We eat a lot of English muffins in our household, and while in my opinion they make a great accompaniment to any meal, walking to the store to buy them every couple days was becoming a real hassle. I've baked a fair amount of bread in my day, so I set out in search of a relatively easy and effective method for making them at home.
The cookbooks I have around the house were, on the whole, not a big help. Most of them have a paragraph on English muffins that basically says, "make any bread dough you want, form into small rounds and cook for 5 minutes on each side on a heavy skillet." This is fine if you want a hamburger bun. It's great for a sandwich at lunch time, but it's way too dense for my taste at the breakfast table. There are no nooks and crannies. I did find a helpful tip in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, however. He says that for English muffins your dough must be extremely wet. This reminded me of another Bittman recipe, the much-blogged No-Knead Bread.
I have a real love-hate relationship with the no-knead bread recipe. I love the convenience, and it does make a fantastic crust and overall texture. But made as-is it's just the blandest bland to ever bland a bland; it just doesn't have that developed flavor you get from kneading. I find adding more salt and olive oil (and using some whole wheat flour) improves things considerably. But for our purposes it's the moisture that's important. This dough is very, very moist - to the point that it looks like a total disaster when you put it in the oven. And when you add olive oil, it's a little moister and obviously a little oily and more prone to bubbles when it's baked: perfect for English muffins. So here is my modified version of the No-Knead Bread, adapted for English muffins. (The recipe is included below with pictures, but I've also made a nice printer-friendly pdf for you.)
No-Knead English Muffins
Recipe by Lauren Osborne, adapted from Mark Bittman in the New York Times, who originally adapted the method from Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery
Makes about 12 English muffins
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (you may adjust this flour ratio to suit your own taste)
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. In a large bowl combine flours, yeast, and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water and the olive oil and stir until blended. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest 18 hours at about 70 degrees. (The inside of my rarely-used microwave is the perfect place for this.)
2. After about 18 hours your dough will be bubbly and goopy looking and smell vaguely sour. This is what it will look like - not particularly pretty:
Lightly dust your work surface with all-purpose flour and pour/turn out the dough. It will be so sticky that you may want to dust the top of it with more flour, and also flour your hands. If you wear rings it's best to take them off. Give the dough a couple of gentle turns and shape it into a relatively uniform round, cover it with a tea towel (NOT terry cloth) and let it rest for 2 more hours.
This is pre-rest dough:
And this is post-rest dough. It has swelled and moistened considerably:
3. Sprinkle a baking sheet generously with corn meal.* Divide your dough into small rounds about 3-4 inches in diameter. I make 12 English muffins out of this amount of dough by dividing it in half, then in half again (so you have quarters), and then dividing each of these pieces into thirds. Gently shape your rounds into little patties, without too much squishing and squashing, and arrange them on your baking sheet. Cover with the tea towel again and let them rest 15 more minutes.
4. While they are resting you may begin to prepare your cooking area. I prefer to use a seasoned cast-iron pan to cook my English muffins. Something very heavy like this is ideal. Whatever you do, do NOT use non-stick because keeping it hot and dry with burning corn meal stuck to it will probably ruin the coating. I let my cast-iron pan warm up for a few minutes over medium heat.* Cooking your muffins will produce a fair amount of smoke, so I usually run the kitchen fan and have the back door and a window open. Unless you want to set off your smoke alarm, you should ventilate as well as you can.
5. When your pan is warmed, slide a spatula under your English muffins and place them on the pan one at a time and then cover the pan with a lid. (I can fit three on my pan without crowding them. With regards to the lid, it doesn't have to fit the pan exactly, since not many cast-iron pans actually come with lids. I use the lid of a stock pot. Set a timer so you're not constantly taking the lid off the check on them.) After 4 minutes they will have puffed up considerably, and you will be able to see the edges beginning to harden.
This is what mine look like when they're halfway done:
Flip them over and cook another 4 minutes on the other side. Set them to cool on a rack. I scrape the burnt corn meal off the bottom of the pan and into the sink after each round so things don't get too terribly smoky and burny.
Happy muff-ing! And as always, if I appear to have screwed something up please let me know.
* I tend to go really heavy on the corn meal and then re-use what is left on the baking sheet to make polenta for dinner.
** Cast-iron pans get very hot. I keep the flame on the lower end of medium for the duration of the cooking.