Let's get real about cupcakes. They're really just single-serve versions of full-size cakes. That means each one is a perfect miniature masterpiece you don't have to ruin by slicing. Plus, they've got portion control built right in. You can use any cake recipe to make cupcakes, but with a lot less baking time. Here's what you need to know to be a cupcake-baking pro.
How to Bake Cupcakes
Let's use this top-rated recipe for Lemon Cupcakes to demonstrate the steps to cupcake-baking success. As we work through the recipe, you'll learn the why, how, and when of each step. Then, you'll be able to apply all this know-how to any cake or cupcake recipe you make.
1) Heat the oven first.
Turning the oven on before you start mixing the batter gives your oven time to reach the right temperature for your recipe. It's a fact of baking that no two ovens heat at the same rate, and they're notoriously inaccurate when it comes to temperature read-outs on the front panel. To outsmart your oven, always use an oven thermometer.
2) Gather your ingredients.
As with any cake recipe, the butter and eggs need to be at room temperature before you begin mixing the batter. If you use refrigerator-cold eggs, they won't incorporate into the mixture as well and will make the batter look "curdled." Ice-cold butter won't play well, either. To avoid the big chill, set out the ingredients early to warm up before you start.
3) Line the cupcake pan.
Prep your cupcake pan now so it will be ready to go when the batter's done. (You'll find out why when we get to that step.) Use paper liners to help the cupcakes come out of the pan easily. For extra non-stick insurance, apply a light coating of cooking spray or wipe cooking oil on the pan. This will keeps the tops of your cupcakes from sticking to the pan if they rise above their liners.
4) Sift the dry ingredients.
Sifting eliminates lumps in the dry ingredients and aerates the mix. This is important because cake batters are combined very gently, therefore lumps don't get a chance to be whisked or beaten away. Pay attention to the recipe to see if you should measure flour before or after sifting—it makes a difference:
- 1 cup flour, sifted = measure 1 cup of flour, level it off, then sift it.
- 1 cup sifted flour = sift flour, then gently spoon it into a measuring cup and level it off.
5) Combine the butter and sugar.
Put the room-temperature butter and sugar into a large bowl, and use a mixer to beat—or cream—them together until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula once or twice to make sure you've got every bit. The butter should be noticeably lighter in color as air is beaten into it, and the texture will actually be, well, fluffy.
6) Add the eggs one at a time.
It's a good idea to break eggs into a separate bowl before adding them one by one to the butter and sugar mixture to ensure no egg shells accidentally find their way into the batter. Beat the mixture well after adding each egg.
7) Add flavorings.
After beating in the eggs, you can add liquid flavorings such as vanilla extract. (This recipe calls for lemon zest, which is also added at this point.)
8) Add the dry and liquid ingredients to the butter/sugar/egg mixture
Gently beat one third of the flour mixture into the butter mixture, and add half the milk (and half of the lemon juice called for in the recipe). When it's well-combined, add another third of the flour mixture, and the rest of the milk and lemon juice. When that's combined, add the last of the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix the batter just until you can't see any more flour. Be careful not to overmix or your cupcakes will turn out dense instead of light and airy.
9) Fill the cupcake pan.
Our favorite tool for scooping cupcake batter is a spring-loaded ice cream scoop. It quickly divides the batter equally between the cups, and the curved sweep pushes the batter right out of the scoop. You can also use a spoon or spatula as scoopers.
10) Bake immediately.
Once the pan or pans are full, they should go into the hot oven right away. The longer the cake batter sits out, the more leavening power you lose, and the less your cupcakes will rise. (And this is why you prep your pans at the start.) If you can, bake all of your trays of cupcakes at the same time. Rotate the position of the pans about halfway through the baking time to distribute the heat evenly.
11) Check for doneness.
Leave the oven closed during most of the baking, but start checking to see if your cupcakes are done about 5 minutes before the recipe says to. For this recipe, that would be around the 12 minute mark. If the cupcakes are almost done, they should spring back when you touch the centers lightly with the tip of your finger. If that happens, use the toothpick test to be sure the cupcakes are fully baked. Insert a toothpick in the center of a cupcake and hold it there for a second before pulling it out. If there's any wet batter on the toothpick, continue baking for a few more minutes. If the toothpick comes out clean, or a couple of crumbs stick to the toothpick, they're done.
12) Cool down before frosting.
Set the baking pan on a rack until the cupcakes are cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes. Then, gently remove the cupcakes from the pan and place them directly on the rack to cool completely before frosting and decorating. (The recipe includes a creamy lemon icing.)