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If you’ve been with us for a while, you might have noticed by now that one of our passions is bread and bread making. It is something we can do every week (or day) since bread is definitely one of our staples in our meals. One sub category of breads we like to make fresh are flatbreads. Whether it’s a pita bread, paratha, Msemen or some Indian naan, we like it all. Most of these recipes though are more typical for our evening meals, and less so for breakfast (although around the world some of these definitely are eaten for breakfast as well). If you want a quick flatbread suitable for a (Western) breakfast, there is another option though: English muffins.
You can make the English muffins yourselves, or buy them in a store. We’ll compare the homemade ones with those of a major retail brand and dig deeper into differences between the two.
Which is why today, we guide you through the world of English muffins, making them, eating them and even buying them!
The origins of the English muffin
We won’t dive into the origins of the English muffin simply because the origin doesn’t seem to be that clear. Some claim the English muffin is actually an American invention. Others claim it’s English, but with some slight modifications over time. All in all, too much disagreement to tell you the ‘true’ story. Although most seem to agree that the manufacturer Thomas’ English muffins have been highly influential.
So let’s indeed focus on what that English muffin is. An English muffin is a flat, savory yeasted flatbread, made from wheat flour (in most cases). It is made on a griddle, not in the oven like ‘regular’ muffins would, it truely is more similar to a chapati. As with any food there are a ton of variations on the recipe, of course.
Science of making English muffins
You can find the recipe we used to make our English muffins at the bottom of this post. You will find that making English muffins is a bit like baking bread, but shorter. In short it comes down to the following steps:
1. Weigh out the ingredients for your dough
English muffins typically contain wheat flour, a little sugar, salt and yeast and some liquid (often milk). The flour is what creates the overall structure, it is the bulk ingredient of your English muffin. The yeast is required to create air bubbles in the dough and make it light and airy in the 4th step where you proof the dough. The salt is there for flavour and a little bit of texture. The sugar provides some extra food for the yeast and helps to brown the muffins just a little faster. The milk brings the flour together in a dough. By using milk the flavour is a little richer compared to water.
2. Knead your dough
You need to knead your dough in order to develop gluten. These gluten gives the muffin the ability to hold on to air well and create all those nice air bubbles.
3. Roll and shape your dough
Roll out the dough and shape it into smaller portions (note that there is no first proof, you head on to shaping straight away!). English muffins are first rolled out in a flat sheet and then the most common method is to cut circles from the dough.
Proof the dough until it’s risen nicely. During the proofing process the yeast ferments sugar into carbon dioxide. It doesn’t just make air bubbles, but also contributes to flavour.
Bake the English muffins on a hot plate, griddle or regular flat frying pan. Note that an English muffin is not baked in the oven. Instead, it is baked on a flat surface which means it is only heated from the bottom. In an oven it would be heated from all sides. Because it is only heated from the bottom the English muffins get a nice an crispy top and bottom, whereas the sides stay nice and soft! It is somewhat similar to the difference between oven and stove made pancakes.
Analyzing Thomas’ English muffins
There aren’t that many foods that have one big common market leader, especially in the breads isle. However, for English muffins I was amazed to see the same brand mentioned over and over again: Thomas’. This makes them a good example to zoom in one a little more closely to better understand how and why homemade vs store bought English muffins are different.
As of summer 2018 the ingredients of the original Thomas’ English muffin are as follows: enriched wheat flour [flour, malted barley flour, reduced iron, niacin, thiamin mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboblavin (vitamin B2), folic acid], water, farina, yeast, salt, sugar, calcium propionate and sorbic acid, soybean oil, wheat gluten, grain vinegar, soy lecithin, whey.
Those are some more ingredients than you use at home (note: if you live in the US, the flour you buy in the store will also contain all those vitamins, so the enriched flour is essentially almost the same as your own one). However, you will recognize a lot of them. The flour, water, yeast, salt and sugar are ingredients you might use yourselves as well. So what are those other ingredients used for?
Farina & wheat gluten
Both farina and wheat gluten come from grains. Gluten is an ingredient in regular flour, but in some cases you might want to add some extra to help it create that stretchy structure which helps it hold on to air bubbles.
Farina is most likely used by Thomas’ to sprinkle onto the muffins to prevent them from sticking. Even though there seems to be some discussion on the definition of farina online, it is very similar, if not the same as the more familiar sounding semolina. Plenty of recipes call for semolina flour for a very similar purpose. So nothing to out of the ordinary.
Soybean oil &whey
Whereas you might add liquid milk to your English muffin dough you will often see manufacturers use water and some other ingredients that might mimic some of the effect of milk. Milk contains some fat which enriches the bread and slows down staling. The soybean oil will have a similar role. The whey contains a lot of proteins as well as some lactose from the milk which contributes both flavour and colour (thanks to the Maillard reaction). Whey is actually a by-product of cheese making.
Soy lecithin is an emulsifier, it helps fats and water mix. It is used in these English muffins to help make a consistent dough. On these large scale of manufacturing it is very important that everything is consistent and constant over time and lecithin helps here.
Vinegar is commonly used in breads for several reasons, but the main one is preservation. Vinegar is acidic, meaning it lowers the pH-value of the dough. A little vinegar in the muffins will slow down the growth of moulds. Moulds tend to be the main cause of actual spoilage of bread (apart from staling, which does make the bread less tasty but still makes it perfectly safe to eat). Since vinegar also slows down the growth of yeasts, recipes with vinegar tend to contain a little extra yeast.
Vinegar can also be used for another reason, to help relax the gluten and give an airier muffin.
Calcium propionate & sorbic acid
Your own English muffins cannot be stored for more than a couple of days before they’re old and covered with moulds. Thomas’ English muffins can and these last two ingredients play a major role in this. Calcium proprionate and sorbic acid both serve to prevent growth of moulds and when used together with vinegar they are even more potent at doing so. The increased acidity caused by the vinegar does so.
The production process of English muffins
On YouTube there’s a great video showing the production of English muffins in a factory. you will see that the steps they take are very similar to the ones you take at home. A dough is kneaded, shaped, dusted with some particles to prevent sticking, it is risen, and then baked. The main differences are the ingredients in the dough as well as the efficiency and scale of the production process!
English muffin recipe
If you just want to give a homemade recipe a try, this is one we made a while back and turned out great:
S.P. Cauvain, Baking problems solved, 2017, Woodhead publishing, p.109, link
W.P. Edwards, The science of bakery products, 2007, Royal society of chemistry, p.196, link