Both muffins and cupcakes are baked goods, but otherwise, they couldn’t be any more different. This guide will explain how these two treats diverge!
What’s the difference between muffins and cupcakes? The differences between muffins and cupcakes include the lack of frosting, texture (cupcakes are lighter), available flavors, savory options, the time of day you eat them, decorative options, and the ingredients.
Ahead, I’ll discuss what makes a muffin a muffin and a cupcake a cupcake before diving into the differences above. By the time you’re done reading, you won’t get these baked treats confused again!
What Is a Muffin?
A muffin is a type of sweetened quick bread that’s shaped like a cupcake.
In other words, a muffin is baked in a tin where the top (or the cap) expands and the bottom stays within the confines of the tin.
The origins of muffins aren’t precisely clear, but it’s believed that the term might be based on the French word mou-pain, which means soft bread.
The word would later be changed to mouffin and then muffin.
If not that, then muffins might have Greek origins, as the word maphula means “a cake baked on a hearth or griddle,” which is how early muffins would have been baked.
What we do know for certain is that by 1754, the muffin man poem was promulgated, and the term was soon widely used.
What Is a Cupcake?
A cupcake is like a miniaturized cake for one person. It has the same shape as a muffin, i.e., a definable expanded top and then a more confined bottom.
Like muffins, cupcakes are baked in trays that are often lined with paper cups.
The first time that a cupcake was mentioned in a recipe book was in the 1796 cookbook recipe by Amelia Simmons called American Cookery.
The recipe called for baking cakes in small cups, which is what a cupcake is.
A later reference to cupcakes as we know and love them appeared in the 1828 book called Receipts by Eliza Leslie.
However, confusing matters is that back at the start of the 19th century, a cupcake and cup cake were two different things.
A cup cake was a cake where the baker measured the volume rather than the weight of the ingredients. The name later changed to quarter cakes.
Cupcakes, on the other hand, were literal cakes baked in cups, as muffin tins were not something that every home baker owned.
Thus, bakers got crafty, making cupcakes in molds, ramekins, or even pottery cups. They were literal cupcakes!
7 Differences Between Muffins and Cupcakes
Now that you can appreciate both muffins and cupcakes separately, I want to point out the differences between muffins and cupcakes from the intro and give you the exact information you’re looking for.
Cupcakes Have Frosting, Muffins Do Not
The first difference is that, more often than not, cupcakes are frosted using cake icing while muffins are not.
Can you eat unfrosted cupcakes? Sure, you can. Most stores that sell cupcakes do not sell them unfrosted though.
You don’t only have to use icing to frost cupcakes either, of course. Fondant is another option, albeit a divisive one.
If you do end up using fondant to decorate the tops of your cupcakes, I’d suggest reading my article, How to Store Fondant Decorations, to save yourself some trouble and possibly save your fondant from becoming unusable.
Now, I’m not saying that muffins are necessarily naked. Some do come with a glaze or drizzle, and maybe the most decadent muffins have a strip or several of frosting.
However, a muffin will not be fully iced in frosting.
Once it is, then you’ve officially left muffin territory and you’ve got an amalgamation of the two that some recipes call “muffin cupcakes“.
Muffins Are Heavier Than Cupcakes
Texturally, muffins and cupcakes are quite disparate as well.
You’ll recall that cupcakes are mini cakes. Although you can make a cake in a lot of different ways, most cakes are known for having a fluffy, light, airy batter that’s a delight to bite into.
Cupcakes replicate that texture so they’re easy to eat.
Muffins have a thicker, heavier texture almost akin to bread.
If you wanted to bake a denser cupcake, you always could, but that alone wouldn’t make it a muffin.
Cupcakes Stick to Cake Flavors, Muffins More to Fruity Flavors
The available flavors if you order a cupcake versus a muffin are quite different as well.
Cupcakes usually follow the routine order of cake flavors. You’ve got your chocolate, vanilla, maybe strawberry, cookies and cream, red velvet, and the like.
Can muffins overlap in the flavor department? Sure! Vanilla muffins are very common, as is chocolate.
Muffins tend to embrace more natural and fruity flavors that you don’t see in cupcakes, from banana nut to pumpkin, apple cinnamon, and blueberry.
Muffins Can Be Savory, but Cupcakes Are Not
That’s not where the muffin flavors end, by the way.
While sweet-flavored muffins are and probably always will be the most popular, they’re not the only kids on the block. You can also buy savory muffins.
Here are some examples of savory muffin flavors:
- Cheddar cheese
- Spinach, bacon, and cheddar
- Ham and cheese
- Broccoli cheddar
- Spinach and cheese
- Salmon and chives
- Sun-dried tomato and pesto
Not everyone necessarily wants to start their morning with a blood sugar spike, so they reach for a savory muffin instead.
While cupcakes can be less sweet by adjusting recipe quantities or ingredients, you are not going to find a savory cupcake. It just doesn’t exist.
Honestly, that’s not such a bad thing!
Cupcakes Are Usually Not a Morning Treat, Muffins Are
I have to talk about when you eat muffins versus cupcakes, as the timing is very different.
As I mentioned in the section prior, muffins are primarily a breakfast food.
For those mornings when you don’t have time to cook, a muffin will fill you up long enough to get you through your mid-morning slump.
Could you eat a muffin in the afternoon or even as a post-dinner treat? Sure, you could. It’s your life and you make the rules.
Regardless, that doesn’t change the fact that muffins are known primarily for being eaten in the morning hours.
You wouldn’t eat a cupcake in the morning unless it was your birthday, and even then, that’s really only an attractive proposition to kids.
Cupcakes are solely a sweet treat and thus are saved for when you would enjoy sweets, such as after dinner.
Muffins Are Less Decorative
Both muffins and cupcakes today are dressed to the nines when being sold to make the treats more Instagram-friendly so they’ll fly off store shelves.
That said, the decorative aspect of muffins is mostly understated.
Perhaps yours will have a cream cheese center or a drizzle or glaze decorating the top. Maybe it’s a layer of crystalized sugar on the muffin or some chocolate chips protruding appealingly from the top.
As far as decorations go, that’s about it for muffins.
As for cupcakes? Well, the sky is the limit!
Cupcakes are far likelier to be baked in bright, colorful, patterned paper liners than muffins.
You can choose colorful frosting, adorn the treat with sprinkles, or cover a cupcake with candies.
All look totally natural in the realm of cupcakes but would be very strange if placed on a muffin.
Cupcakes Have Less Healthy Ingredients (Most of the Time)
The ingredients make the treat!
A basic muffin, at the very least, requires all-purpose flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, salt, milk, vegetable oil, eggs, vanilla extract, and then whatever you’re interested in mixing in there.
Cupcakes use butter, granulated sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, all-purpose flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt, and milk.
The ingredients certainly do intersect, at least for the base treat, but further diverge once you get into the icing or frosting ingredients.
Even if you compared a vanilla muffin with a vanilla cupcake, the inclusion of the frosting means that the muffin is the healthier choice between the two. Maybe not by much, but it is.
Muffins Are Less Celebratory
Then there are the connotations associated with each sweet treat.
While you can enjoy cupcakes any time of the year, they’re a common sight around someone’s birthday, especially if that person is having a party.
It’s a lot easier to hand out some cupcakes than it is to cut and serve a cake. They both taste the same, but one is more handheld and portable.
That’s why cupcakes are often so decorative, as they’re celebrating a festive occasion.
You’re not likely to see muffins used to celebrate someone’s birthday. Even in an office environment, there’s usually a cake served but not muffins.