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A Short History of the Muffin

The Muffin – what’s in a name?


When talking about the matter of muffins it is important to remember that the name refers to quite distinct products depending on which side of the globe you reside.  The English Muffin is very different to the American version which uses baking powder; for the English muffin has a very old history and is still leavened with yeast, making it more a bread than a cake. Baked into a disk shape and served split into two pieces, toasted and buttered it bears a similarity to a crumpet.  Indeed the word muffin is derived from the French word moufflet, which is often applied to breads and means soft; giving a clue as to the historical recipes employed for muffin making.

Oh, do you know the muffin man? He was a common enough character in Jane Austen’s day- even gaining a mention in the great literary work, Persuasion.  English muffins (different from the modern quick bread version) were made of yeast raised dough and baked on a hot cast iron griddle. They are believed to have a long culinary history that dates back to 10th century Wales, where they were considered basic fare.  Being cheap and easy to make these were the food of the lower classes and didn’t grace the fashionable tea table until the late 1700’s onwards.

As afternoon tea became a meal in itself, many cooks attempted to create more substantial and elaborate spreads and in order to balance out the array of sweet offerings English Muffins, toasted and buttered would be offered. Growing in popularity throughout the 19th century, the muffin became a popular treat in Britain and Muffin factories sprang up all over England. Muffin men, hawking their wares in city streets, were a common sight. They wore trays of English muffins on their heads and rang their bells to call customers to their hot treats and as the popular rhyme recounts the muffin man could be seen in his long apron:

Do you know the Muffin Man,

The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man?

Do you know the Muffin Man,


Who lives on Drury Lane?

Yes I know the Muffin Man,

The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man.

Yes I know the Muffin Man

Who lives on Drury Lane.


Drury Lane, is just east of Covent Garden and in the heart of London’s theatre district which is now a tourist-filled thoroughfare between High Holborn and Aldwych, but during the eighteenth century it was an run down area that was full of rat-infested lodging houses and tenements housing the very poorest Londoners; an over-populated area that housed brothels, cock pits and gin palaces where gambling, poverty, crime and disease were part of everyday living. English muffins were a cheap and popular foodstuff for the poorer residents in the early nineteenth-century and provided something hot and filling for those living in poverty as well as gracing the elegant tables of the wealthy and influential.

Today muffins are still a popular bakery item in Britain, but the muffin man has long since vanished. They are now more likely to be served at breakfast time, both hot and buttered or with the addition of bacon and eggs or even smoked salmon and cream cheese.

American muffins are a very different from the English muffin being a ‘quick bread’ made in individual moulds or cases. Quick breads (chemically leavened as opposed to yeast leavened) were not developed until the end of the 18th century. The story of the American muffin owes its existence to the US discovery of pearlash as a raising agent, an important development in the whole history of baking. Pearlash is a refined form of potash, and it produces carbon dioxide gas in dough. In ‘American Cookery’ (1796 – the first American cook book) Amelia Simmons published recipes using pearlash this was a real turning point in both domestic and commercial baking. Baking powder was not developed commercially until 1857 and the importance of this on the whole of baking history just cannot be emphasised enough.

Early American muffin recipes tend to list far fewer ingredients and produce a plainer bake than their contemporaries.  Today an American muffin almost always has a “topping” baked in, such as blueberries, chocolate chips, or raspberry. The muffin has in most cases become a sweeter affair and with the rise of coffee-shops and artisan bakeries the American-Style muffin has become available in a wide variety of flavours and its popularity has spread around the world.

The American muffin and the history of raising agents really are intertwined and in the 1950s, several American companies introduced packaged muffin mixes. These sorts of cake mixes were only possible due to the discovery and development of raising agents. By the 1960s, the muffin had become such a popular bakery item that attempts were being made to handle the muffin like the doughnut and transform it into a franchise food business opportunity.

Whilst those rich and chocolatey muffins are definitely an indulgence there is also a trend for the skinnier type of muffin: lower on sugar and fat.  These healthful muffins make for a healthful breakfast on the go or snack; featuring all sorts of seeds, nuts, fruits, and ingredients such as bran, oats and yoghurt. As well as the need for muffins that is made for special dietary requirements such as gluten or dairy free.

It is true to say that the American –Style muffin has no issues with its cultural identity and has become synonymous with the all American coffee break culture. The decline in home-baking, the health food movement, the rise of artisan bakeries and the gourmet coffee culture have all contributed to the creation of what is now the standard contemporary muffin and what we instantly think of as a muffin. Its popularity has grown and it is now an undisputed American bakery hero.



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