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In muffin recipes, the instructions often say to stir the mixture till "just combined".

Why does over-stirring the muffin mixture result in tough muffins? And how do you know if you did too much stirring?

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Aronut, but I don't want @Sam to lose 15 points as a result of merging :) –  TheIndependentAquarius Feb 26 '12 at 1:16
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@AnishaKaul I merged the question, I am sure Sam will get points from other questions and answers, he is doing very well. He just got 10 p from my upvote. –  rumtscho Feb 26 '12 at 15:31
    
@rumtscho I think Sam's answer is better than what's accepted here. You could have merged this thread with mine. Anyway, it is mod's call. –  TheIndependentAquarius Feb 26 '12 at 15:35
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5 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The easiest way to tell if you've over stirred muffins, quick breads or cakes is the texture when it's baked.

Correct, and it's all even. Over stirred, and you'll have a series of larger bubbles in the cake, called 'tunneling', where it looks like worms have burrowed their way through your cake or muffin.

Stirring develops gluten, which is essential to trap in bubbles for most yeast breads, and to give it a little bit of chew -- but not something that you want in a typical quick bread. (muffins, cake, etc.)

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And to expand on this, the reason that tunneling happens with overdeveloped gluten is that the bubbles of carbon dioxide generated by the rising process are trapped by a too-strong gluten network. A weaker matrix lets some of the CO2 come out of the muffin as it bakes, and distributes more evenly. –  daniel Jul 19 '10 at 6:15
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My experience suggests that you can mix a cake batter or a brownie as much as you want, till you are satisfied that all the ingredients are mixed well. The only trick is to not whip the batter or mix it too quickly. Be gentle and your baking powder will work exactly the way it should.

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This is simply not correct for quick breads; additional mixing will develop gluten and create a tough or rubbery texture. Even standard cake or brownie batters will eventually be affected, although fat and the way it is combined inhibit the process. –  SAJ14SAJ Sep 2 '13 at 7:19
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The main reason behind the claim is that muffins don't want gluten formation. Gluten in a chemical leavened product like a muffin would make it tough, rather than light, since the protein strands are so sturdy. The sturdy structures that are desired in crusty bread are a problem for muffins and other chemical leavened products.

Gluten is formed when dough is heavily mixed or kneaded, or when the dough remains wet for a long period of time. Avoiding mixing it too much is one way of preventing gluten formation.

Lots of mixing can also cause the chemical leavening (baking powder) to go flat. Baking powder is a mix of sodium bicarbonate, which will release CO2 when in contact with an acid, and an acidic salt, such as cream of tartar (or others). They are inert when dry, but when water hits them, the acid activates and starts bubbling the soda. This reaction doesn't take long to run out of steam, though, so too much mixing can pop or shake out the precious bubbles.

What seems to be subject to some superstition is the exact way to get the "right" amount of mixing. Some people say, "ten stirs only" or other little tricks, but the point is that you just want to integrate the ingredients together, and no more, and to add the liquid to the dry ingredients as close to the actual moment of baking as practical. Dry lumps in the batter are fine - they will hydrate quickly in the heat of the oven.

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beautiful and very helpful answer, Sam. thanks very much. :) –  TheIndependentAquarius Feb 26 '12 at 0:50
    
Sam, if I mix the batter fine but "quickly" within seconds, will that work? I mean is the "time" problem? or the problem is "fine mesh" irrespective of the time? –  TheIndependentAquarius Feb 26 '12 at 5:46
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Both issues are important, I don't think I could say which is a bigger deal. I know I have success when I mix just before placing in the pans, and not mixing heavily. The hard part is that words don't do a good job of explaining things like texture. For that, pictures are better, and experience is better still. Check out this episode of Good Eats - Muffin Method Man (which is an excellent show for learning cooking techniques) covering muffin preparation: Part 1 (youtu.be/J-D7zwa1vUk) Part 2 (youtu.be/XZJBXftTnms). –  Sam Ley Feb 26 '12 at 8:27
    
Thanks Sam, that was helpful. He mixed it 13 times in all with a large spoon. :) I'll try that and post back soon. :) –  TheIndependentAquarius Feb 26 '12 at 11:17
    
Just to add, if you overstir what will usually happen is you'll end up with massive cavities inside the muffin due to gluten formation, surrounded by tougher dough. If you stir appropriately you'll have lots of small little cavities which will have a nice tender structure when you bite. –  Matthew Sep 3 '13 at 20:41
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The first claim is true and scientifically correct. If you over mix a muffin batter, in fact any batter or dough containing flour, it will become 'tough' or 'breadier'. This is because in flour (obviously not non-gluten flour) there are gluten molecules (a kind of protein, when the dough/batter is worked the gluten becomes to form strands and microscopic cross-links creating a chewer texture. It will also create a denser texture as chemical leaveners (ie baking soda) cannot rise as well in the tougher batter. Some flours have higher gluten contents, pastry flours have a lower gluten content for more tender baked products such as cakes and pastry, bread flours are produced from hard wheats. And have a higher gluten content and create chewy, breadier product. This links go into more detail:Wikipedia - gluten.

As for leaving the batter lumpy, I've heard this too, however only that it appears lumpy not with pockets of dry flour. I wouldn't advise this as this can result in a muffin with pockets of raw floury just horrible flour. Leaving the flour lumpy but moistened is fine as it means the starch in the flour has moisture to absorb, whilst if undermixed the moisture is unable to reach all of the flour and it stays raw. I don't have a link for this to back it up unfortunately after looking however I've given an opinion from my experience.

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Thanks, I'll look out what is a gluten, and which flours have it. –  TheIndependentAquarius Feb 26 '12 at 0:51
    
All wheat flours have gluten, and most related species like barley and rye. Gluten is formed from two proteins that are naturally occurring in the grain, gliadin and glutelin. Moisture and movement cause these proteins to combine, and string together in long, sturdy strands. Sometimes this is good for your food (nice chewy breads and pasta), and sometimes it is a problem (like in your muffins). Most baking processes and ingredients are about either creating, inhibiting, or otherwise harnessing gluten. Read more here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gluten –  Sam Ley Feb 26 '12 at 0:58
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Because you have overworked the gluten in the mixture. Same reason why you rest a pastry or pizza dough before you roll it out.

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Expanding on this... gluten combination occurs as you move the mixture about. Kneading, stirring, rolling, anything that moves the mix around causes gluten combination. The more you work the dough, the more combines, and the tighter it clumps. For muffins you want some gluten (to hold it together), but don't want it tightly bound. Stirring until almost everything is wet is what I do. Lumps are just fine. Works for me. –  sysadmin1138 Jul 18 '10 at 18:06
    
I think detailed answers (with reasons) are better than the one liners. –  TheIndependentAquarius Feb 26 '12 at 15:36
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