Soggy Bottoms: How I Mastered The Fine Art of Making English Muffins

Welcome to Soggy Bottoms, where, lacking a tent in the British countryside, Autostraddle writers attempt to bake things inspired by The Great British Bake Off in their own homes, to varying degrees of success.


Have you seen The Great British Bake Off? If you haven’t, you’re missing a reality show that manages to be entirely dignified, while simultaneously packing in a lot of dry British gender-nonspecific sexual innuendo. But my favorite thing about The Great British Bake Off is that it has inspired me to start baking!

However, in this baking endeavor, I have discovered that, while anyone can bake a thing, mastering all the components that add up to produce a good-quality baked good is a refined craft that is much easier said than done. Maybe it looks good, sure, but is it cooked all the way through? It might taste good, but if the bottom is soggy, a kind-but-honest elderly British woman might shake her head at you with the kind of disappointment that makes you feel ashamed of yourself.

Bake Off judge Mary Berry sets high expectations. via HuffPo

Bake Off judge Mary Berry sets high expectations. via HuffPo

So today, I’m going to tell you all about my attempts to bake English muffins, inspired by a Bake Off technical challenge set by judge Paul Hollywood. While English muffins are pretty much guaranteed to not have a soggy bottom, there are still plenty of opportunities to go wrong.

Bake Off host Sue Perkins takes everything VERY SERIOUSLY. via Cosmo

Bake Off host Sue Perkins takes everything VERY SERIOUSLY. via Cosmo

Who bakes English muffins? Don’t they just come out of the pack with all their nooks and crannies, ready to lay the foundations for tasty meals like egg sandwiches and English muffin pizzas?

Turns out, there’s a reason no one bakes them: they’re hard to bake! Six weeks and about ten batches after my initial muffin-making attempt, I have developed a reasonably passable English muffin recipe that would probably land somewhere around the middle of the pack in an early-season GBBO technical challenge. Read on for that recipe and some of the lessons I learned about how not to make an English muffin in the process.

I feel you, Tamal. via Giphy

I feel you, Tamal. via Giphy

First Attempts

My first batch was ok. The dough was really wet and sticky and hard to work with. My roommate came in while I was up to my elbows in dough and laughed at me. But after the dough rose for a few days, I cooked them and they came out looking like English muffins! But in my haste to get away from the super sticky dough, I didn’t knead it enough, and so they were lacking the nooks and crannies I’d hoped for.

I was not deterred. I was going to get these guys right.

Just like Nadiya. via Giphy

Just like Nadiya. via Giphy

I’ll just do it again and knead it some more, I figured. The second dough came out looking great. I left it to rise. The dough puffed up. I formed them into circles and left them to proof another time. They puffed up more. I put them on the stove, because that’s where you cook English muffins. The outsides cooked. The insides were doughy and raw. Turns out they’d puffed up WAY too much. We cut them open and toasted them to dry them out. They were still doughy. We ate them anyway.

The third batch was much the same, but I was determined they would cook through. I resorted to some creative measures:

bet you've never had an English muffin cube

Bet you’ve never had an English muffin cube

For batch four, I popped them in the oven at the end to finish cooking through. That worked, but wasn’t very satisfying. English muffins are supposed to cook on the stove and only on the stove. I prodded at my muffins in despair, wondering what I needed to do to make them cook all the way through. At this point, I’ve watched so much GBBO that I always hear Paul Hollywood’s critical voice in my ear while I’m baking.

The Paul Hollywood Approach

I decided it was time for a different recipe. So I went to the source: Paul Hollywood’s technical challenge recipe.

I stayed away from this initially, because most other muffin recipes had a much longer rise time, and I figured that since I didn’t have the time constraint of a technical challenge on GBBO, why impose it on myself to the detriment of the muffins? But a longer rise wasn’t having good results, so I decided to give it a shot.

The dough recipe on this one is a lot different than the first: there’s an egg involved, and slightly less flour. The dough ended up being a lot sturdier and less sticky.

I made these twice, because the first time I accidentally dumped way too much salt in. The two batches came out roughly the same: they were pretty small, and while they did cook through, they didn’t have the nooks or the crannies, and the taste wasn’t that interesting.

uniform in size and color, but otherwise kind of unremarkable.

Uniform in size and color, but otherwise kind of unremarkable.

So I turned back to the depths of the internet, where I found Sheryl’s recipe, developed in direct response to the lack of nooks and crannies she’d had with other internet English muffin recipes. They were the best bake of the three internet recipes I tried. The trick with this recipe, Sheryl explains, is to actually leave it proofing long enough to overproof so that a lot of air pockets develop – this is something that you should try to avoid with bread, but with English muffins it’s exactly what you want in order to form the nooks and crannies. But Sheryl’s recipe had way too much yeast and they ended up tasting sour without the flavor depth of sourdough.

