In my eyes, there is perhaps no better muffin than lemon poppy seed (unless it’s almond poppy seed and yes, I have a definite soft spot for those massive ones from Costco). The light and cakey crumb, the slight crunch from the poppy seeds, the lemon-perfumed glaze that dries to a slight crunch on top! It’s a dream!
As ardent lemon poppy fans, my brother and I have tried several recipes over the years, but I often found the final products too heavy, too dry, or not lemony enough. This bake off was my search for my ultimate lemon poppy seed muffin: a delicately tender, cakey crumb infused with lemon flavor (not just from the glaze) and plenty of poppy seeds. I’m delighted to say that I’ve found my dream textural muffin, so let’s dive into the results!
- 35 total tasters
- All 9 recipes were baked the day of tasting
- 2 muffin batters were rested overnight per the recipe (Handle the Heat and Bouchon)
- All tasters ranked each muffin on a scale from 0-10 for overall flavor, texture, and as a whole
- All muffins were baked in unlined, greased muffin tins
- Gold Medal unbleached all-purpose flour
- Unsalted Land O Lakes butter
- Nielsen Massey vanilla extract
- Bob’s Red Mill baking powder and soda
- Diamond kosher salt
- Imperial granulated sugar and powdered sugar
- Central market poppy seeds
- Fage sour cream
- Dannon plain low-fat yogurt
- Large lemons from Kroger
Results of the Best Lemon Poppy Seed Muffin Bake Off
Going into this bake off, I had a feeling it might be unfair to include muffins both with and without a glaze. Sure enough, the results reflect the tasters’ bias towards any muffin with a glaze. The top 5 muffins all had a lemon juice + powdered sugar glaze while the other 4 muffins either had no glaze or were brushed with a lemon syrup (Cook’s Illustrated).
So as always, take these results with a grain of salt particularly because the glaze made a huge difference in the overall presentation and taste! I think some of the lower-ranked muffins actually had more flavorful cake, but it was hard to stand out without the pop of lemon on top (more on this in the Analysis section).
Glaze: As discussed above, having a lemon glaze is not only a huge boost aesthetically, but it also provides a key hit of lemon flavor. In my opinion, a glaze can often salvage even the blandest of muffins. I found that the majority of recipes were lacking as much lemon flavor as I wanted in the actual muffin, but oftentimes the glaze made up for it. More on my quest for a more lemony muffin at the bottom of this post!
Fat: The main fat source in these muffins were either oil or butter. From past bake offs, we’ve seen that a combination of butter and oil is often a winning pair (butter for flavor, oil for a moist texture). Here, Yammie’s Noshery took top honors with an oil-based muffin while Cooking Classy took second place with a butter and oil-based muffin. (Domestic Rebel, the other oil-based muffin, came in last, but I think that was heavily influenced by its lack of glaze). In general, I preferred the oil-based muffins in this bake off because they were moister. I also think the oil may have enabled the lemon flavor to come through more clearly.
Dairy: Added dairy included sour cream, low-fat yogurt, milk and buttermilk. There was a slight trend that recipes with sour cream (Yammie’s, Cooking Classy, Sally’s, NYT) tended to do better while recipes with the other types of dairy fared less well. Muffins with sour cream were generally more moist than those made with milk. (Both Yammie’s and Cooking Classy used a combination of oil + sour cream). This is no surprise as sour cream contains more fat than whole milk–the combination of acidity plus a higher ratio of fat leads to a more flavorful and tender muffin. The Cake Blog explains that cakes made with whole milk can cause a coarser crumb due to a lack of acidity, which allows encourage more gluten formation. It’s not a perfect trend, but you’ll see some taster comments around a coarser or “cornbread-y” crumb on some of the muffins that used milk/buttermilk/low fat yogurt instead of sour cream.
Zest vs. juice: When considering how to maximize lemon flavor in a muffin, the two obvious and easy options are to increase either the lemon zest or juice. In general, I didn’t see a correlation between the amount of lemon juice and flavor. I don’t think the amount of lemon juice really affects the flavor of a muffin–most of the flavor either gets lost or bakes off. However, I think the incredible amount of zest (1/2 cup in a double batch of 14 muffins) for Yammie’s Noshery really contributed to the significant amount of lemon flavor. So when in need of lemon flavor, look at increasing the zest, not the juice. (We shall discuss other ways to increase lemon flavor at the bottom of the post.)
