I was surfing around the Web last week and came across a picture of English muffins cooking in a cast iron skillet. I’m always interested in recipes that make special use of cast iron, and I didn’t realize until I saw this picture that English muffins were made in a skillet. I like English muffins and I’m getting a little tired of popovers for breakfast, so I thought I’d look up the recipe.
Well, it turns out there are a million different recipes for English muffins, and they vary widely. Some are rolled out and cut like biscuits into circles. Some use a wet batter that is poured into crumpet rings. Some are baked in an oven rather than cooked on a skillet – either partially or completely. Some are cooked in a covered skillet (news flash: that is baking, not skillet cooking).
Judging from reviewer comments, most of the recipes lacked the large holes and sourdough flavor characteristic of English muffins. A few tried to correct this problem by the addition of vinegar for the sour flavor, and baking soda just before cooking to create holes. That sounded like artifice to me so I continued my research, and eventually discovered the authentic source of that characteristic taste and texture. I tested my theory with a recipe of my own creation, and the result was fantastic. Here is my recipe – with pictures!
Authentic Technique for Authentic Flavor
English muffins – a yeast bread – are a 19th century American invention. They’re probably called “English muffins” because the recipe is based on classic English crumpets, which have a very similar recipe. English muffins are an Americanized crumpet.
It occurred to me that the best place to look for authentic recipes for English muffins was in cookbooks from the time when they were invented – or at least not long after. I found a great site with links to dozens of cookbooks from 1900-1910, and it was here I found the secret. The 1901 edition of the Settlement Cookbook contains this instruction in its English muffin recipe:
Beat thoroughly, cover, and let rise overnight.
When I saw that, I thought I must have read it wrong. That would cause overproofing. Do they mean, cover and put in the refrigerator? No, that can’t be right. They didn’t have refrigerators in 1901. I looked through several more old cookbooks and saw the same instruction: mix the batter the night before, let it rise overnight, and cook in the morning for breakfast. One recipe even said explicitly to let the batter rise long enough to “collapse in on itself”.
If you’ve ever made bread you’ve heard the warnings about “overproofing”, letting the dough rise so high that it collapses. Bread recipes always warn to never allow this to happen. They say to let the dough rise to double in bulk but no more, or taste and texture are ruined. Would you like to know in what way overproofing ruins taste and texture? It creates a sourdough taste because the yeast eats all the sugar, and it weakens the structure, causing large holes to form. Sounds suspiciously like an English muffin!
The characteristic taste and texture of English muffins appears to be a happy accident, an invention of housewives trying to manage their time by making batter for breakfast bread the night before. It overproofed, but the result was tasty so they went with it.
Neither Molded Nor Rolled
I read dozens of recipes for English muffins and crumpets, comparing the ingredients and – most importantly – the ratio of liquid to flour. In some the dough has the consistency of regular bread dough, and is rolled and cut into biscuits. Others are too liquid to hold together without support, and the dough – batter, really – is spooned into crumpet rings. But I wasn’t looking to make rolls with a bread-like texture, nor was I looking to make crumpets.
I settled on something in between: a gooey batter that wasn’t liquid, but also wasn’t firm enough to roll out. In my first effort I spooned the batter into crumpet rings, but I didn’t like the result. The shape wasn’t quite right. (Also, I set the temperature of the skillet too high so the outside was overcooked.)
When the ring experiment failed, I went back to the internet for a little more research and came across a recipe I hadn’t seen before. Like the old cookbooks, it said to make the batter the night before, let it proof overnight, then cook it in the morning. I knew this part was right.
The recipe produced dough with the same gooey consistency as my recipe, with an interesting twist: a no-ring, no-roll muffin-forming technique. The muffins were formed by dropping globs of batter into a bowl of cornmeal. Great idea! The photographs showed a final result that looked how English muffins are supposed to look. I didn’t use the ingredients listed in this recipe, but I used the technique and the results were perfect.
This recipe makes six muffins. You can halve it or double it if you want a different quantity.
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp sugar or honey
- 1 packet (2¼ tsp) dry yeast
- 2 cups flour
- ½ tsp salt
Heat the milk to simmering, then drop in the butter and the sugar or honey. Stir so they melt and combine, and let the mixture cool. When it’s lukewarm, sprinkle in the yeast, stir, and let it sit for 10 minutes until bubbly. Don’t use an aluminum bowl because that can interfere with the yeast. Glass is best.
While that’s happening, measure out the flour and salt and mix together well. When the yeast mixture is bubbly, add the flour and beat vigorously for a couple minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter (not in the refrigerator) overnight. It will overproof – rise and collapse. This is what creates the English muffin’s characteristic sourdough taste and large bubbles.
In the morning, scrape the sides of the bowl with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula and remix a little. Then use a spatula and spoon to drop muffin-size globs into a small bowl of cornmeal, as pictured in the previous section. Don’t try to handle the dough – it’s too sticky. Lift each muffin glob from the cornmeal with a slotted spatula, shake off the excess, and place in an ungreased skillet.
When the skillet is full, cover it (with a glass top, if you have one), and let the muffins rise for 30 minutes. They won’t rise much at this point because all the sugar has been eaten by the yeast, but they’ll puff up a little more when they start to cook. Remove the lid before cooking!
Set your stove’s burner to medium-low. If it’s electric, let the burner preheat. If you have an electric skillet, you’ll have to let the muffins rise somewhere else so you can preheat it. I’ve read that electric skillets should be set to 300°F, but I don’t have one so I can’t verify that. I used a cast iron pan and set the burner to medium-low.
Warning: don’t set the temperature too high. The muffins have to cook slowly or the inside will be doughy while the outside is burned. Don’t crank up the heat because it’s not sizzling. It’s not supposed to sizzle. Just because it’s not making any noise doesn’t mean it’s not doing anything. It’s cooking.
The muffins can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes per side, depending on how high you set the skillet temperature. Turn them over when the first side is browned.
When the second side is browned, remove the muffins to a cooling rack and let them cool completely. If you don’t let them cool, they will be doughy inside. Also, they taste best if they are fully cooled and then toasted. Split them for toasting by pulling them apart with your fingers, rather than cutting with a knife. This maximizes the nooks and crannies that are so great for holding butter and jam.
English muffins are a quick and easy breakfast because they were designed to be quick and easy. The batter is made the night before, and no rolling is required. You mix everything together, go to sleep, then cook them up in the morning. Overproofing is what gives the characteristic taste and texture – no vinegar or baking soda required!