The English Muffin Experiment: Homemade vs. Store-Bought
This dispatch comes to us from serious eater Melinda McCamant, who lives in Portland, Oregon. She pointed out to us that English muffins are neither English nor muffins. An avid home baker with a taste for brioche and a budget for Wonder Bread, she's always interested in combining flour, yeast, and water into tasty new forms. Take it away, Melinda! —Erin
I confess—right around the time I reached thirty-something I developed a fondness for baking. I get an absurd pride from neglecting the store-bought in favor of the homemade. But every time I make something from scratch, I feel obligated to never buy it premade again.
This has considerably crimped the amount of breakfast sandwiches I can consume. On a recent Sunday morning when I got out of bed a full hour before my boyfriend to make English muffins, I began to wonder if it was worth it. Are my English muffins really worth the flour handprints on the back of my pajamas? Was I even saving money?
As I turned on the griddle to start my first batch I decided to perform an experiment: buy English muffins and compare them to my own. So, in fairness, I took some homemade English muffins from that Sunday batch and put them in the freezer until I thought they were at least as old as four kinds from the supermarket shelf: the generic kind at Fred Meyer (a subsidiary of The Kroger Co.), Wolferman's, Trader Joe's, and the classic Thomas'.
My homemade sourdough English muffins are pretty simple. The only special equipment needed are English muffin rings, which can also be used to fry up the toppings for breakfast sandwiches, keeping them perfectly round and almost corporate in appearance.
I got my recipe from The Fresh Loaf, an online community for amateur bakers of all skill levels. Not only are they tasty but it’s a great way to use up the extra sourdough starter that inevitably accumulates when you keep up a starter (but don’t feel like going through the trouble of sourdough bread baking). When they are fresh, homemade English muffins are unbeatable if for no other reason than that “I made these” is molecularly bound to the steam that escapes upon breaking them open.
Samuel Bath Thomas, an English émigré, created the first English muffins in 1880 in his Manhattan bakery. Originally called a "toaster crumpet," Thomas's creation bore only a slight family resemblance to its British cousin.
Both are cooked on griddles but the crumpet, only crisped on one side, lacks the crunch (fanatics insist that toasting is a must) and chew of what eventually came to be called an English muffin. Wolferman's, a gourmet brand of English muffin available by mail order, are thicker and have been around since 1910. Unlike the rest of the bread world, English muffins have not experienced a gourmet renaissance—there are two choices: what you make at home and what you can buy in a plastic bag.
The English muffins I bought ranged from Fred Meyer's generic brand (ridiculously cheap at 59¢ for six) to Wolferman's ($4.95 for four Brobdingnagian muffins) to the Trader Joe's store brand ($1.99 for six) and of course Thomas' ($3.00 for six).
All four had a similar mix of recognizable ingredients like flour, water, and yeast alongside things like calcium sulfate, which is considered harmless but has been used to kill rodents. The Trader Joe’s and Wolferman’s muffins, which were noticeably fluffier than the rest, use bleached flour while the others use unbleached. Only the Fred Meyer brand contained high fructose corn syrup. In fact, the Thomas' label proudly proclaims they no longer use HFCS—an ingredient with a questionable role in obesity that still strikes me (and Michael Pollan) as environmentally unsound.
Shape and Texture
Compared to the store-bought brands, my homemade muffins looked Lilliputian and decidedly unround. When I split all five open the Thomas’ muffins easily won for nooks and crannies (two words inexorably tied to a good English muffin, largely due to Thomas’ advertising) followed closely by the Fred Meyer brand. My homemade version and the Trader Joe’s brand had nooks but no crannies. The Wolferman's were in a category of their own, double the size of the rest, with small sandwich bread-like crumbs.
The muffins were toasted and topped on with butter on one side and egg on the other. Oddly, my little guys toasted much faster than the others, perhaps due to size but the 13 additional ingredients in the store-bought kinds might also have played a role.
Compared to the competition, which list an impressive array of souring agents, my sourdough muffins were decidedly un-sour. Both the Wolferman's and the Thomas' had the tang of sourdough without it being overwhelming. The Fred Meyer brand also had a nice balance but that was unfortunately overwhelmed by a distinctive sock-like aftertaste. The TJ’s muffins were the sourest, almost vinegary, but I noticed that the egg softened the vinegar taste and were my favorite with yolk. The homemade muffins, even after a week in the freezer, tasted fresher than the store-bought and had a clean finish that none of the others possessed.
Best Bang for the Buck?
What about the cost? The Wolferman's were the heftiest both in size and out of pocket expense, extravagant like a gift you give others but can’t buy for yourself. And at the other end of the sock flavor spectrum, even at 59¢, seemed a so-so bargain. The TJ’s and Thomas’ were good and definitely the superior products combined with egg (and, as I later found out, bacon) but cost considerably more than the homemade muffins which were smaller but the clear cost winner with only 50¢ worth of ingredients. Of course my time is worth money but if I hadn’t made the muffins I would have just slept in.
I wanted my English Muffins to win and in the end, based on overall taste, cost, and quality of ingredients, they did. What I didn’t count on was the guilty thrill of having something perfectly round and so emotionally unencumbered waiting for me in the freezer.
Breakfast muffins in three minutes, mini pizzas in five—for one sweet week I ate like it was 1994, reveling in the prefab foods of my misspent youth. Next week I’ll be back to slow and local, AKA cheap and homemade, but it’s nice to know the convenience is out there—a time machine in a plastic bag.