Cookies, pies and cakes are delicious, but everyone knows that cupcakes are the perfect party treat. Not too big and not too small, cupcakes are a delightfully versatile dessert that can be served on paper plates at a picnic or presented in an elegant, statuesque tower at a wedding or other formal celebration. They also run the gamut in flavor, ranging from plain yellow with chocolate frosting to key lime with meringue. No matter what size, taste or toppings you favor, there's a cupcake recipe (or 20) bound to satisfy every taste bud. Before tying on the apron, however, take note of the 10 tips we've put together to help aspiring chefs produce perfect cupcakes.
Prior to beginning any culinary feat, a trip to the grocery store is in order. First, take a quick inventory of the pantry and fridge. The necessary items to turn out basic cupcakes are muffin pans, boxed cake mix and premade frosting. Of course, you can also bake cupcakes from scratch, in which case you'll need fresh eggs, butter, vanilla and any special ingredients the recipe calls for. Optional items include paper baking cups, toppings and decorative icing. Many people opt to use paper baking cups because they cut down the messiness factor and help prevent the cupcakes from drying out. Otherwise, you can spray your muffin pans with nonstick vegetable oil spray or grease them with shortening and flour.
You can take a few preparatory steps to ensure a great product, too. Expert bakers recommend that you bring all ingredients to room temperature before mixing anything. Room-temperature ingredients combine more easily than those of varying temperatures, minimizing lumps and graininess [source: Oprah]. Many cooking traditionalists also emphasize the importance of preheating the oven to ensure a perfectly baked product. However, today's efficient appliances are capable of heating up quickly and baking evenly even if you don't preheat before sliding your cupcakes in the oven [source: TreeHugger].
Mix and Measure Properly
It's nearly impossible to make a perfect cupcake using the "pinch of this, dash of that" method of cooking. Instead, carefully measured ingredients yield the fluffiest product. Rather than charge through the recipe and risk unbalanced cupcakes, take the extra minute or two to measure your ingredients exactly. Wet ingredients, such as water and oil, are best measured in glass cups placed on a level surface. Dry ingredients, like flour and sugar, are measured most accurately in nesting cups that are flat on top, which allows you to level the dry ingredients with a spatula or baking spoon before adding them to the mixing bowl [source: Wilton]. Experts also recommend that flour and sugar be sifted when you're making cupcakes from scratch. Sifting helps prevent unfortunate lumps from ruining an otherwise perfect treat.
When it it's time to pour the cupcake batter, freehand isn't the way to go. Resist the urge to just eyeball the batter, which often results in cupcakes of varying size and doneness (small ones overcooked, bigger ones undercooked). Many cupcake enthusiasts swear by the ice cream scoop as a neat and accurate filling device. Of course, the tool you use to fill your cupcake pan doesn't really matter -- as long as you're consistent about filling each cup to the same level. Most bakers recommend filling them between 1/2 and 1/3 full, depending on the particular recipe. Some recipes double in size when baked, while others barely swell at all. Die-hard cupcake fans encourage baking a trial cupcake to ensure the best turnout of the batch. (Those of us who are less picky simply encourage a taste test or 12 to assess the turnout.)
Tuck a Tasty Surprise Inside
Fillings shouldn't be reserved only for doughnuts. In fact, jams, icings, custards and creams of any variety add extra panache to most cupcake recipes. When your cupcakes have cooled, use a decorating bag and tip to inject the filling of your choice into the top of the cupcake. To cram in even more of the good stuff, you can hollow out a small portion of the cupcake, fill it and plug the hole with a piece of cake or with a generous dose of frosting. Boston Crème Cupcakes from HowStuffWorks are only one example of scrumptious filled cupcakes.
Stirring mix-ins into the batter is another easy way to lend more flavor to the most basic cupcake recipe. Even small children can help with this step by adding sprinkles, fruit, candy or finely chopped nuts to the mixing bowl. This cupcake batter will yield an extra-special finished product.
Baking times and temperatures vary based on the recipe and type of pan you're using. For most recipes, the standard 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176 degrees Celsius) will do the trick nicely. When you're baking tiny treats in a mini-muffin pan, however, the smaller amount of batter requires less cooking time. Miniature cupcakes need only eight to 10 minutes in the oven, compared with 18 to 20 minutes for standard size cupcakes. King-sized cupcakes need a little extra time to cook completely through, about 24 to 26 minutes [source: Wilton]. Experts recommend that cupcakes be checked at the minimum suggested baking time to avoid unintentional overcooking. The old-fashioned toothpick test is a great way to gauge doneness. Insert the toothpick into the center of the cupcake top. If it comes out clean, the cupcakes are finished. Another age-old test is a little more hands-on: When you touch a cupcake with your fingertip, finished ones will spring back to form.
Many a cupcake has been ruined when overly eager chefs apply frosting too soon after removing the batch from the oven. A little bit of patience is necessary to ensure that the frosting goes on smoothly and doesn't melt. First, allow the cupcakes to cool for a minute or longer before removing them from the pan. Then, place them on the counter or a wire baking rack. For best results, when the cupcakes have finished cooling, cover them or seal them in a container to prevent them from drying out. It's important that you allow cupcakes to cool before putting them in an airtight container, otherwise, they'll sweat. Once you've got all your items assembled for frosting and decorating, pull them out and get to work.