Technique: Quite a few recipes (all of the butter-based ones) call for creaming the butter in a traditional cake method while the remaining recipes use a more standard quickbread mixing method. I don’t think technique really affected the results here–ingredients played a far bigger role in texture and flavor.
Analysis of the Best Lemon Poppy Seed Muffin
Domestic Rebel: a soft, fluffy muffin with a decent amount of lemon flavor that would be fantastic with a lemon glaze
I was hesitant to include Hayley’s recipe (throwback to Hayley’s excellent showing in the pumpkin bread bake off!) since I felt the lack of glaze would be a disadvantage. (I almost went with this very similar recipe that includes a glaze.) Ultimately, I ended up including it for its unique combination of oil and buttermilk and the high starting/lower baking temperature technique to get a taller rise on the muffin. It’s also super easy to make without a mixer!
This recipe yielded a picture-perfect muffin with a soft, fluffy texture and a light lemon flavor that was stronger in the cake itself compared to others. I truly believe this would have been rated much more highly if it had been paired with a glaze. My only changes for next time would be to add more poppy seeds and a glaze.
- I like how cakey and soft the texture is; wish there was more lemon
- Slightly drier but very good amount of lemon flavor. Nicely balanced, love it!
- Nice muffin crumb, a little lacking in flavor—not much lemon.
- Very “muffin” texture if that makes sense. Could be more lemony
- This one looked and felt like a jiffy cornbread muffin. I like the subtle sweetness and the crust but texture was a little grainier than I like
- Like a lemon-scented cornbread muffin. More acid towards the end
- Light lemon flavor with poppy seed hints, wish the taste was a bit stronger and was less dry
Hummingbird High: a beautifully domed muffin with a tight crumb that leans drier and lacks some lemon flavor
After Michelle won my blueberry muffin bake off, I had to try her lemon poppy seed recipe! This recipe includes buttermilk, lemon oil or extract (I used lemon extract), rubbing zest into the sugar to infuse it with citrus oils, and topping each muffin with a full teaspoon of sugar, yielding sky-high domes with sparkling crusts.
These were by far the tallest, most picturesque muffins, but unfortunately I couldn’t detect much lemon in the muffins–they tasted more like vanilla muffins to me. The very close and even crumb almost reminds me of pound cake in the best way (though they were a little dry for some taster’s preference). If I were to make these again, I would top the sugar crust with a drizzle of lemon glaze to help the lemon flavor pop, and I might add more zest to the muffin base.
- Best topping with the crunchy sugar
- Liked the muffin top, but not as flavorful in the middle
- Right amount of sweetness, a bit dry. Didn’t taste much lemon but tasty overall
- Dense, crystallized sugar, crumby, sandy crumb and sugar coating
- It’s dry and needs more lemon
- High hopes for the high dome and crispy sugar top but it was way too dry. Nice scented lemon note. I’d revisit with a shorter bake time
- This is the tale of two muffins. The top is great with the sugar crust. But the bottom was bland and dry. This muffin would have done incredible at Elaine’s bakery “Top Of The Muffin To You” in Seinfeld.
Bouchon Bakery: incredibly fragrant, lemon-forward muffins with a denser, chewier texture
I’ve had the Bouchon Bakery cookbook for years and have been too intimidated to ever bake from it. And now I see why as I’m fairly sure I fudged this recipe! This was the only recipe to use all cake flour and an immersion blender to combine the ingredients. (Note: I did sub extract for the vanilla paste). I refrigerated the batter for about 12 hours, and then baked up these dense, oddly smooth muffins that made me feel sure I had overblended the batter. The slightly springy texture didn’t resemble the pictures (nor did the underbaked gummy rivulets running through several muffins). But happily, some tasters actually enjoyed the smooth, almost fudgy texture.
Texture aside, these were among the most fragrant, lemony muffins to me with notes of vanilla and strong notes of lemon. I think the blending of zest into the batter is key to dispersing flavor. While I probably wouldn’t make this recipe again, I am very curious to try adapting the blending method with just lemon zest and oil to see if that improves the lemon flavor.
- Love the amount of lemon in this one
- The texture was superb. A lot of lemon for me.
- This reminds me of Chinese cheesecake!! So inherently lemony without a visual glaze, I love how evenly cakey it is
- I like this one for the lemon, but I am not convinced it is a muffin.
- Tastes like a lemon bar or lemon brownie, not a muffin. Dense crumb.
- Too eggy, sponge-like, almost pound cake texture
- This one feels like it’s too zest forward and there’s nothing to balance it out. Hits you in the face with a tart lemon punch, tastes like a moist dense cake with a nice crunch from the poppyseeds
- Too sticky for me. Too lemony; citrus almost overpowering
- Where are my poppies?
