There is no “M” in our garden or kitchen so marvelous as the muffins Jean makes. So…
Yes, I love making muffins. Both Chris and I are breakfast people. Either you are or you aren’t. My daughters aren’t. They rush off to work, with coffee for the older one and without for the younger one, but neither wants to bother with breakfast in the morning, at least not during the week. Chris and I don’t understand this. If we haven’t eaten something pretty substantial by 9 a.m., such as on mornings when we need to go for a fasting blood test (or colonoscopy?), we get light-headed and can think of nothing but food.
We love all kinds of food for breakfast. For me, the ideal breakfast would be a brunch buffet, attended by a barrista and a bartender (no barristers). I love to have a selection of both savory and sweet. However, we try to limit the full hot breakfasts with eggs, meat (bacon for Chris, sausage for Jean), toast and what-have-you for special days once or twice a week. The rest of the time, we attempt (more or less unsuccessfully) to manage our weight by having only oatmeal or cold cereal with berries and low-fat or almond milk.
There are days when I just want something a little more special than cereal but not as calorie-packed as the full-fat, protein-heavy breakfast. On these days, I know I can whip up some muffins that will be ready in less than an hour. Perfect when I am up a little early or suspect Chris will sleep a little late. I know he will enjoy waking to the smell of muffins baking. The best thing is that they fill our craving for something a little sweet and special without busting our “diets.”
I love making muffins because they fit my main criteria for enjoyable baking:
(1) the recipe itself isn’t crucial or finicky; I can play with infinite varieties, making it up as I go along and;
(2) I can swap in healthy ingredients for more questionable ones.
That’s the thing about muffins. Like bagels, they get a bad rap as diet-busters, and they certainly can be. Some versions have cups of sugar and fat, as well as white flour. But the great thing is that THAT IS NOT NECESSARY. Muffins don’t have to be dripping with oil and rolled in white sugar. We’ll talk about some of my favorite substitutions, but first you need to pay a little attention to the basic structure of a muffin.
The basic structure
Muffins typically require about half as much liquid as dry ingredients by volume, as opposed to pancakes, which are closer to a 1:1 ratio. Pancake batter is looser, in other words; muffin batter should be thick but fluffy, aerated by the leavening even as you scoop the batter into the muffin cups. Once you are familiar and comfortable with that texture, you will find you can make any number of changes and turn out muffins that are good every time.
You have to have some sweetness, some fat, some salt, and some leavening, but beyond that, you can play with both the wet and dry ingredients and the add-ins, like fruit or nuts. Just pay attention to the amount of wetness or dryness that a particular ingredient may add. Fresh fruit, for example, will add much more liquid than dried fruit does.
The moisture in a muffin may come from several sources. Eggs provide moisture, as does fat, which we’ll talk about later. Some recipes use dairy products–milk, buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt, but dairy is not a required ingredient if you object to it. Muffins are so flexible that you can find a way to tailor them to your own dietary preferences. You can also tailor a recipe to what you have on hand. If the recipe wants a cup of buttermilk or sour cream and you don’t have any or all of the amount requested, add a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to fresh milk. Fresh or canned fruit or even jams can provide enough moisture to substitute for dairy. Get creative and use vegetables as well–grated carrots or zucchini, pumpkin puree. These provide lots of moisture, fiber, and nutrients without raising the sugar or fat content of your muffins.
The traditional bakery muffin may have a lot of oil. Keep in mind that oil has about 120 calories per tablespoon. Even butter may have fewer calories. Starbucks does us the favor of showing the calorie count of its bakery items, which deters me from ordering most of them, which are generally 350-400 calories each. Let’s look at the blueberry muffin on their website:
You can see it is high in total fat (16 grams), high in carbohydrates (53 grams), including 30 grams of sugar, and low in dietary fiber (less than one gram). I don’t claim to have any magic answers for weight control, but I think we can all agree those numbers are quite discomfiting.
My recommendation is that you use your own sense of what amount and type of fat is acceptable. Maybe you believe in the benefits of coconut oil. Use it, but limit it since the calorie load is about the same as most vegetable oils. The usual problem with low-fat is that trading sugar for fat may not be beneficial in any way. However, from what I understand, fresh fruit may be the best substitution nutritionally because it doesn’t spike blood sugar as much as processed sugar. Thus, I believe in the substitution of pureed or mashed fruit for most of the fat and sugar in a muffin recipe. If the recipe calls for a half cup of oil or butter, use the same amount of applesauce or mashed banana, plus perhaps one tablespoon of your favorite oil for the entire recipe, which typically makes a dozen muffins.