Although it may not be fancy, few hungry dessert lovers would turn away a cupcake topped with a swirl of store-bought frosting. Basic frosting techniques are very easy to accomplish. Simply dip the top of each cupcake upside down in a bowl of frosting and twist. Be sure to cover the entire top to prevent cupcakes from losing their moistness.
For chefs with a talent for creating edible art, there are countless options when it comes to decorating cupcakes. These scarecrow cupcakes from HowStuffWorks are a festive fall dessert that only looks intricate -- with toasted coconut, chow mein noodles, shredded wheat cereal, assorted candies and decorating gel, you'll whip up a gourmet treat in no time. Kids with the cold weather blues will cheer up when making snowman cupcakes, using marshmallows, pretzels and peanut butter cups to create an edible version of Frosty. Truly ambitious chefs can make gourmet, dinner-party-ready cupcakes topped with crystallized flowers, made with actual flowers (be sure to determine which varieties are safe for cooking since some are poisonous), egg whites and superfine sugar [source: Reynolds Kitchens Cupcake Central].
Top Them Off
Just in case icing, mix-ins and fillings aren't decadent enough for your taste, a staggering array of toppings are available to adorn cupcakes. Cupcake fans that feel guilty about the caloric intake associated with these treats can add a little bit of nutritional value with a few strategically placed strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or other fruit. Miniature cookies are another festive topping that adds a little bit of crunch to an otherwise soft dessert. People with a penchant for extreme sweets can add candy shavings to the frosted top of a cupcake. Of course, you can't go wrong with traditional sprinkles, which always provide a quick dash of color and festivity to an otherwise plain batch of cupcakes.
If you really want to attract some attention, find creative ways to arrange and display your little cakes. The most delicious vanilla cupcake can go unnoticed on a plain white platter. Try stacking cupcakes on tiered plates, or tuck them into a cupcake tree. Colorful decorations like ribbon, confetti and doilies complement the whimsical qualities of your bite-sized works of art.
Cupcakes may be a traditional dessert, but they don't necessarily have to taste that way. Cupcake purists may be surprised to find out that they can be made in any number of flavors. Cappuccino cupcakes from HowStuffWorks are a little bit off the beaten path, but still familiar enough to ease adventurers into sampling new flavors. Those brave enough to try truly unconventional cupcakes might enjoy baked bean and tomato cupcakes or avocado lime cupcakes, both of which were created as part of The Cupcake Project. Vacation-starved landlubbers can try tropical luau cupcakes to get a taste of the beach without actually making the trip.
Although cupcakes are at their best when eaten fresh, there are several ways to store them that will keep their flavor and fluffiness factors in check. First, avoid food poisoning by storing all cupcakes with creamy fillings or whipped cream toppings in the refrigerator or freezer. Cupcakes freeze very well for up to three months, except for those with hard candy toppings or decorating gel -- these don't defrost very easily. To thaw frozen cupcakes, simply place them on a countertop or in the refrigerator.
Don't be too hasty about frosting your cupcakes if you plan on storing them for a few days before anyone consumes them. For instance, if the cupcakes will be consumed in a day or two for a class party that's around the corner, just store them in an airtight container at room temperature. Plan on frosting them the day of the event. If you know that you'll be freezing part of your batch because you have a celebration a few weeks from now or simply because you don't want to have too many cupcakes on hand, experts recommend freezing plain cupcakes and frosting them after they've thawed out.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "A Whole Year of Cupcakes." Martha Stewart Kids. (Sept. 22, 2009).http://www.marthastewart.com/article/a-whole-year-of-cupcakes-by-martha?autonomy_kw=cupcakes
- "Baked Bean and Tomato Cupcakes." Cupcake Project.com. (Sept. 28, 2009). http://www.cupcakeproject.com/2008/08/baked-bean-and-tomato-cupcakes.html
- "Baking Cupcakes: Make Perfect Cupcakes With Cupcake Baking Tips By Wilton." Wilton.com. (Sept. 28, 2009). http://www.wilton.com/cupcakes/making-cupcakes/
- "Cupcake Baking Tips." The Cupcake Project. (Sept. 28, 2009); http://www.cupcakeproject.com/2007/02/cupcake-baking-tips.html
- Cupcake Central.com. (Sept. 28, 2009). http://www.cupcakecentral.com/
- Laumer, John. "Myths That Waste Energy in the Kitchen: The Baking and Roasting Episode." TreeHugger.com. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/10/three_myths_tha.php
- "Pina Colada Cupcakes." Betty Crocker.com. (Sept. 28, 2009).
- Selasky, Susan. "Tips to Make the Perfect Cupcake." South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com. April 2, 2009. (Sept. 28, 2009).http://www.sun-sentinel.com/features/food/sfl-tips-for-baking-cupcakes-e04sbapr02,0,4042783.story
- "Sprinkles' Baking Tips." Oprah.com. (Sept. 26, 2009). http://www.oprah.com/article/food/cookingadvice/food_adv_bakingtips
- Urzua, Vanessa. "4th of July Cupcake Decorating Tips for Kids." Dallas Baking Examiner. (Sept. 28, 2009). http://www.examiner.com/x-9835-Dallas-Baking-Examiner~y2009m7d4-4th-of-July-cupcake-decorating-tips-for-kids