastry. "Healthful" muffin recipes using whole grains and such "natural" things as yogurt and various vegetables evolved rapidly. But for "healthful" muffins to have any shelf-life without artificial preservatives, the sugar and fat content needed to be increased, to the point where the "muffins" are almost indistinguishable from cupcakes. The rising market for gourmet snacks to accompany gourmet coffees resulted in fancier concoctions in greater bulk than the original, modestly sized corn muffin.
The marketing trend toward larger portion sizes also resulted in new muffin pan types for home-baking, not only for increased size. Since the area ratio of muffin top to muffin bottom changed considerably when the traditional small round exploded into a giant mushroom, consumers became more aware of the difference between the soft texture of tops, allowed to rise unfettered, and rougher, tougher bottoms restricted by the pans. There was a brief foray into pans that could produce "all-top" muffins, i.e., extremely shallow, large-diameter cups. The TV sitcom Seinfeld made reference to this in an episode in which the character Elaine Benes co-owns a bakery named "Top o' the Muffin to You!" that sold only the muffin tops (see The Muffin Tops (Seinfeld episode)). Along with the increasing size of muffins is a contrary trend of extremely small muffins. It is now very common to see muffin pans or premade muffins that are only one or two inches in diameter.
The so-called English muffin is very different from the variety described on this page.. The "English muffin" is yeast leavened and predates the baking powder leavened muffins. This produces a type of muffin with a thick, fluffy pastry and is usually baked as a disk typically about 8 cm in diameter. It is usually split into two, toasted and buttered, and bears a vague resemblance to a crumpet or pikelet. It also is eaten cold with a hot drink at coffee shops and diners. In her Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, Fannie Farmer gave recipes for both types of muffins, distinguishing between "raised" and adding instructions for a version that is nearly identical to today's "English muffin." Here the raised-muffin mixture was cooked in muffin rings on a griddle and flipped to brown both sides, producing a grilled muffin. Farmer indicated this was a useful method when baking in an oven was not practical.
The advantage to cooks is easier removal and cleanup, and moister muffins; however, using them will prevent a crust.