Jasper White, one of my favourite Boston-area chefs and an old friend, likes to tell a story about the time Julia Child insisted he make common crackers (the hard round crackers served with chowder in New England) from scratch.
It all started when White (appearing as a guest on Child’s television show) confessed that the common crackers served at his seafood restaurants weren’t produced in his kitchens; they were purchased.
Scandalized, Child set him to his task. White dutifully spent weeks in the kitchen trying to concoct a better common cracker. In the end, it turned out that there was absolutely no advantage to making them from scratch. In a blind taste test, even Child couldn’t tell the difference between the homemade and the store-bought.
In the same vein, why would anyone want to make English muffins at home when the handy-dandy specimens at the supermarket are perfectly delicious as is?
Because homemade English muffins really do taste better. And, unlike White’s homemade common crackers, they don’t take days to make. In fact, they are really quite easy to throw together.
I’ll admit that I tried and rejected several different muffin-making methods. Some required you to cook the muffins in ring moulds, a specific piece of equipment that I didn’t want anyone to have to buy. Some required you to roll out the dough and cut it into rounds, a process that produces wasteful scraps. Rising times varied widely from recipe to recipe, and so did the cooking method.
The only step all the recipes had in common was first cooking the muffins in a griddle on top of the stove. Some had you start there, then finish them in the oven.
In the end, I settled on this recipe, the easiest of the bunch and the closest to foolproof. There’s just one caveat; not all burners give off the same heat. The method I describe below worked perfectly on my electric glass-top stove, but if you’re working with gas or induction burners, you may have to adjust the temperature and timing slightly.
With a stand mixer, the kneading process is a breeze. But if you don’t have one, you can just mix the ingredients, turn out the dough onto the counter, then knead it by hand for about 10 minutes, or until it’s smooth and elastic.
Likewise, I call for instant yeast, but if all you can find is active dry yeast, you’ll need to proof it first. Here’s how: In a small bowl, combine the yeast with about 1/4 cup of the warm milk along with a pinch of the sugar and flour. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it stand for 5 minutes, or until the yeast is foamy. Then add the proofed yeast to the dry ingredients, along with the butter and remaining milk.
Finally, you’ll want to make sure that the inner surfaces of your homemade English muffins are pockmarked with the nooks and crannies that so cleverly capture the butter you intend to slather on them. What’s the secret? Separate them into halves using a fork, not a knife.
Unlike the store-bought variety, these muffins have no preservatives. So you’ll need to eat or freeze them within a few days.
Start to finish: 2 hours 45 minutes (45 minutes active)
20 ounces (about 4 2/3 cups) bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt or table salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups lukewarm milk
Oil or cooking spray
1/4 cup cornmeal
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, salt, sugar and yeast. Beat briefly to mix. Add the butter and milk and beat on low until combined, about 1 minute. Keeping the machine on low, beat the dough an additional 8 minutes, or until the dough is very smooth and elastic.
Lightly coat a large bowl with oil or cooking spray. Transfer the dough to the bowl, turning it to coat all sides. Cover with a damp towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with kitchen parchment, then sprinkle half the cornmeal evenly over the bottom of each. Divide the dough into 12 pieces (roughly 3 ounces each), shape the pieces into rounds by stretching the sides of the dough down and around to the bottom and pinching the seal at the bottom of the dough where the creases converge.
Transfer half of the balls to each sheet pan and press down gently to form 3-inch rounds, making sure there is at least 1 inch between the rounds. Mist the tops of the rounds lightly with cooking spray, then cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the rounds rise in a warm place until almost doubled in bulk, about 50 minutes.
Heat a large griddle or skillet over medium. Mist the pan with cooking spray.
Being careful not to deflate the muffins, transfer them gently to the pan, in batches, leaving 1/2 inch between them. Cook for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the bottoms are golden brown. Gently flip the muffins and cook on medium for 1 minute, then on medium-low for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the second sides are golden brown. Transfer the muffins to a rack to cool for 30 minutes.
Nutrition information per serving: 220 calories; 35 calories from fat (16 per cent of total calories); 3.5 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 310 mg sodium; 41 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 7 g protein.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and has written three cookbooks, including “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.”