How to protein-up your holiday muffins. Hint: don’t add powdered crickets
If I could, I’d eat baked goods for every meal. And if there’s one time of year to try to get away with this, it’s the holidays. Festively seasoned cakes, breads, pastries, and cookies abound. That said, there’s one baked good that usually doesn’t make the cut: muffins. In fact, I kind of loathe muffins.
But, it is the holidays—‘tis the season to be jolly and all. I felt like I should give muffins another shot. So, I set out to try to make them suck less. I was generally successful, I think. Though, thanks to my lovely editor, Eric Bangeman, the journey to redeem muffins involved eating powdered insects. He meant well (at least I hope he did), but it was definitely a step backwards for the baked goods.
First, my beef with muffins: basically, they have so much potential to be great but generally fail miserably. They’re easy to make, can be packed with pretty much any flavoring or ingredients imaginable, and have the potential to be delicious. Better yet, they’re portable and easy to eat—perfect for breakfast. They fit right in the palm of your hand so you can mindlessly shove one toward your face while running to work or plopping at your desk. They also look like they should be good for you in some way. They could be the perfect breakfast baked good.
But, sadly, they’re usually just dull sugar bombs, loaded with empty calories that leave you hungry again in 30 minutes flat. If I wanted a sweet, fattening, un-filling baked good, I’d eat something super scrumptious, like a chocolate croissant or a cream-filled donut. Move aside, muffins.
To try to lift muffins from their pitiful position, I decided to pack them with protein as well as flavor. Studies have found that protein is satiating, and there are a variety of ways nowadays to easily bake in the mighty ingredient—protein powders from milk, plants, insects even. But which is the best? Some studies have suggested that certain protein sources may be more filling than others. But I wanted a good taste and texture, too. So I designed a little baking experiment.
I started with my favorite muffin recipe (which is to say, a rare formula for a muffin I didn’t want to chuck at a wall). Its base is buttermilk and oatmeal, and it creates a relatively tasty, low-calorie, not-too-sweet, filling breakfast muffin. For this experiment, I boosted the flavor and tested out three different types of protein powders: whey, plant protein, and cricket flour (which is, as the name implies, just ground-up crickets).
The basic recipe is:
- 1 cup old-fashioned oats
- 2 cups buttermilk
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons melted butter
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1½ cups AP flour
- ½ cup raisins or currants
- ½ cup apples
- 1½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ginger
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon allspice
- ¼ teaspoon clove
There’s one trick to this recipe that requires planning: you have to soak the oats in the buttermilk overnight (or at least six hours).
Once that’s done, the rest is easy. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. In a bowl, mix the buttermilk-soaked oats with the sugar, butter, egg, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Then gently stir in the flour, fruits, and spices. Evenly distribute the batter in 12 muffin pans and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean. Let them cool for about five minutes and then turn them out.
To add the protein, I did a little bit of jiggering. I wanted to make each muffin have about the same amount of protein in it, for comparison purposes. Then I had to readjust the recipe to account for the added ingredients and try to keep the texture and consistency as close as I could.
Here are the protein powders I decided on:
Here’s how I incorporated each powder:
- For the whey: I cut the flour by ½ cup and added ¾ cup (~75 grams) of whey powder
- For the plant protein: I cut the flour again by ½ cup and added 81 grams of plant powder
- For the cricket muffins: I simply replaced ¾ cup of flour for ¾ cup of cricket
Here’s how the nutrition information broke down:
The plain muffins had a festive holiday flavor without being too sweet. Its cake-y innards were moist and tender. And they were the satisfying muffins I remember. The addition of the protein of the whey and plant definitely made these relatively satisfying muffins seem like a real breakfast. They kept me full for at least three hours, which is a win in my book. But which one was best?
The whey protein’s flavor was similar to the plain muffin, but its innards were dense and rubbery. It’s possible that if I cut the flour back a bit, it could be less rubbery. But this is a known problem when baking with whey, so I’m not sure it’s worth playing with it.
The plant protein had a good flavor but was a bit sweeter and vanilla-tinged because I used a flavored protein mix. If I was going to do this again, I would try an unflavored plant protein mix, likely solely pea protein. That said, the texture and innards of the muffin was generally very good. I might add a tablespoon or two of extra milk to make it a little moister next time.
The cricket muffins, to me, were inedible. The powder smells and tastes exactly like crickets—go figure. And baking doesn’t make that go away. If you’re having trouble conjuring cricket flavor in your mind, it’s like an earthy, bitter dirt flavor with a hint of “wrong.” The muffin batter does its best to mask that horror, but it’s still there. Behind the pleasant clove and nutmeg notes, the icky basement insect notes lurk. And worse, they stay in your mouth to haunt you until you eat real food. And whatever you do, don’t burp. It… yeah, I just can’t.
For a second opinion, I sent all four muffins to Eric. Here are his thoughts:
When Beth and I were discussing this baking project, I was really excited. I’ve been trying to eat right and work out this year, and one of the things that has been helpful is emphasizing lean protein and trying to keep most of my carbs complex. And as someone who used to order crickets by the thousand (I used to have 30+ frogs, toads, and geckos), I was curious as to how the high-protein cricket flour would taste in a recipe.
First and foremost, you should know that Beth has mad skills when it comes to baking. At our 2016 staff meet-up in New York, she brought some chocolate chip cookies to share, and they were some of the best I’ve eaten. So my experience with her baking had my hopes high. One bite of the cricket flour muffin and those hopes were cruelly dashed.
That’s a bit of an overstatement, but they definitely had something to them that tasted more than a bit off. It’s not just that they tasted bad; there was a flavor that didn’t belong in baked goods. I’d even say they had a flavor that doesn’t belong in food.
The “control” muffin was excellent, but the whey and plant protein muffins were winners as well. The whey muffins were a bit glossy looking and had a slightly different mouthfeel, but there wasn’t enough of a difference to put them in the category of “not muffin.” The plant protein muffins tasted a wee bit different from the controls, but they had a very pleasant taste. If I were looking for a high-protein muffin, this is what I’d use.
The best part of taste-testing the muffins was getting my 17-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son to participate… unknowingly. I told them they all were basically the same muffin with slightly different recipes. After they had swallowed a bite of each one, I screamed “YOU JUST ATE CRICKETS HA HA HA!” as they started retching.
Actually, since I pride myself on not being a bad dad, I didn’t do that. Instead, I told them what each muffin was baked with and asked for feedback. Both of them (and my wife, who was clued in ahead of time) came to the same conclusion as Beth and I did: let’s leave cricket-eating to frogs and lizards for now.
To me, plant protein clearly won. Although there was an added vanilla flavor due to the mix I used, there were no unpleasant notes, beating out crickets. And the overall texture was not just better than the rubbery whey, it was indistinguishable from the plain muffin. I would make these muffins again—and wouldn’t chuck them at walls.
Author Beth Mole