We call them English muffins today, but once upon a time, they were the only muffins, the very ones sold by a certain Muffin Man on Drury Lane—do you know him? When the nursery rhyme was first published in 1820, it went without saying that such muffins were thin disks of yeast-raised dough cooked on a griddle, rather than baked.
As near as I can tell, the “English” part only came along as a retronym to distinguish traditional recipes from those made with newfangled baking powder in the mid-1800s.
Up until then, muffins didn’t hold to any particular nationality at all; in fact, the British seemed to prefer crumpets—a spongier treat meant to be eaten whole rather than split and toasted (as muffins were invariably served). One London cookbook, published in 1833, filed its recipe for griddled, yeast-raised muffins under the subheading “American.” Go figure.
That recipe, and others like it, included lots of milk, so much that some 19th-century instructions described a batter “altogether too soft to knead,” making yeast-raised muffins the original no-knead dough—sorry, Jim Lahey! Those wet and sloppy batters were left to proof for the better part of an afternoon, then shaped (often with DIY molds made from fist-sized indentations pressed into trays of flour or cornmeal) and set to rise overnight.
In the morning, the puffy muffins were griddled on a hot iron in the hearth, probably greased with lard, because, real talk: That’s how 19th-century bakers rolled. For starters, lard had a high smoke point that made it ideal for hearth cookery, but more importantly, it was cheap. Butter would have been saved to serve on top.
A fine sheen of lard, bacon grease, or even suet would have given yeasted muffins a slightly savory edge, a delicious counterpoint to honey and jam, or a friendly echo of toppings like sausage or fried eggs. Griddling also gave old-school English muffins a more crispity, crunchity crust, particularly compared to modern recipes that favor baking. And, let me assure you, that’s a strictly modern phenomenon: English muffins evolved at the hearth.
That’s why my recipe doesn’t involve an oven. In fact, true to 19th-century form, it doesn’t require a mixer, a rolling pin, or even cookie cutters, much less fancy (or MacGyvered) muffin rings. As long as you’ve got an electric or cast iron griddle, you’re pretty much good to go.
Here’s how it works. Whisk together some bread flour, whole wheat flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl, then stir in some cold milk, honey, and an egg white. When everything’s well combined, go take a nap, or catch up on Outlander or DS9, or something.
When you come back four to six hours later (honestly, about as much napping and/or Ronald D. Moore as I can go for right about now), you’ll have an amazingly light and spongy dough. It’s elastic thanks to the gluten-forming proteins in bread flour, flavorful from whole wheat and milk, lightly sweet but complex with honey, rich in lean egg-white protein for structure, and free from the starch-dissolving enzymes inherent to yolks (which, in this context, can make for a flabby dough).
Whatever you do, don’t punch down that dough! Preserve those proto-nooks and -crannies with a gentle hand. Grab a spoon and dollop out 12 roughly equal portions onto a cornmeal-lined baking sheet; those golden grains keep the messy dough from sticking or oozing out into a puddle…as they would on a greased baking sheet. Because cornmeal is relatively large and coarse, the wet batter won’t soak it up like flour, which would only make the muffins tough.
You can portion out the dough with a scale if you favor compulsive precision (I mean, hey, that’s my job), but since English muffins are cooked individually rather than baked en masse, they’re wonderfully forgiving of variations in size or shape. In the end, they’ll all wind up in a toaster—the great equalizer.
With a little more cornmeal to prevent sticking on top, the muffins are covered in plastic and tossed in the fridge overnight (or nights, if you prefer). So head off to bed and sleep soundly in the knowledge that you’ll feast on homemade English muffins in the morn.
My usual routine is to heat the griddle and fry up some bacon, then slip the puffy dough into the glistening fat. This despite the fact that I’m allergic to pork. I am nothing if not a literal glutton for punishment, and the allure of a savory, olde-timey English muffin is simply too strong. I wash my coffee down with a handful of Benadryl and call it an even exchange.
Truth be told, if I could break free from the enchantment of forbidden fruit to approach the subject with an objective eye, I’d be forced to admit that English muffins are damned fine griddled with butter. The butter browns nicely along the way, creating a rich and toasty crust that’s well suited to any breakfast—sweet, savory, or plain.
Regardless of whether you grab a griddle or a cast iron skillet, bacon or butter, the trick is to cook the muffins over medium-low heat (about 325°F) until their crusts are golden brown and their middles opaque, about eight minutes per side.
Direct heat gives English muffins a sort of “oven” spring, as all the entrapped gases suddenly warm and expand within the soft but elastic dough. Sharp eyes can even discern bubbles enlarging beneath the surface, caverns and tunnels waiting to be torn asunder. Nooks and crannies galore!
At this stage, the cornmeal coating also functions as a buffer, insulating the dough from the searing heat of the iron. If you look closely, you can spot where sparsely coated patches browned against the griddle, and where well-dusted areas escaped unscathed. It’s darn tasty, too, because the cornmeal softens overnight, then toasts up against the heat of the griddle until it’s tender-crisp. But! If you’re not down with all that added crunch, you can just brush it off when you’re done.
Once the muffins have cooked through (about 210°F on a digital thermometer, if you want an anachronistic but accurate testing method), set them on a wire rack until they’re cool enough to handle. Purists are strangely obsessed with insisting that English muffins should be split only with a fork, but I’m ready to go to battle with that dogma: English muffins are best split by hand.
We’re all in agreement that a knife is the wrong way to go, razing the craggy nooks and crannies into a level field of potholes, but a fork is only necessary when the muffins are too hot or too tough to pull apart readily on their own. If they’re too hot, then respect their fragile crumb and wait a damn minute. If they’re too tough, welp, you’re not using my recipe, so I can’t help you.
My English muffins are chewy, to be sure, but thanks to that bit of whole wheat flour, they’re also tender enough to pull apart with a gentle tug. To keep the halves even, I like to work my way around the edges bit by bit, then open each muffin like a book: a delicious tome filled with nooks and crannies.
Because the muffins are griddled rather than baked, their insides stay super soft and moist, which gives them a fantastic shelf life—the better part of a week. If you can pace yourself, anyway. With something this perfectly chewy and crisp and amazing, it won’t be long until friends and family catch wind of what’s going on, and you’ll finally understand why everyone knew the Muffin Man and exactly where he lived.