Maddie’s English Muffin Recipe

So I went rogue. I took all the components of each recipe that I liked, and I made my own, introducing a new component: bread flour. My first attempts all used all-purpose flour, but bread flour is more glutinous, which means it’s more elastic when you knead it, and ultimately makes a sturdier type of structure when it’s baked.

via DK

via DK

Ingredients

not pictured: semolina

Not pictured: semolina.

1 1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp sugar or honey (I used honey this time, but I’d probably use sugar if I did it again)
1.5 tsp active dry yeast
2 cups strong bread flour
½ tsp salt
semolina (about 2 tbsp)

The Process

Heat the milk on the stove and once it’s simmering, mix in the butter and the sugar with a small whisk. Transfer it into a glass bowl or measuring cup and leave it to cool. Once it’s lukewarm, put the yeast in and stir it again. Let it sit for 10 minutes or until the yeast bubbles up.

bubbled yeast from two angles

Bubbled yeast from two angles.

Mix the flour and salt in a glass bowl, and then mix in the yeast and milk mixture using a wooden spoon. When it gets too hard to mix with the spoon, use your clean hands to bring the flour and liquid together into one doughy mass with all the flour incorporated, and then knead it either in the glass bowl or on the counter.

first it's all floury and piece-y, then it's a glob, then it's a smooth ball!

First it’s all floury and piece-y, then it’s a glob, then it’s a smooth ball!

You’ll know it’s done kneading when it can pass the “windowpane test,” which is when you pinch a golf-ball-sized chunk of dough off and pull it apart. If you can see light through the dough without it just breaking, then you know the gluten has developed it enough.

this is what a windowpane looks like... right?

This is what a windowpane looks like… right?

Put the dough in the glass bowl and cover it with a cloth or plastic wrap. Leave it for about eight hours outside the fridge. (If you do this right before you go to bed, it’s good timing for making fresh English muffins the next morning.)

before rising

Before rising

The dough will rise…

it doubled in size!!

It doubled in size!!

…and then fall again.

not so big anymore

Not so big anymore

That’s the goal: to get it to puff up and then sink back down. If you were making bread, this would be considered “over-proofed,” and it would leave your bread with big giant air bubbles. But with English muffins, that’s exactly what we want: big giant air bubbles, aka “nooks and crannies.”

rad nooks and crannies developing!

Rad nooks and crannies developing!

Then, tip it out — you should be able to hold it in one hand — and GENTLY stretch it into a large flat blob.

IMG_2921

feel free to ignore the change in setting here and trust that i'm showing you the pictures that illustrate this process the best,

Feel free to ignore the change in setting here and trust that i’m showing you the pictures that illustrate this process the best.

Then split it into six pieces. I usually do this with a sharp knife.

IMGP1731

Put the two tablespoons of semolina flour in a small bowl you’ll be able to dip the raw muffins into.

Shape each of the six pieces into the roundest shape you can. Techniques really vary for this part. Some recipes recommend you cut out circles, but then what are you supposed to do with the extra dough? Others will tell you to roll the dough into round spheres, but then, all the air gets squished out of them. I did my best to shape the six pieces into rounds without squashing them too much.

Then plop each one in the bowl of semolina to get a thin coating on the tops and bottoms. The semolina keeps the muffins from sticking to the pan.

IMGP1747

Once they’re all shaped and semolina-ed, leave them on a tray for 30-40 minutes to proof again. They’ll puff up a little.

IMGP1774

And now, the trickiest part: cooking the muffins.

I highly recommend a cast iron skillet for this. I’ve never used anything else. I imagine a typical frying pan would work, too, but the following instructions are based on my experience using cast iron on a gas stove. You might need to adjust based on your specifications.

IMGP1798

Turn your stove on VERY LOW. Melt a bit of butter into the pan and wipe out any excess beyond a light coating. Once the pan has gotten hot but not extremely hot, place your muffins in (I typically get three at a time in one pan).

IMGP1804

They will cook on the first side anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. Check them periodically to see if they’re cooking unevenly and move them around if necessary for them to get an even bake. DO NOT RUSH THIS PROCESS. If they brown too fast, they’ll be raw on the inside and Paul Hollywood will tell you so.

But you also don’t want them to burn. So a long slow bake is key. If you actually watch the technical challenge where they make English muffins (episode two of PBS’s season two, but the British season five), they’ll tell you that if they cook for too long, they’ll dry out, but I have yet to encounter dryness as an issue in my desperate attempt to cook them to beyond raw.

Once the muffins are brown on one side, flip them and repeat.

