The differences between muffins and cupcakes aren't exactly clear-cut. Cupcakes are generally sweeter and more delicate, while muffins are -- as a rule -- coarser and a bit healthier, but that's only a general guide. Understandably, the line between a muffin pan and a cupcake pan is equally equivocal. In truth, they're mostly identical, and the only difference is the batter that you put in them.
Rows of Cups
You could replicate a cupcake or muffin pan by baking your batter in individual little cups -- hence the term cupcake -- but joining them together in a single pan makes the whole operation much simpler. The pans come in many sizes, from the mini-muffin 1-ounce cup pans to the jumbo-size 5-ounce cup pans, with a standard pan holding 1/4 to 1/3 cup of batter. As a rule, the difference isn't with the pan itself but how you choose to use it. Cupcakes typically use less batter, so they'll retain a neat shape as they rise in their paper liners. For muffins, the cups are often overfilled, so the batter will spill over and make a large, crisp-edged "muffin top."
Tweaked for Muffins
Standard pans can be used interchangeably for muffins or cupcakes, but a few are tweaked to make them more muffin-friendly. If you're a muffin lover, seek out pans with broader spacing between the cups and a non-stick coating. This provides plenty of room for your muffin tops to spread, and it makes them easy to remove from the pan. Some specialized pans have a shallow lip around the cup, which allows for a large muffin top but keeps it round and attractive, rather than ragged and square. A few pans dispense with the main well entirely, providing only a shallow cup for baking the flat muffin top without the muffin.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.