I can’t provide an accurate calorie count for all the substitutions I’m talking about, but most recipes I see online that make even some of these substitutions say they have about half the calories and carbs of the Starbucks muffin we looked at before. So this is worth doing if you want to eat muffins on a fairly regular basis.
A lot of the carb-load in muffins comes from the flour, which is just as guilty as sugar in spiking your blood sugar levels. I’m not sure that swapping whole wheat flour for all-purpose white flour improves the situation nutritionally. If you believe, as some are saying, that wheat in any form is the devil, try a variety of other grains, as little processed as possible. For safety’s sake, I generally keep about a quarter to a half of the white flour in any given recipe and substitute whole wheat, rolled oats, oat bran, gluten-free flour, soy flour, almond flour, or a combination of these for the rest. The goal is to increase the fiber and protein content of your muffins, and decrease the gluten. Some substitutes of these may smell funny, or they may change the moisture and structure of your muffin, but generally I have success if I don’t go too far in any one direction. I keep a number of these on hand and combine them as I see fit on a particular day.
I’m not sure if sugar is considered a dry ingredient because sometimes it is added to the dry ones and in some recipes it is first combined with the oil and eggs. In any event, and with most any recipe, you can safely reduce the amount of processed sugar called for, particularly if you are adding any form of fruit. I also keep on hand some form of less processed sugar, like turbinado sugar. It may look darker or smell stronger, but if used in moderation, you won’t notice this in the finished product. I don’t believe in artificial sweeteners, so I’m not recommending those, but I’m not stopping you if you like them. You might want to swap in some Stevia, for example, for part of the sugar.
Also consider the use of spices as part of the dry ingredients. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, whatever you like, in addition to vanilla. These add flavor and may boost metabolism and digestion without adding calories
Experiment. If you are more organized than I am, keep track of the amounts of various types of flours you used when you were particularly pleased with the results.
Cut out those sugary streusel toppings. I know, I love them, too. But instead, I recommend throwing on a handful of nuts or seeds. These may raise the fat and calorie count, but they add good oils, protein and other valuable nutrients. They are also satisfying in a way that may make you less likely to look for other less healthy snacks throughout the morning. They toast while the muffin bakes if left on top, and the flavor is wonderful.
A Test Case: Applesauce Oatmeal Muffins, Plus…
Want to walk through a test case? I started this week with this recipe for applesauce oatmeal muffins from Epicurious.com:
First I measured all the wet ingredients in a two-cup measure. (I dirtied fewer measuring cups and the pour spout made it easy to add the wet to the dry ingredients when I was ready for that step.
I had a little Greek yogurt but not half a cup, so I finished filling the half cup with some 2% milk and some almond milk.
I melted some coconut oil in place of about half the butter.
For the 1-1/2 cups oatmeal, I used one cup regular rolled oats and half a cup of oat bran.
For 1-1/4 cups flour, I used half a cup of white flour, half a cup of whole wheat, one tablespoon soy flour, one tablespoon Brewer’s yeast, one tablespoon flax meal and one tablespoon Chia seed (okay, these are the types of things I buy when I’m on a particularly healthy kick or just on a whim while shopping at Trader Joe’s; muffins are a terrific opportunity to use some of these)
For sugar, I used one quarter cup of brown sugar and one quarter cup coconut palm sugar.
Here’s a peek at the dry ingredients:
While gently folding the wet ingredients into the dry, I added blueberries and chopped walnuts in the last few turns, and then popped some walnut halves on top.
Here’s how they turned out:
And what Chris thought: “Delicious, as always! Moist, flavorful, and crunchy from the walnuts. Not too sweet, so all the flavors come through. Just how I like them! And the blueberry inside is a tangy surprise. Great for breakfast or anytime.”
Remember that muffins freeze very well and are easily brought out and warmed up on another morning when you are either in a rut or in a hurry. If the recipe makes too many, tuck some away and surprise yourself and your mates by finding them and bringing them out again some other day.
I love muffins. I bet you do, too. Make them your own signature healthy breakfast treat. Don’t let other people (not even Starbucks) make these decisions for you. Your waistline will thank you. And if anyone else you bake for isn’t thrilled with the results of your experiments, they can slather the finished product with butter and jam and still have a yummy experience (with more fiber and protein than they would get with most muffins).