At our house, store-bought bread is like a cedar waxwing. It swoops past in springtime and might be seen in the fall, but for the most part it’s a rare bird. And that’s OK. With me around, baking all the time, we have our own flock of loaves: a chestnut miche, a Japanese milk bread, even crackling baguettes. But occasionally one can glimpse a plastic package on the roost ... we have a weakness for English muffins.
Toothy and tender with a little acidity and a crunchy crispiness after a good toasting — let’s agree, English muffins are irresistible. And that’s enough to get me in the kitchen. I love a challenge and I love to bake — what would it take to make a great version myself?
After some searching and a survey of recipes, I get a sense of ratios for the main ingredients (flour and water) and assess common methods. I also think about my idea of a perfect English muffin.
Here’s what I want to achieve with my own version:
- Nooks and crannies: A nice open structure with big bubbles that toast well and deliver a crunch. If the structure is dense, the English muffin will be too “bready” and heavy and won’t crisp well in the toaster.
- Flavor: I want a bright flavor with lots of fermentation notes and some whole grain. Sourdough culture would work well here to bring some piquancy and counter the rich flavors of butter and jam or a poached egg and Hollandaise.
- Texture: A crispy exterior with crunch and color from a hot griddle forms a perfect balance and backbone for the light interior.
With these hopes in hand, I find a basic recipe and set off.
Test one: all-purpose flour, a little sourdough culture, quite a bit of yeast, and a relatively short process.
How did it go?
- Nooks and crannies: C+
The crannies were disappointing. While the overall result was light and nicely tender, the structure was full of fine, small bubbles. But I want big holes.
- Flavor: C
The flavor lacked depth and brightness. They were “bready” and disappeared quickly with comments like, “best English muffin ever, Dad” … but that’s because they were compared to the national brand. We can do better!
- Texture: C+
The exterior colored well on the griddle but I wanted more crunch — more nutty and toasted notes. A nice amount of butter in the base dough did give great tenderness, on balance. We'll keep that (unless it interferes with my nooks and crannies).
Back to the drawing board
Feeling like nothing really worked, I decide to head in a completely different direction and write my own recipe.
1. First challenge, fix the crannies
Knowing the hardest part will be the crannies, that’s where I begin. Thinking through my toolbox of methods and doughs that produce a more open structure, I consider a dinner roll I’d recently made using our simple recipe, Unkneaded Six-Fold French Bread. It had yielded an excellent open crumb.
I’m confident some aspects of the six-fold dough will translate well to the muffin. Here’s why.
A dough that is over-fermented (with too much yeast) will often have a structure with many, many small holes. I blame overactivity for the fine-textured first test. With a little less activity (less yeast) and slightly wetter dough, I'm confident that the structure will be open (similar to the roll above).
So my first change is to slow down the fermentation to improve structure. I don’t try to fix flavor or texture with this test — I’m just working on the holes.
It works. The first test looks good. We have crannies.
But the flavor and texture need work.
2. Next step, flavor
To get brightness and slight acidity, sourdough culture is an obvious choice. I could also consider vinegar, but before going that route I’ll see what I can achieve with sourdough. Sourdough culture produces acetic acid as a by-product of fermentation — it may be enough. I make a preferment with a little whole-grain flour to encourage flavor production and add an overnight cold rest for an additional boost of flavor and strength. With these changes, I'm ready for the next round of testing.
The sourdough works, maybe even a little too well. The initial test is too acidic, but after a few more rounds I find the sweet spot. The result is bright flavor with good crannies. Onward to texture.
3. Last, the texture
This should be an easy one. Rather than semolina on the outside, I choose cornmeal. Coarser than semolina, it will add crunch — plus it's pretty and toasts well. For an additional boost of texture, I also toast some cornmeal and add it to the dough itself. So, toasted cornmeal inside and some on the outside too: flavor and crunch.
Finally, I combine it all.
After a couple more tests to get the sizing and method ironed out, I feel like I’m ready to move on. The goals I brought to the recipe — gaping nooks and crannies, bright flavor that can hold its own against rich toppings, and a nutty, toasted texture — have me close to satisfied. And if that’s not reason enough to wrap this up, our freezer is overflowing with English muffins (maybe that’s what I’ll use for stuffing bread ... ).
A couple of final notes
I love these cut 3 1/2” in diameter, and I like them bigger, too (4”), as they make a great egg sandwich or burger bun. I also recommend cutting squares to avoid the whole issue of scrap dough and re-rolling (which hurts the structure). Look for instructions in the "tips" at the bottom of the Artisan English Muffin recipe page for details.
While wrapping up this blog, I watched a flock of waxwings dive into our apple tree. As they fed on what remains of this year's fruit, hurrying to outrun the shortening days and winter, they got me thinking: what do any of us need to reach spring? What will ease the journey until leaves return; until snow melts; until the crabapple lights blossom fireworks and my chill recedes?
I need holidays. I need family and friends and seasonal rituals. I need faces around the wood stove with warmth in bowls. And I need sunny, fork-split English muffin rounds, hot off the griddle. Keep going, friends. Let's bake it 'til we make it. See you in March.
Cover image by Rick Holbrook.