If you do much baking, you know what an asset the freezer can be. In addition to preserving leftover breads, cakes, and cookies, as well as fat-rich perishables such as butter and nuts, it’s clutch for make-ahead projects when you want to bake day-of but don’t have time to do the start-to-finish legwork. Fully assembled fruit pies, pizza dough, cookie dough, dinner rolls, and biscuits are all great candidates.
My latest favorite from-the-freezer scenario is single-serving baking, where you mix up and freeze a full batch of something and bake off just a portion or two as needed. Drop cookies are a natural (lots of us ATK staffers keep frozen chocolate chip cookie dough balls on hand at all times), but recently I’ve been working on a muffin formula. It’s just me and my wife in residence these days, and even when we don’t have a crowd coming over to eat a dozen, we want to bake fresh muffins because their aroma; moist, tender crumb; and crisp edges are so much nicer than what you get by warming up fully baked frozen ones. Baked muffins also take up more freezer space than portioned batter does, and even if you’re careful about packing them in airtight containers, it’s hard to stave off freezer burn.
The batter I’ve engineered bakes up tall and fluffy from the freezer, and its buttermilk-based crumb is flavorful but neutral enough to pair with a variety of mix-ins such as berries, spices, and chocolate. Here’s how it works and what I learned along the way.
How Frozen Muffin Batter Fails
The extreme cold temperatures and freeze‑thaw cycle can negatively impact most batter’s leavening and moisture, leading to muffins that aren’t up to snuff.
On the Rise
Before working on a new formula, I tried freezing and baking a few conventional batters. I portioned each into a tin fitted with paper liners, froze the tin until the contents solidified into batter “pucks,” removed the pucks from the tin, and fully froze them in a zipper-lock bag. Then I popped a few pucks back into the tin and baked them per the recipe’s prescribed temperature and time—usually in a hot (400 degrees or so) oven for the better part of 20 minutes.
They were a sorry-looking bunch—stunted, misshapen, and dry on the outside while the middle was still cool or even raw. There clearly wasn’t enough leavener in the mix to give the frozen pucks an ample boost in the oven, and the dry freezer air had wicked moisture away from the batter as it sat. The muffins were also baking too hot and fast, so the temperature difference between the surface and center was significant.
I knew it was important to use both baking powder and soda. Powder does most of the leavening before and during baking, while soda increases browning reactions and continues to boost leavening when it reacts with acidic buttermilk. The key here was to use plenty of leavener—a whopping tablespoon of powder plus 1/2 teaspoon of soda—to maximize the frozen batter’s rise and color development in the oven. A well-aerated batter also made it easy to incorporate delicate mix-ins such as berries.
Science: Why Double Up on the Leaveners?
Muffin recipes typically include both baking soda and powder. Here’s what each one does.
The primary role of BAKING SODA in muffin batter is color and flavor development. Its high pH encourages Maillard browning, leading to muffins that tan nicely and taste deeper and more complex. It also reacts at room temperature—but not during baking—when combined with an acidic liquid such as buttermilk, creating bubbles that further aerate the batter and make it easier to incorporate delicate mix-ins like berries.
Double-acting BAKING POWDER can—and does—do most of the leavening work on its own, because it contains ingredients that react both at room temperature and during baking. One of those is baking soda; the others are dry acids: one that’s active at room temperature, such as monocalcium phosphate, and one that’s heat-activated, such as sodium aluminum sulfate (SAS) or sodium aluminum phosphate (SALP).
To boost moisture, I pivoted from melted butter (my default for rich flavor) to vegetable oil. Liquid at room temperature, oil gives a moister texture than butter, which is solid at room temperature. I also added a little more sugar, since it’s hygroscopic and would help the batter retain moisture. (More sweetness tasted good too.)
This time, after portioning and freezing the batter, I baked the pucks at 350 degrees. It took roughly 35 minutes for the crumb to cook through, but the more moderate temperature allowed the muffins to rise and dome beautifully, and they were evenly moist with nicely crisp edges.
Science: Engineering a Batter Than Can Be Baked From Frozen
Most muffin batters don’t freeze well, but this one is designed to be baked from frozen so that you can enjoy just one—or a whole batch—of moist, tender, evenly lofty muffins on demand. Here’s how we adjusted a typical formula.
- Vegetable Oil Instead of Butter Oil is liquid at room temperature, so it lends the crumb a moister texture than butter, which is solid at room temperature.
- Plenty of Sugar In addition to sweetening the crumb, sugar is hygroscopic and helps the crumb retain moisture during baking.
- Lots of Leavener A modest amount of baking soda helps leaven the batter, but it’s mostly there to increase alkalinity and enhance browning. Double‑acting baking powder—a full tablespoon—lightens the batter immediately, making it easy to incorporate mix-ins such as fruit and chocolate, and is also heat-activated and withholds much of its leavening power until the muffins bake.
- Turbinado for the Top Coarse-grained turbinado sugar, sprinkled on the portioned batter before freezing, won’t dissolve or melt when frozen or baked the way granulated sugar does, so the muffins’ crust bakes up with a sweet, sparkly crunch.
Inside and Out
I love a good berry muffin, and since this batter was designed to be frozen, I opted for frozen fruit (fresh works equally well). After whisking together the wet and dry ingredients, I folded in cranberries (chopped) or blueberries (whole) and seasoned each batter with a spice, citrus zest, or extract: cardamom and lemon zest for the cranberries, cinnamon and lemon zest for blueberries. And for a fruit alternative, I worked up a double-ginger–chocolate chip muffin.
Over the top, I liberally sprinkled turbinado sugar, the coarse, golden grains of which stuck to the batter better than a streusel did (especially once the frozen pucks were bagged together in the freezer) and maintained their crystalline sparkle and crunch through freezing and baking.
These days I stockpile various flavors in my freezer. Just the thing for an impromptu morning bake.
Tips for Baking a Small Batch
If you’re baking just a few muffins, place the frozen “pucks” anywhere in the tin; their arrangement won’t impact the results. And if you have a toaster oven and a 6-cup tin, bake in them to save time and energy.