Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Popular Lemon Poppy Seed Muffin Recipes and the Winner Is My New Go-To

published May 20, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jessie Yu Chen; Headshot: Dorie Greenspan; Design: Kitchn

The first time I ate poppy seeds, I thought they tasted like dirt. I avoided them for years, never understanding why anyone would want to eat a lemon poppy seed muffin. Then one day I was given an assignment to test a recipe for lemon poppy seed cookies, and I had to face up to those tiny little seeds. I felt like a toddler forced to take just one bite of something she just knew would be dreadful. 

But the poppy seeds tasted nutty, fruity, slightly floral — and delicious? How could this be? After some research, I found out that, like nuts and oil, poppy seeds can go rancid pretty quickly. It became clear that the first poppy seed baked good I ate had been made with old, rancid poppy seeds. 

Since then, I’ve been an enthusiastic poppy seed fan, which meant that I happily jumped on this assignment to find the best poppy seed muffin. I began by looking for recipes that not only had great ratings, but also used different ingredients, varying amounts of ingredients, or different methods of mixing everything together. Butter or oil? Milk, buttermilk, sour cream, or yogurt — or some combination of them? Should you cream the butter and sugar when making the batter? And what was the ideal amount of lemon zest, juice, and poppy seeds to create the ideal zesty, nutty flavor combo?

Ultimately, I was looking for a muffin that had a definitive lemon flavor but not so much that it overwhelmed the poppy seeds. It also had to be moist and tender and look good enough to serve at brunch.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jessie Yu Chen

Meet Our Four Lemon Poppy Seed Muffin Contenders

The Preppy Kitchen’s Lemon Poppy Seed Muffin recipe calls for Greek yogurt and a generous amount of lemon zest and a small amount of lemon juice. It calls for rubbing the lemon zest and sugar together to release the essential oils, and includes a small amount of vanilla extract. 

Domestic Rebel’s Best Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins use oil instead of butter as the main fat. The recipe calls for plenty of lemon zest and lemon juice, but, ratio-wise, only half of the poppy seeds as the other three. The recipe was made in one bowl, which is a big plus on the clean-up front.

Dorie Greenspan’s Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins include sour cream, an ingredient that all but ensures a moist baked good. She calls for a full teaspoon of vanilla extract and uses an interesting technique of folding the poppy seeds in at the very end. I was concerned that doing that might create tough muffins from overmixing, but I trust Dorie, so I was willing to give it a try.

Cook’s Illustrated’s Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins calls for creaming softened butter with sugar, a traditional method for making many cakes. I was curious to see if that added step made any difference. It was also the only recipe that called for a warm lemon glaze to be brushed over the muffins.

How I Tested the Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins

I baked all of the muffins on the same day. I used King Arthur all-purpose flour for all of the muffins, and unless the recipe listed the weight (thank you, Preppy Kitchen!) I measured it by stirring the flour, then scooping the measuring cup into the flour and leveling off the top. I used organic lemons, and when measuring the zest I packed it into the measuring spoons. I used a fresh can of baking powder for all of the muffins. And I tasted the poppy seeds before using to make sure they were fresh! I tested all of the muffins fresh and also 1 day and 2 days later to see how they held up.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jessie Yu Chen

1. The Domestic Rebel

These little muffins are packed with lots of bright lemony flavor, and have a lovely tender crumb. I took points off for a few reasons. First of all, the recipe is a bit confusing, which made it difficult to follow. Flavor-wise, this recipe called for half of the amount of poppy seeds compared to the other recipes, and you can tell. The lemon, though delicious, overwhelms the poppy seed flavor. And the muffins are also really small, which gives you no hope for a puffy muffin top. I think they would be greatly improved by doubling the poppy seeds and using the same amount of batter to make 12 muffins instead of the 20. A drizzle of icing would make a nice final touch.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jessie Yu Chen

2. Cook’s Illustrated

If you are a fan of a nice muffin top, this recipe is for you. Of all of the recipes I tested, this is the only one that creams the butter with the sugar, and is brushed with a tart, lemony glaze. While the glaze, interestingly, brings out a nice buttery flavor, it does soften the crispy nibbles along the edges. It is a really pretty muffin with nice poppy seed flavor, but it fell a little short on the lemon flavor. I found the muffin didn’t hold up well after 1 day because the glaze made the top turn mushy.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jessie Yu Chen

3. The Preppy Kitchen

This is one stunning muffin, worthy of any bakery display. If you are into muffin tops, this recipe delivers, with a nice, golden-brown mound with that crispy overflow around the edges. It has a lovely moist and tender crumb, and it tastes great, with both the lemon and the poppy seed flavor shining through. He uses Greek yogurt, which adds extra moisture along with the melted and cooled butter. The drizzle of lemony icing adds a nice flavor pop. This is a solid recipe and a delicious muffin and was only barely edged out of the top spot by the ultimate winner.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jessie Yu Chen

4. Dorie Greenspan

I was concerned about this recipe before I even put the muffins into the oven. When I mixed the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients, the batter was very thick, and I still had to follow the final step of folding in the poppy seeds. I was afraid I would overmix the batter, which, in the world of muffin making, is a sure means to a tough muffin. But I decided to trust the process — and Dorie.

Dorie’s recipe wins because the lemon is clearly present, but not so much that it overwhelms the poppy seeds. The muffin has a tender crumb due to the melted butter and a nice amount of sour cream. A teaspoon of vanilla extract rounds out the flavor in a lovely way. And when the glaze hits your tongue, it delivers an extra hit of lemon. Although the top of the muffin looks pretty cool, I took 1/2 point off for no muffin top!

And that poppy seed method? It was the key to making sure the poppy seed flavor really came through. Stirring them in at the end creates pockets in the muffins where the seeds are slightly more abundant, adding hits of poppy seed flavor in every bite.

Do you have a favorite lemon poppy seed muffin recipe? Let us know in the comments!