- Tasted “commercial” or prepackaged–fake lemon taste?
Cook’s Illustrated: a slightly breadier muffin with a towering muffin top brushed with a lemon syrup
From the recipes I scraped, CI seemed to be the popular benchmark recipe upon which many other recipes riffed. CI, NYT and Sally’s are all extremely similar in terms of ingredients and vary mainly in proportions. CI uses all low-fat yogurt while NYT and Sally use a mixture of sour cream and milk. While all 3 recipes use 2 eggs, CI has a higher proportion of flour, sugar and butter. This led to more batter which equaled more voluminous muffins that were slightly breadier in comparison to the others. But while NYT and Sally’s are glazed, CI is brushed with a sticky, fragrant lemon syrup (sugar and lemon juice simmered together). This led to incredibly delicious, fluffy muffin tops that were tangy without being too sweet. Unfortunately, the bottoms that led something to be desired.
If I made this muffin again, I would try it with sour cream or whole-fat yogurt to hopefully lead to a more tender rather than bready crumb. I’d also increase the lemon zest and add a glaze.
- Love the size and texture
- Consistently moist throughout and the ratio of poppy seed to citrus flavor was well balanced.
- Airy on the inside, texture is reminiscent of cornbread, slightly dry
- Pockets of very tart/sweet that balanced with the nuttier muffin.
- Flavors were good, felt like a muffin and not a cupcake like some of the others
- Lemon comes and goes on this, I’d eat the top of this muffin and discard the rest. Texture of the body of the muffin is uneven – hard dry outer layer with a dry crumbly interior with barely a hint of lemon.
- Kind of tastes like a store bought muffin to me. Texture is ok and the flavor is best at the top of the muffin.
- This muffin is for the people who complain about everything being too sweet all the time. I don’t get much lemon or really any flavor
New York Times: a tender, even-crumbed muffin that lacked deep lemon flavor
I found myself mentally thanking each recipe that didn’t require another wash of the mixer, and the NYT was one of them. Melted butter, whole milk, sour cream, etc. get whisked together in a bowl for an extremely straightforward muffin. These muffins looked nearly identical to Yammie’s Noshery’s but had the benefit of a glaze. Texturally, I loved how fluffy and soft these muffins were (though they seemed to dry out rather quickly). The glaze lends a perfect lemon flavor to the muffin top, but unfortunately I couldn’t detect any lemon flavor on the bottoms. For me, this muffin was good but didn’t really stand out.
- Bursting with citrus in every bite. Fluffy, but still moist. I would pay good money for this muffin. Probably my favorite of the group
- I enjoyed the texture of this muffin maybe the most. Good crumb, and moist. But lacking a bit in the lemon department.
- Very smooth texture, but lacked bright acidity and flavor
- The muffin had a sort of springy texture I thought I’d hate but actually really enjoyed. Nice crumb even though a tiny bit dry, good balance of sweet and nutty but could use a little more lemon.
- Cornbread-like, slightly bread-y texture. Tart icing was great.
- Soft but not as soft as others. Can’t taste a lot of lemon flavor
- Too dry, needs more poppy
- Muffin wasn’t particularly flavorful, flavor is all on the glaze
- A little dry for me, icing brought the thunder. Would not eat this muffin without the icing.
Handle the Heat: a soft and open-crumbed muffin with a zingy lemon glaze that lacks deep lemon flavor in the muffin itself
Another butter-based recipe with only milk as additional moisture (no sour cream or yogurt), Tessa’s recipe also recommends an overnight rest for “taller, more tender muffins.” Per Tessa, chilling the batter overnight allows the starch to absorb more moisture, encouraging tenderness, and also thickens the batter without making it more dry. Indeed, the batter was quite thick and airy after a ~10 hour rest and baked up into delightfully fluffy muffins (though other muffins had higher domes).
Surprisingly, I thought these muffins had a moister crumb than NYT with slightly more flavor. I do think the use of milk instead of sour cream contributes to a more open, rather than fine, crumb. But in the name of convenience (I always have milk on hand and rarely have sour cream), I think this is a great option! Plus, Tessa says you can add lemon extract for a deeper lemon flavor, which I would definitely try next time.
- Very moist (relative) and nice crumb. Light vanilla flavor, great lemon glaze
- The icing made this muffin. The muffin alone didn’t have much flavor but had good texture. It felt more desserty because of the high sugar in the icing.
