How to Make Cupcakes Like a Pro
Everything you need to know about baking and decorating cupcakes.
It seems as though the cupcake craze is here to stay. Every year we keep finding out the “next” kale, or kimchee, or cauliflower carb, but for the past decade or so the “new” cupcakes are, well, cupcakes.
This makes perfect sense, because cupcakes, when made properly, are delicious. A perfect hand-held serving of cake with endless possibilities in flavor combinations, they are easy to make and easier to eat. But that doesn’t mean they don’t require some good technique. While it’s true that the batter making skills for cupcakes don’t really differ from regular cakes, the prep, baking, and topping do require a bit of finesse.
So, while there is no shame in hitting one of your hometown’s 17 cupcake emporiums, let’s focus on getting us some good cupcake fundamentals in our baking toolbox.
Watch: How to Make Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes
Prepping the cupcake equipment
First and foremost, the essential key to a great cupcake is that it has to come out of the pan in one piece. This requires a liner. I am 100%, all-in, no exceptions on using liners. No muffin tin is as nonstick as it claims, and whatever nonstick there is gradually dissipates with age and cleaning. A good spray can help, but liners are foolproof. Plus, and this is important, unlike muffins which have a sturdier structure and can get tipped out of a muffin tin unharmed, cupcakes are more delicate, and removing them without a liner risks crumbling. Liners are also helpful during the frosting, since you can hold them in one hand and frost with the other, without breakage, and without getting your grubby mitts all over everyone’s dessert.
If you start to make cupcakes and find yourself without paper liners, parchment paper is your best friend. Simply cut squares of parchment about two inches wider than the muffin cups you are looking to line, place a square on top of one of the muffin cups, and use a small drinking glass or jar to press the parchment down into the cup, giving it a spin while pressing the sides to make a very artisanal looking liner. If I know I am making a very moist cupcake, like a chocolate sour cream, I might even give the liners a light spray of nonstick cooking spray, just to ensure that the cakes don’t collapse while being unwrapped.
Making the cupcake batter
Once your muffin tin is properly lined, it’s time to make your batter. It’s true that you can pretty much use any cake recipe you love and convert it to cupcakes. But pay attention to the details. For example, if your cake recipe contains chopped mix-ins like fruit or nuts or chocolate chunks, remember the scale of your cupcake is smaller than a larger sliceable cake, so chop your additions a bit finer so that you ensure a good balance in the eating. Switching from regular-sized chocolate chips to mini, for example, is one great way to address this.
Basic cupcake batters follow regular cake-making techniques. In butter-based recipes, you cream the butter with sugar, add eggs, then fold in dry ingredients. Oil-based ones are more of a wet-into-dry dump method. Oil-based batters are less likely to dry out in the shorter baking time for cupcakes, so they are a good place to start if you are baking with kids or are new to making cupcakes from scratch. Plus, oil-based batters do not require remembering to soften butter, so they can go from idea to reality very quickly.
Whichever technique you use, be sure to add your eggs one at a time and mix in thoroughly to ensure good egg distribution, since this is your main leavening agent, and you don’t want your cupcakes to sink. Don’t overmix: you want to stop as soon as there are no more streaks of dry ingredients visible. Overbeating will develop gluten in the flour, and you’ll get the dreaded rubbery cupcake.
Get the recipe: Double-Chocolate Cupcakes
Filling the cupcake liners
Depending on your batter, you want to fill your liners either 2/3 or 3/4 full. How do you know which? Denser cakes will rise less, think of things like carrot cake or banana cake, the fruit and nuts and such inside prevent a towering rise, so you can fill 3/4 full. Fluffier cakes with no add-ins, like devil’s food, red velvet, or vanilla tend to get more lift, so only go 2/3 on those.
Once your muffin tins are filled to the proper height, give the pan a couple quick taps on the counter, just to let any air bubbles rise to the surface and pop. You don’t want weird air pockets in your cupcakes, as they’ll create dangerous fault lines for breaking.
Get the recipe: White Linen Cupcakes
Bake the cupcakes
More so than a standard cake, cupcakes do well in an oven that is a bit hotter. This is because they bake quicker than regular cakes, so they can handle the heat. If you are working from a specific cupcake recipe, bake according to those directions. If you are converting from a regular layer cake recipe, increase the heat by 25 degrees.
As with all baking, there is little point in giving you more than a range of times, because every oven is different. And your cupcakes are all different. Some of you will use smaller or mini tins, some giant oversized ones, some of your ovens are convection, some of your ovens are 20 years old and all the numbers have worn off the temperature dial. Start checking your cupcakes at 8 minutes for mini, 12 for regular, and 15 for jumbo. Cupcakes are done when the tops spring back when touched and a wooden skewer or toothpick comes out clean. Test every 2 minutes until done. Don’t overbake the cupcakes! This dries them out. Cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes, then gently remove from the pan and continue to rest on the rack until fully cooled.
Get the recipe: Vanilla Cupcakes With Creamy Vanilla Buttercream
Decorate your cupcakes
Cupcakes can hold up to some serious decoration, so this is a time to pull out the stops if you are so inclined. But be sure that your cupcakes are up to the task. If you are just giving your cupcakes a quick swipe of a fluffy frosting, you can do this as soon as they have cooled fully, usually an hour after you pull them from the oven. But if you want to get fancy, with fondants or extra toppings, or making them look like unicorn wizards, they will be hardier if you let them rest overnight in a covered container.
Get the recipe: Peanut Butter Cup Cupcakes
Eating cupcakes, if you aren’t eight, is often an exercise in trying to enjoy a sweet treat and not end up with frosting on your nose or half a cake down your shirt. And there is always the issue of getting that balance of frosting to cake in every bite. The best pro-tip I can give you on eating a cupcake, is the following technique. Remove the liner carefully. Grasp the bottom of your denuded cupcake in your left hand with your fingertips around the equatorial middle of the cake. With your right hand, delicately pry the top of the cake off, using your left hand to pinch slightly to ensure that the cake breaks effectively in half.
Once the bottom half of the cake is freed, flip it over and place it on top of the frosting like a hat, making a sandwich with the frosting in the middle of two layers of cake. This provides perfect ratios of frosting to cake in every mouthful and prevents buttercream in the nasal passages most effectively. Warning, this method does not work with cupcakes that have fillings or stuffed centers, so be sure to ascertain the nature of the cake before attempting, otherwise you could very well end up with a shoe full of cupcake filling.