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"I haven't even gotten into muffins! Or cupcakes. Or are those a subset of muffins? We'll need a committee to investigate that."
-- From a late installment of 8-Bit Theater (wherein our intrepid adventurers argue over what kind of evil cake the demonic force Chaos might turn the world into)


So.... exactly what is the difference between a cupcake and a muffin? Having baked both at times, I ought to know, but for a more learned answer, I followed Fighter's fancy and convened an unofficial committee of the Internet and similar sources. And so I turned to The Cupcake Project, which in turn turned to Cupcakes Take the Cake, which took its own turn to Diana's Deserts, which (whew, finally!) puts it as follows:

A basic formula for muffins is 2 cups flour, 2-4 tablespoons sugar, 2½ teaspoons baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 egg, ¼ cup oil, shortening or butter and 1 cup milk. When the fat, sugar and egg ratio in a recipe reaches double or more than this, you have reached the cake level.

Buried in other Internet locales are observations that "Cupcakes have the butter and sugar creamed together before adding other ingredients one at a time. Muffins throw everything in at once and mix together"; and a library of suppositions that the presence or absence of icing figures in (but this seems of minor import). An actual cookbook example, The Joy of Vegan Baking (2007) declares that the difference between a cupcake and a muffin "seems to be a fine line," putting it on the icing and the sweetness of the cupcake, which it observes to have in earlier usage referred to any smaller cake. Mom's Big Book of Baking (2008) chalks it up to the batter; while Betty Botter may have bought some better butter for her batter, if it was muffin batter, it was thicker -- batter up!! And Crazy About Cupcakes‎ (2006), in its advocacy of breakfast cupcakes, looks to both denseness and frosting as differentiators.

To be sure, then, the difference between muffin and cupcake is pretty much the difference between bread and cake. The output of these variegated recipes is that bread is denser, and so more packed with nutrients, while cake is lighter and fluffier. From this differentiation arises the historic dichotomy; bread is the healthier choice, the working man's daily sustenance. Cake is the rare treat of the day laborer, and the daily delight of those wealthy enough to waive off work. A muffin is like a compact loaf of bread; a cupcake is like an extra-delicate (and so even more elite) cake. Would we give that man on Drury lane the same respect were he called the cupcake man?

The denser muffin supports a bigger top -- ever heard of a bulging belly referred to as a cupcake top? Didn't think so. The muffinical density also bears the inclusion of even heavier bits -- raisins, berries, nuts, chocolate chunks and peanut butter blobs. One observer has quipped that if one hurls a cupcake against the wall, they'll hear a 'poof!' But throwing a muffin yields a 'thud!'" (But I addend to that, if you are need of a weapon, use a scone). Said observer also proposed that muffins go with coffee, and cupcakes with tea, and that fast food dispensaries will deal in the former, and not the latter.

There is, at last, also a colloquial difference, given another meaning often assigned to the "muffin" (as carried forth by Lady Gaga in her "Poker Face" vid, wherein the Lady doth concede, "I'm bluffin' with my muffin").... But context is everything in this social sense -- naturally, if one were to walk up to a lady at a party and, leeringly arching ones eyebrows, were to intone, "I'd like to lick the icing off your cupcake," you'd surely get much the same response as if your comment had been an offer to butter their muffin.

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