- Great balance of flavor and texture, could just use a bit more acidity
- I thought the heavy glaze might be a bit much, but I was wrong. Muffin texture was quite good and the glaze accentuated not inundated the muffin. Wanted a bit more lemon and poppy seed, but still enjoyable.
- A little dry and bready. Good icing, but not enough flavor overall.
- This one feels very much like a bakery style lemon poppy seed muffin in both flavor and texture. Non offensive but also not mind-blowing.
- Dense with good chew; I want more tang in the batter
Sally’s Baking Addiction: a moist, plush crumb generously sprinkled with poppy seeds with an impressive muffin dome
Sally’s master muffin recipe is butter-based with a little sour cream and milk for richness. It’s quite similar to Dorie Greenspan’s well-known recipe, but uses a slightly different ratio of dry ingredients, a smidge more sugar, and uses a mix of milk and sour cream instead of all sour cream. Sally does diverge with her method of blasting the muffins at 425 before turning the temperature down to 350 to ensure a picturesque rise to each muffin.
This muffin stood out for its density of poppy seeds, and I was pleasantly surprised by the tender crumb of this muffin with just a butter base (as opposed to butter + oil). While I loved the crunch from the poppy seeds and the plush texture of this muffin, once again I didn’t much lemon flavor aside from the glaze on top. To me, Handle the Heat, NYT and Sally’s are all fairly similar and I would probably revisit Sally’s and Handle the Heat most often.
- The quintessential lemon poppy seed muffin
- I really like the ones where you can smell the lemons before you taste it and this one hit that note really well. Good amount of poppyseeds, nice citrus smell and good balance of sweet, tart and nutty.
- Nice high dome, the cake has a tender, tight crumb with a light lemony scent. The glaze brings a wonderful lemon brightness.
- One of the heavier poppy muffins, which keeps my interest in the middle of the muffin. I’ll be picking out poppies in between my teeth for a while, but that’s not a bad thing.
- Feels like store bought! Perfectly balanced
- A lot of vanilla flavor, not much lemon, lots of crunch from poppyseeds, very tender
- Sweet/lemon glaze is a nice addition. More of a muffin-like, rather than cake-like texture (slightly bready)
- Tastes a little like vanilla cake – not as lemony or moist
- Light, could more moist but at least it was not dry. Love the glaze.
- Light and bready. Good icing, but average overall.
Cooking Classy: an ethereally light-crumbed, moist muffin that is the epitome of cake disguised as a muffin
I had high expectations for Jaclyn’s recipe mostly due to its combination of oil and butter (a winning combination when it comes to many cakes). With the addition of an extra egg yolk, milk, sour cream, this is a somewhat labor-intensive recipe but! It’s worth it for the moist, delicate, melt-in-your-mouth crumb that practically melts under the rich glaze. I previously thought that sour cream tends to contributes to a rich but denser, more substantial crumb, but these managed to be feather light and extraordinarily cakey. These were far and away my favorite texturally (my ideal cakey texture!), and the muffin tops were delicious, though I think the muffin itself could use more lemon flavor.
I don’t think I’d change a thing about this recipe aside from tweaks to get more lemon flavor–perhaps lemon extract, lemon oil, or blending the zest into the oil. (Note: I got 15 large muffins from 1 batch.)
- Soft. Buttery. Supple. Absolute fantastic. Bravo. Bravo.
- Sooooo soft and love the glaze. Perfect amount of lemon flavor
- Buttery, lemony, moist and almost has a texture of cake.
- So light and fluffy, and not an overpowering amount of lemon–a refreshing amount.
- Love how soft this one is, and it’s got a light flavor but still retains the tangy lemon
- Almost creamy texture that melts in your mouth, very moist
- Could’ve used more lemon, but the texture was nice and light. I could eat a lot of these
- Little too mushy, lemon flavor unfortunately concentrated at the top, still yummy
- I selected no on whether I’d eat this again but it’s so similar to [Yammie’s] but without the flavor and bolder lemon. Love the spongey and airy texture, and seems heavier on the poppy but I want more lemon. If it had a bolder icing, it would jump up a few notches.
- Falls apart too easily
Yammie’s Noshery: a tender, close-crumbed muffin with a delightfully lemony flavor
To be transparent, I was secretly hoping this oil-based, sour cream-enriched recipe wouldn’t do too well as I zesting 7-8 large lemons to get the required 1/2 cup of zest was a huge pain. And of course, it won!
