I used to really hate English muffins when I was a kid. They were dry and tasted off. Not anything like a muffin should taste. I also despised the cornmeal on the outside. It was gritty in my mouth.
But boy has that changed! I gave the English muffin another try about 3 years ago. I think I was in Italy at the time. I was staying at a hotel that tried to stock American-style breakfast foods for its touristy guests along with things like cured meats and cheeses that make European mornings so great. I can’t believe that I had been without the English muffin for 20 years of my life. Well now I’m making up for that. By making them at home!
I came across this recipe in Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar Life and have been meaning to get to it. If homemade cookies and breads are a bajillion times better homemade and fresh from the oven, I could only imagine how fantastic English muffins would be at home. I was wondering how difficult it would be to create those nooks and crannies that are so famous in English muffins. And that led me on a bit of a deep dive on what creates the unique texture. And you know what? That is very difficult to find. Even food science and baking production texts don’t include English muffins in their pages. And these are books and journals that have everything you’d ever want to know about baked goods.
I was feeling rather frustrated, but I was able to wrangle some English muffin info…from a 1976 article in The Bakers’ Digest (an academic journal that ceased to exist in 1984). And even that had slightly less information than I’d like. But fear not! I am here to give you some basics on what creates the nooks and crannies and instruct you on what you need to do at home. This one is a bit longer than you’re used to, so feel free to read as much or as little of the science behind English muffins as you would like!
Disclaimer: there are many recipes that claim to be the magic formula to getting “the real” English muffins. This recipe works fabulously for me and what I look for in an English muffin, but I’ll try to comment on what you should look for in recipes to get different characteristics. Even so, there is always more than one way to do something. So play around, and have a running list of hungry breakfast guests!
Flour—you want to have a pretty strong gluten network in order to sustain the porous structure. That means you should either use bread flour or a mixture of all-purpose and wheat flour. If you use 100% all-purpose flour (or an alternative gluten-free flour), you need to reinforce the structure with some other protein network.
Leavening—you want to ideally use yeast for these babies, which is why a small of amount of sugar is included in the recipe (to feed the yeast!). The yeast produces lots of tiny air bubbles that will be very important during cooking. Chemical leavening like baking soda/powder is not recommended because you want sustained gas release throughout the process. Additionally, the cooking process is not conducive to the big bursts of carbon dioxide release that baking sodas and powders depend on for cakes and such.
Salt—you might want to increase the level of salt because English muffins are quite bland by design. However, salt actually reinforces the gluten network! So we keep the levels low in order to keep the crumb soft, but we don’t omit it all together because we do need to weakly support it.
Cornmeal—cornmeal is essential to prevent the dough from sticking to everything! It also minimizes the direct contact between the heat source and the exterior of the muffin. This prevents excess crust formation.
Other Ingredient Considerations—using something with sugars that are easily able to participate in Maillard browning like lactose in milk will create a muffin that browns to your exact specifications (either during the cooking process, or in the toaster on the final product!). That being said, we are looking for a dough that is looser than some other bread products, because we need steam to be able to easily flow through the dough. But we don’t want the muffin dough to be too sticky, so don’t add an excess amount of milk. Additionally, we need some fat to keep the muffins pleasant to eat, but if the crumb gets too tender, the structure will not be ideal—air will not be as likely to become trapped in the muffin during cooking.
Important Steps of the Process
Mixing—When you generally think of mixing ingredients together you want to either minimize excess mixing as much as possible—such as in cake batter—or you want to knead dough for things like bread to create the gluten network. For English muffins, we definitely want the latter. However, we actually want to overstress the gluten network just a bit so that it’s easier for the nooks and crannies to form. That means that this dough actually gets mixed for upwards of 12 minutes!
