A Good Muffin Doesn’t Have to Be Bad for You

Julia Moskin makes whole grain blueberry muffins with a crunchy orange streusel top.

The New American Breakfast is, no doubt, a wonderful thing. Bone broth, green juice, salmon jerky and medium-chain triglyceride oils will soon make us a faster, thinner and sharper nation. The Old American Breakfast — with sweet indulgences like sticky buns, doughnuts, pancakes and waffles — has been labeled hazmat by nutrition authorities, and rightly so.

But some of us still hold this truth to be self-evident: Sugar and starch are the best possible companions for morning coffee.

Muffins can be a happy compromise between old and new, especially if you make them yourself. This master recipe for whole grain berry muffins is both extremely flexible and extremely rewarding. They are sweet but not sugary, packed with whole grains but not dense, and reasonably rich in fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. And they freeze beautifully; these muffins can go from a 300-degree oven to the weekday breakfast table (or the car) in about 20 minutes. If baked right, they even have the high-domed, crunchy top that is, as everyone knows, the best part.

As long as the oven is hot, the batter is thick and the leavening is strong, perfect muffins are within the reach of any home cook.

And that’s fortunate, because muffins from commercial bakeries — made mostly of refined flour and sugars — often have a nutritional profile indistinguishable from a fat slice of birthday cake. A healthy-sounding honey bran raisin muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts has 40 grams of sugar, about three heaping tablespoons. (Interestingly, a glazed doughnut from the same chain has only 12 grams.) A Bountiful Blueberry muffin at Starbucks contains 29 grams of sugar, while a Hostess Twinkie has 18.

Credit...Rikki Snyder for The New York Times

At some point, the distinction between cake and muffin seems to have been lost.

“What you usually get now is a small cake baked in a muffin tin,” said Joanne Chang, the owner of several Flour bakeries in Boston and the author of the recent book “Baking With Less Sugar.”

The difference is not only in the pan, said Ms. Chang, who is both a pastry chef and a recovering mathematician, but also in the proportions.

Cake is rich and sugary, with a fine crumb; muffins are lofty, open and less sweet. Cake is a dessert, but a good muffin can be a meal. (But it does not have to weigh as much as one. Heavy, dense muffins are the result of too much of one whole grain — bran, most often — and not enough flour or leavening.)

To develop a master recipe for a muffin that is sustaining, filling and reasonably sweet, I synthesized mounds of advice into a few guidelines: Mix whole grains with all-purpose flour, use slightly processed ingredients like maple syrup and coconut oil whenever possible, and go heavy on nuts and fruit.

“With fruit as a sweetener, your mouth doesn’t miss the sugar as much,” Ms. Chang said. Dried fruit, since it is so concentrated, can be very high in sugar and calories. Now that fresh berries are available year round, they are an even better — and juicier — choice.

Next I dived into batters, leavening and add-ins. (Surprise tip: There’s no need to toss berries in flour before adding them to these muffins; this batter is so thick that they do not sink). I merged whole grain combinations from my favorite bakers into a formula that is delicious but not at all dense: equal parts wheat germ, cornmeal and rolled oats, combined with an equivalent amount of white flour. The whole grain options can be interchanged with millet, spelt, bran and other grains, but using a mix, rather than just one, is key. White flour is needed not only for taste but also for lightness: Its gluten content allows the batter to stretch, rise and bake up high.

To maximize the tops, I decided to double up on baking soda and baking powder. This gives the batter a better shot at rising, since both whole grains and home appliances prevent leaveners from doing their best work. I ignored the usual cautions about overfilling the tins, piling in as much batter as each cup would hold — and then a little more in the center. (If you do this, grease the entire top of the tin, so the muffin tops don’t get stuck once they puff up and out of the cup.)

Sprinkling a streusel topping over the batter also helps make a crunchy muffin top, and the orange zest I added to this one makes a wonderful counterpoint to the blueberries. But if cutting down on sugar is a priority, simply sprinkle on a few grains of raw sugar — or leave the tops alone.

Some bakers warn that muffin batter should be rushed into the oven as soon as it is mixed so that the leavening effect isn’t lost. But I learned that resting the batter, which gives the grains a chance to soften and absorb the liquid, produces a whole grain muffin of surpassing height and tenderness. Ms. Chang stores all of her batters overnight in the refrigerator before baking in order to get a superior crumb. I mimicked her method by leaving it on the counter for an hour and found that as long as you do not vigorously mix the batter at any point, which does have a deflating effect, the air bubbles will expand and the baking powder will redouble its efforts when the heat of the oven hits the pan.

Double-acting baking powder, the only kind widely available now, is so called because its leavening is activated twice; once when it is mixed with liquid, then again when it is exposed to heat. Baking soda is activated when mixed with liquid and acid, which is why tangy buttermilk is used in this (and many other) baking recipes. Since lightness is key to the success of this recipe, do check your baking soda and baking powder for signs of age; if you’re unsure just how long that box of baking soda has been sitting around, go for it and invest in a new one.

Ms. Chang began to research “Baking With Less Sugar” not as a working manual but for her own use in an effort to limit the amount of sugar her family eats at home — a professional hazard for bakers. In her bakeries, she said, sticky buns rule supreme. And with a doughnut shop on every corner in the Boston area (where Dunkin’ Donuts was born in 1950), her products have to stand out.

“People come into a bakery expecting a treat,” she said. “The trick is to give them that feeling without just adding more and more sugar.”

Recipes: Whole Grain Blueberry Muffins With Orange Streusel | More Muffins

Julia Moskin of The New York Times is on hand to answer any breakfast questions in the comments thread and during a Facebook chat on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 2 p.m. EST. Post your questions and comments, whether they are more generally about breakfast or baking this recipe in particular. And if you make this recipe, tell us how it turned out.

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