Cupcakes are no longer relegated to elementary classroom birthday parties. These days, cupcakes are gourmet treats meant to delight in several different ways: the way they look, how they taste, and what their texture feels like on your tongue.
That’s one of the reasons why cupcakes that are sticky on top are so disappointing for bakers, professional and amateur alike. It affects the texture, as well as potentially the look and taste as well.
In this article, we’ll explore what precisely might cause cupcakes to be sticky on top. Then, we’ll describe how to avoid (or, in the worst-case scenario, fix) a sticky-topped cupcake.
Keep reading for the solution to your sticky cupcake conundrum!
What Causes Cupcakes to Be Sticky on Top?
The biggest culprit for cupcakes with sticky tops is a chemical reaction between the sugar (an essential ingredient) and the water in the air. Due to its chemical makeup, the sugar naturally attracts water (the scientific term is hygroscopic).
When the water settles on the top of the cupcake to bond with the sugar, this mixture creates a sticky film that remains long after the cupcakes have thoroughly cooked and cooled. If you have ever dripped water into a sugar bowl or added too much sugar to a liquid mixture, you know what we’re talking about.
In addition, using too much brown sugar in your cupcakes will make the problem worse because brown sugar is even more hygroscopic than white sugar. Dark brown sugar is the most hygroscopic of all.
Typically, this reaction between the sugar and water occurs during the cooling process rather than the cooking process. In these cases, cupcakes did not have room to “breathe” as they cooled.
Cupcakes release moisture as they cool down (as do almost all pastries). If cupcakes are stored before completely cooling, the excess water they release will settle right back onto the top of the cupcakes.
In addition, natural humidity in the air can do the same thing over time if cupcakes are left to sit out in a particularly humid environment.
Now that we have a good handle on the most common reason why cupcakes get sticky on the top, we can turn our attention to preventing it from happening in the first place.
How to Avoid Cupcakes with Sticky Tops
Choose your recipe carefully
There is a reason why there is not only one recipe for cupcakes that everyone everywhere follows every time they bake them; different baking conditions, ingredients, and taste preferences impact the final product.
When you choose your recipe, pay attention to the proportion of dry and wet ingredients in potential recipes, as well as the amounts of sugar and brown sugar. In addition, take your climate (humid, dry) into consideration as well.
Read the descriptions of the recipes you’re considering, as very often they may tell you directly whether they have been designed for moist cupcakes, sticky cupcakes, or the opposite.
Follow your recipe strictly
Cooking is an art, and baking is a science; that means that there is very little wiggle room when it comes to recipes in baking.
Even slight deviations from the recipe can end in sticky tops or a far worse outcome. Don’t take the risk until you have a lot of experience.
Measure your ingredients by weighing them
The right amount and the correct proportions of ingredients are very important when it comes to baking.
Unfortunately, even the best measuring cups are inaccurate for a variety of reasons. We strongly recommend buying a kitchen scale and measuring all ingredients using that instead, especially when baking.
Don’t set yourself up for failure by removing your cupcakes from the oven before they are ready.
Cupcakes should be completely dry to the touch before taking them out of the oven; if they are not dry yet, do not take them out.
Remember that many factors affect bake time, including the actual temperature of your oven (we recommend using an oven thermometer for the greatest accuracy), your climate, your cookware, how often you open it (pro tip: open your oven as infrequently as possible, especially while baking), the exact proportion of your ingredients, and more.
We mean completely! Any residual heat inside or on the cupcakes will create excess moisture because water is released from the cupcake during the cooling process. Once stored, that moisture will find its way to the sugary exterior of your cupcakes, and the next time you go to enjoy them, you’ll have a sticky mess.
To be sure that your cupcakes are completely cooled, leave them on the countertop and allow them to cool at room temperature for about one hour. Next, cover them and pop them into the refrigerator for three hours, or leave them overnight.
Refrigerating the cupcakes won’t do them any harm, and that way, you know that they’re completely cooled. Just be sure to take them out a couple of hours before serving so that they can get soft again.
You should always store cupcakes with a small amount of space between them in an airtight container that is completely closed.
You can keep that container on either the countertop or in the refrigerator. Use the fridge if you want them to keep longer, but once again, try to take them out at least an hour before eating so that the texture is a little bit softer.
Beware of your climate and the weather
Remember how we told you that the main cause of stickiness on the tops of cupcakes is moisture in the air reacting with the sugar in the cupcake?
That also means that cupcakes baked and stored in humid climates will be more susceptible to sticky tops since there is so much more moisture in the air. If you live in a humid environment, choose a cupcake recipe with little to no brown sugar and with more dry ingredients.
In addition, it will be even more important to store your cupcakes in a completely airtight container when it’s humid outside.
Solutions for Cupcakes with Sticky Tops
If you’re anything like us, then you hate to waste food. What’s more, you probably spent a healthy chunk of your day making those cupcakes in the first place, so let’s look at some solutions for salvaging them.
The most obvious solution for a batch of cupcakes with sticky tops is just to cover the whole thing in delicious frosting. Even a thin layer will go a long way in hiding the stickiness underneath. After all, frosting is supposed to be sticky.
There are many wonderful store-bought frostings from which to choose, so you don’t even need to go to the trouble of making it yourself. You might want to stash a can or two in the back of your pantry, just in case.
Alternatively, you can also coat the top of the cupcakes in a glaze, jelly or jam, or other similar food. You could even try adding some cotton candy on top of your frosting, just don’t put it on too early so it doesn’t melt away before you get the chance to eat it.
Use the stickiness to your advantage
Especially if frosting isn’t your cup of tea, cover the cupcakes with something else, and use the stickiness that’s already on top of the cupcake to get it to adhere.
This topping could be anything, from sprinkles to chocolate chips to nuts to any other number of toppings. The sky is the limit!
It’s a well-known fact that freezers will dry out your food. So, in this case, use it to your advantage by putting your overly-moist cupcakes into the freezer.
Allow them to completely freeze, and give them time to really get the full effect of the freezer’s power. About 24 hours should do the trick.
Sprinkle on something to absorb the stickiness
Though you might have less luck with this method, and run the risk of completely ruining the cupcakes, try sprinkling a little bit of sugar, confectioner’s sugar, or even a light dusting of flour on the top.
In theory, the addition of these dry ingredients should absorb some of the excess moisture and hide the mistake underneath.
Scrape off the sticky exterior
Admittedly, this is probably only an option if you’re going to frost them afterward.
That said, you can use a serrated knife to gently scrape off a very thin layer of the sticky exterior and discard it. Then, cover the exposed tops with frosting or another topping.
Try a different recipe
The problem might not be anything that you’re doing wrong, especially if you’ve tried most of the tactics on this list and are still ending up with cupcakes that are sticky on top.
When choosing a new recipe, pay attention to the amount of white sugar and brown sugar, especially when compared to your last recipe. You can also look for cupcake recipes that specifically state that they yield non-sticky treats.
Eat them anyway!
So your cupcakes are less than perfect, so what?
Chances are that even with a sticky top, they still taste pretty darn good. So go ahead and embrace the imperfection by eating and enjoying them!
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.