IMGP1816

adjusting the temperature to as low as i can possibly get it while making sure that the gas doesn't go out entirely

Adjusting the temperature to as low as i can possibly get it while making sure that the gas doesn’t go out entirely

Then take them off and put them on a rack to cool. Let them cool so the middle will be less doughy.

IMGP1828

Split them in half and toast them. Then top with whatever you want! The true test is if they will split open with a fork. If they can, and if the edges are “squidgey” as Mary Berry likes, then hooray! You’ve done it!

IMG_2930

Toast and enjoy with…

…an egg shaped like a creepy bunny…

IMG_2933

…a veggie burger…

IMGP1845

…and maybe your friend’s turquoise lipstick will rub off on it.

IMGP1842

I hope you enjoyed this first installment of Soggy Bottoms!

Special thanks to Hannah Mogul-Adlin for helping with photography!


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Profile gravatar of Maddie

Autostraddle staff writer. Copy editor. Fledgling English muffin maker. Temporary turtle parent. Zine creator. Swings enthusiast. Political human who cares a lot about healthcare and queer anti-carceral feminisms. I asked my friend to help me write this bio and they said, "Good-natured. Friend. Earth tones." Another friend said, "Flannel babe. Vacuum lover. Kind." So. Find me on Twitter or my website.

Maddie has written 99 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. I love this show! Is so much better than any other televised cooking competition on tv. It’s just so British and everyone is kind and there is no manufactured drama. I love that they’re not competing for money, just pride. And of course Sue Perkins is such a babe. I’ve made the mini Victoria sponges from a previous season and they came out okay, they tasted good but weren’t as pretty as what the bakers made.

  2. Your journey on baking english muffins reminded me of my first attempts at making flour tortillas without my mom’s guidance. It took me a whole 20lb bag of flour to get the dough just right….. in one day. Ever had big balls of tortilla dough in your fridge? But hey, baking is an art and mistakes make the greatest memories! I love the experience you had and luckily you had the internet!

  3. I am very much looking forward to a) this column and b) trying some of these bakes! Despite my minuscule Brooklyn kitchen, I have been tempted to buy Paul Hollywood’s Bread cookbook several times. (Also a Mary Berry cookbook, but she has a _lot_, probably because she is a legendary cookery writer.)

  4. Add this to the list of delightful AS columns that I read regularly about shows I do not watch, because of the magic of AS writers. I want to try and make this recipe, Maddie! They look really good! Agree glutinous bread flour is lovely; what a good idea.

  5. Haha it has been how long since the last season ended and gifs of Nadiya still make me have so many *emotions.*

    (now if you can work Sue’s “face of a wood nymph and the body of Ryan Gosling” quote into a future instalment, this column will basically cover all my life needs.)

  6. Lovely. I was baking muffins for Eggs Benedict yesterday and was almost brought to tears by how doughy and unfinished and burnt they were. Looking forward to trying your recipe out ASAP!

  7. I like this post a lot!

    I admire your commitment to perfecting-ish this dish through several iterations. I am not really much of a baker, because I find it takes too much rigid sticking to recipes and self-control, whereas I’m the kind of cook that can’t stop tweaking.

    This would probably be an appropriate point for some Sue Perkins raised eyebrows.

  8. I hung onto every word of this epic journey from start to finish. I can’t wait for more instalments of this column, it’s going to be so much fun! I would never have thought it was possible to crave the tactile experience of an English muffin but after all this talk of nooks and crannies I’m feeling the need to put one in my mouth tbqh

  9. I am so excited about this! I just finished watching the season of GBBO that’s on Netflix and I too am feeling inspired to bake (I have a sourdough starter brewing on my counter at this moment). I recently baked cupcakes with some friends, and decided to make chocolate decorations for the tops, and it was much harder than I anticipated! They came out as sort of shapeless chocolate blobs, and I said “Paul and Mary would be so unimpressed by my chocolate work” and no one knew what I was talking about :/

  10. this is awesome, I have struggled with english muffins in the past and will def try your combo recipe! I always do them in the oven on a baking stone, will try a cast iron skillet tho – agree on the yeast, they should not taste like a soughdough. Hannah x

  11. Ok, I may have to watch this now. You all make it sound so appealing. Good job with the muffins! Glad your baking endeavor did not end in constant sorrow (I dunno, dude, not my best work, but no one else made the joke so I kind of felt a sense of responsibility).

  12. Both my oven and myself are so stoked for this column! Jointly because of recipes and Bake Off, followed shortly by the fact that there will likely be more gifs of Sue Perkins.

    I really wany a muffin now, like a mighty need. I’ve never baked them before – weird, considering my kitchen is always occupied by one experiment or another – but I think I now just might.

    Thank you 😀

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