Proofing—Okay this is where the recipe I’m using may differ from what you’re looking for. Because we’re using yeast, we need to let the little guys get to work on changing the sugar to carbon dioxide gas. Generally, you want a warm environment for them to be optimal at doing this. However, you’ll notice that this recipe refrigerates the dough during what would be considered the proofing process. This accomplishes a couple of things. First, the dough is a million times easier to handle when it’s cold. But second, these English muffins are a bit softer and have more uniform pores which is created by the less active yeast during proofing. I like to leave the dough out for 15 minutes or so in the warm kitchen and then chill the dough for 45-60 minutes. This jump starts the yeast activity, but it also keeps the crumb rather soft and the pores rather uniform. If you want bigger pores like is generally found commercially, keep your dough out much longer (but add a bit more sugar to fuel your yeast) and chill for an additional 45-60 minutes before using!
Cooking—We have come to the last part of the process! But by far the most mystifying and unusual. And this is where the really cool, “patented” science comes in. So get this—English muffins are cooked on a cast iron skillet on a stove. Crazy right?! Essentially you want low and slow sustained heat to gently warm and then cook the muffins. I like to think of it like cooking a pancake. So first, the warming. The warm skillet will heat the dough and cause it to soften. The starch will gelatinize and the yeast will become even more active creating gas bubbles before it dies off. Then the heat will actually cause some of the water in the dough to change to steam. This steam rips through the tiny gas bubbles in the dough and creates bigger pores and tunnels. Soooo cool! This recipe partially cooks the muffins on the griddle and finishes them in the oven. This helps to form the crust on the outside of the muffins, but prevents excess browning and cooking on the exterior while the oven completely cooks the interior.
And that’s basically it! My favorite part about English muffins? Just poke around the outside with a fork and pull apart when ready to eat. Enjoy English muffin-ing!
Milk Bar English Muffins
Adapted from Milk Bar Life
Makes 6 muffins
1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 tablespoon lukewarm water
½ cup buttermilk, warmed
1 cup bread flour, plus more for dusting (alternatively, use a mixture of white and wheat flour)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
- Whisk together the yeast and warmed water in a medium bowl. Add in the buttermilk and whisk together. Let sit for 3 minutes, or until fragrant. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment.
- Add the flour, sugar, and salt. Turn on the mixer to low/medium speed and mix until it just comes together as a shaggy dough (3-4 minutes).
- Add the butter and continue to mix for 8 minutes. The dough should be homogenous and tacky, but not super sticky. It should also just hold its shape.
- Grease a large mixing bowl with either butter or cooking spray. Transfer the dough to the bowl and cover. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes or so. Then move to the fridge and chill for at least 45 mins-an hour. You can chill for as long as overnight.
- When ready to move on, dust your counter top with flour. Dump the dough onto the floured surface and knead a couple of times to deflate it. Shape into a flat log and divide into 6 pieces. Roll the pieces into balls, using flour as needed, and transfer to a cornmeal-covered glass dish or baking sheet. Use your palm to gently flatten the balls. Flip them over and gently press again with your palm to adhere cornmeal on the other side as well.
- Cover the glass dish/baking sheet and chill for an additional 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 250⁰F. Warm a small cast iron skillet over low heat for 5 or so minutes. You want to feel heat when you put your hand above the surface of the skillet, but you don’t want intense heat by any means. Scatter the surface of the pan with cornmeal and heat for another minute.
- Transfer the chilled muffins, one at a time, to the skillet to cook. Cook on one side until the top begins to dome just slightly, about 4 minutes. Flip the muffin using a small offset spatula. Cook the other side of the muffin for another 4-5 minutes. If you want browned exteriors, add time to this process, but don’t increase the heat too much. We want slow heating. Transfer the English muffins to a clean baking sheet.
- Put the muffins in the oven for 10 minutes to finish baking. Because you’re cooking one muffin at a time, put the first muffin in the oven and add the muffins to the baking sheet as they finish on the stove. Because of the cooking time, you can keep track by taking a muffin out of the oven as you add another muffin to the sheet.
- Remove the muffins when finished baking and let cool.
- Stab the circumference of the muffins with a fork all the way around. Pull the sides apart easily. Top with salted butter and some jam. Enjoy!