Saturday, 23 November 2013

Recipe and Tutorial: Chocolate Chip Banana Muffins


Some time ago, for whatever reason that is lost to the mists of time, I made some banana chocolate chip muffins.  I probably had some bananas that were over-ripe or something. 

I had never had much success with muffins, which is weird and annoying on two fronts, considering that a) they're one of the easiest baking recipes to make, and b) I went to Pastry School for two years. WTH. I finally figured out that my inability to make a tender muffin is probably because of my twitchy need to ensure that everything is well-mixed and combined properly...which letmetellyou is the OPPOSITE of what you want to do with muffins. Over-mixing muffins can lead to the gluten in the flour becoming activated too soon, and leaving your muffins tough, heavy, flat and with little vertical tunnels running through from bottom to top.

As has been said before, while cooking is an art, baking is a science. 

And yes, I need this on a shirt or apron STAT.

As said above, the less your muffin (or quickbread) batter is mixed, the better your product will turn out. This has to do with the entirely scientific method in how acids (in this case the bananas), liquids, (eggs and milk), gluten (flour), and leavening agent (baking powder) chemically interact with one another.
I discovered an excellent explanation of why muffins behave as they do in a scientific cookbook penned in 1937, Experimental Cookery from the Chemical and Physical Standpoint by Bell Lowe. No longer in print, this cookbook/scientific manual has been lovingly preserved on the Internet for all to enjoy, or an out of print copy may be found on Amazon if one looks hard enough.

In any case, in the section on muffins, Lowe relates the results of her experiments using several different alterations to a basic muffin recipe, then recording the data and photographing the evidence.

In a nutshell, Lowe states that a maximum of 25-30 strokes/beats should give you an optimal muffin batter. This number of strokes is barely enough to combine the flour with the liquid ingredients, but don't worry; the batter at this stage should be lumpy, and break away/separate easily from the mixing spoon when filling the muffin pan cavities.  When this state is achieved, you will have perfectly baked muffins that are craggy and rough on the top but have a shiny glaze to them, have good volume, no tunnels, and are tender (tender in pastry terms means that a baked product is soft and has a good crumb).

When we mix the batter beyond this optimum amount, its appearance starts to change; the batter becomes smoother and less lumpy, it flows more readily, and as it falls from the spoon it forms long, ribbon-like strands and tends to cling to the spoon. When baked off, over-mixed muffins change in appearance, texture, and volume; the muffin top is less rounded and may come to a sharp point or peak. The crust is smoother, browns less readily, and becomes duller in appearance with less glaze. 

This is also when tunnels start to form through the muffin's centre. Not to be confused with the medium to large holes often found in muffins and cakes, caused by addition of air in mixing, these tunnels are long and narrow. The baked off muffins are less tender, the muffin's grain is finer, the cell walls thinner, and the finished muffin is more compact. 

With extremely overlong mixing, and particularly when using baking powder, the muffin's texture may become very dense with low volume; your muffins will have fewer tunnels at this stage due to their density, and the tops will be virtually flat and very smooth in appearance.
 
Wow, a science lesson, whodathunkit!!

Looking back at photos of these muffins of which I was so proud (first ones that ever worked out for me, srly!), I can tell that I had over-mixed them just the tiniest bit, probably to stage 2 according to Lowe (~60 strokes). They are a little too smooth on the tops, and some of them are just starting to peak.  But hey, I forgive me. I've learned a LOT about muffin structure since I made these, and it's my expectation hope that my next batch of muffins, be they this recipe or another, will be PERFECTION.

The best of luck to you in your Quest for the Perfect Muffin! 

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

Yield: 1 dozen standard muffins
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup mashed ripe bananas (about 2 large)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line twelve 1/3-cup muffin cups with paper or foil cupcake liners. 
  2. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. 
  3. Combine mashed bananas, egg, melted butter and milk in medium bowl until well combined. 
  4. Stir banana mixture into dry ingredients just until barely mixed together (DO NOT OVER-MIX). Stir in chocolate chips.
  5. Divide batter among prepared muffin cups, filling each about 3/4 full. Bake muffins until tops are pale golden and tester inserted into center comes out with some melted chocolate attached but no crumbs, about 32 minutes. 
  6. Transfer muffins to rack; cool.