English Muffins: From Wyclife to the Muffin Man

Unlike most European breads, the origins of the English Muffin are known indisputably: an English immigrant named Samuel Thomas started producing them in his Chelsea, NY factory in the 1880s. Pretty boring, right? Don’t worry; the evolution of the sturdy, “nook and cranny”-y bread spans centuries and oceans, and ties to one of the greatest intellectual figures of all time.

Samuel Thomas, from Portsmouth, England, was inspired by the classic crumpet. The crumpet, also served with butter and jam, differs from the English Muffin in one significant way: crumpets have holes on the outside, while muffins must be split to expose their unique texture.

A buttered crumpet
A buttered crumpet

Both are cooked on a griddle. However, crumpets are leavened by the use of a chemical leavener, generally baking soda, while muffins are made with a stiffer yeast dough. In fact, they can be made with leftover bread dough. I use  the recipe from “Tartine Bread”, which uses baguette dough. English muffins are therefore thrifty.

John Wyclife
John Wyclife

The first mention of the crumpet is by John Wyclife, a 14th century theologian who helped to lay the foundations for the Protestant reformation. He mentioned a “crompid cake” in 1382. “Crompid” comes from Old English, and shares etymological roots with the word “crumple”. As they cooked, these early crumpets would curl up around the edges Early crumpets were in fact more similar to thin pancakes – or crepes, which are related in name and form.

The English term “muffin” comes from either the French “moufflet”, a soft bread, or the German “muffen”, meaning small cake. In 19th century England, leftover scraps of dough were griddled and sold as muffins by street hawkers. Soon, the popular nursery rhyme emerged. “Do you know the muffin man who lives on Drury Lane…”

In 1894, Samuel Bath Thomas of New York City first marketed the “English Muffins” produced in his Chelsea bakery. They soon became entrenched in the culture of the  American breakfast.

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English muffins are extremely delicious and easy to make at home. They cook in about five minutes, and their dough can be made ahead, allowing for fresh muffins any time. I enjoy mine with butter and jam.

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