Zesting aside, this recipe is very easy–it’s written as a 1-bowl recipe that doesn’t require a mixer. This was the best overall muffin for me in terms of balancing a fluffy, springy muffin texture with a tender crumb along with a fragrant lemon note. Flavor-wise, the muffin itself was the second-most lemony to me after Bouchon, and was my approximate second-favorite texture after Cooking Classy. Topped with the glaze, this muffin was near perfection.
A few notes: the glaze as written is way too much for a batch of 7 muffins. I made a double batch of 14 muffins and the glaze for a single batch was more than enough. I also used part sour cream and part nonfat yogurt in the recipe as she specifies you can use either. The only thing I think could make these muffins better is a Hummingbird High-style muffin top 😉
- Oh my god YES!!!!! Moist muffin with great flavor and icing was perfect level of lemon zest and sweetness
- Might be my favorite – perfect balance of flavor and texture.
- I just ate a lemon cloud.
- Love everything about this, moist with texture from icing and poppies
- Very sweet and cake-like. I could eat a lot of these.
- Love the super soft texture and the glaze that made me feel like I was punched in the mouth by a lemon. Good balance with the sweetness, could use a bit more poppy seeds
- This feels ideal to me! Maybe could be a little more lemony but that’s a preference thing.
- Favorite texture of them all. Still missing the ideal lemon flavor though – would like a little more in the pastry
Ful-Filled: a true bakery-style muffin with a tight, structured crumb and generous dome
There have been a few times (see the chocolate cake and brownie bake off follow ups) where I’ve felt compelled to try making a few other recipes that I felt were missed during the bake off. When Bella reached out and expressed her matching enthusiasm for lemon poppy seed a few days after the bake off, I immediately added her recipe to my spreadsheet and made it that night.
Her recipe is actually very similar to Cooking Classy (butter + oil + sour cream formula), but uses 1/2 cup less flour, no milk, a smidge less sour cream, and no extra egg yolk. The resulting muffin is one I could easily see on the counter of a bakery–a perfect, even crumb that is structured and looks almost bready but falls apart in your mouth like a delicate cake. It’s somehow dense yet light with a crumb that’s on the drier side but perfectly appropriate as a muffin (i.e. not a muffin masquerading as cake). Texturally for me, this strikes a perfect balance between the tight crumb of Hummingbird High and a softer crumb of Sally’s Baking Addiction or Handle the Heat. Once again, you get great lemon flavor from the glaze, but not so much in the muffin itself. This would easily tie for my textural second place with Yammie’s!
How to Make the Best Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins
A couple notes on tips I picked up while making all these muffins:
- 1 large lemon yields about 1 tablespoon of zest
- 1 cup of powdered sugar + 2-4 tablespoons of lemon juice yields enough glaze to comfortably coat a dozen muffins
- For a smooth, lump-free batter: make sure all your ingredients are room temperature before mixing
- For more tender muffin bottoms: Use a high-quality, thick baking pan. I found muffins baked in my cheaper, thinner muffin tins tended to have bottoms that browned faster and were slightly tougher. You can also protect the muffin bottoms from overbrowning by using cupcake liners.
As for how to truly make the most lemony poppy seed muffins, here are a few tips I’ve received:
- Lemon oil (this oil also came recommended)
- Lemon extract
- Add a pinch of citric acid (probably no more than 1-2 grams): supposedly it mimics the sourness of lemons though it won’t actually add lemon flavor. It’s quite strong and can affect the leavening agents, so just a tiny amount is recommended.
- Massage zest into the sugar to release the citrus oils: Hummingbird High and Ful-Filled both call for this step and while I think it must incrementally help with flavor, I think the overall amount of zest matters more than this step.
- Crystallized lemon powder??
- Make a loaf cake instead! (I do agree that somehow it feels like loaf cakes manage to distribute flavor more evenly throughout the cake than muffins generally do)
My subjective favorites: Cooking Classy or Ful-Filled for texture, Yammie’s or Bouchon for flavor. To get my ideal muffin, I might try adding more zest to Cooking Classy’s recipe, or I may try blending the zest into the oil/sugar a la Bouchon’s blending technique.
Most crowd-pleasing: Yammie’s Noshery, Cooking Classy
Best lemon flavor: Yammie’s Noshery, Bouchon Bakery, Domestic Rebel
Best muffin tops: Hummingbird High, Cook’s Illustrated, Ful-Filled
Best taste for least effort: Yammie’s (if you don’t mind zesting) or NYT
Best poppy seed ratio: Sally’s Baking Addiction, Handle the Heat
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