Whence the American Muffin?

The American-style muffin, as distinct from the English muffin, evolved around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution, which is to say the time when North Americans really got into the industrialization act (the second half of the 19th century). This was the golden age of American baking, when cast iron home stoves — complete with their own small ovens — rolled off American assembly lines. Well they didn’t roll off exactly, they had to be carried…by like 18 guys, because those things were heavy. And then I guess now that I think about it the moving assembly line wasn’t perfected in America until 1908. Other than that though, the phrase was apt.

Just how and when the American muffin diverged from the English muffin isn’t known. However I will posit the following guess: because it was a lot faster and easier to make. The English muffin is made from a risen yeast batter that is “baked”, really fried, in a small ring mold on a griddle. The American muffin, as demonstrated below, is made from a batter that is simply mixed together and baked in a mold. Start-to-finish, a collection of raw ingredients can be turned into hot ready-to-eat muffins in as little as 40 minutes. Plus chemical leavening, as long as it’s been stored properly, is never-fail. The same cannot be said of either packaged yeast (at least in those days) or a home-made starter.

So then the American-style muffin was clearly convenient, since it allowed a home baker to throw a batch together and bake them up quick (very likely in the residual heat of the wood-fired stove while dinner was being prepared). However it also allowed for improvisation in a way that the English muffin didn’t. Just about anything can be added to American muffin batter without interfering with the rising ability of baking powder or soda. That feature has been rather abused, at least to my mind, since American bakers started gettin’ jiggy with the ingredients around the 1920’s and 30’s. Prior to that point additions to American muffins were largely limited to things like raisins, dates and nuts (maybe bits of bacon or ham for a savory twist). Starting around 1940 fresh fruits like berries began to show up, after which point all hell broke loose: chocolate, carrots, cheese, squash. By the 1970’s there were muffins sporting things like pineapple and Spam. Today we have everything from peanut butter fudge to spinach, rhubarb, fennel, shellfish, lemon-chive-pepper, bleu cheese and walnuts…you name it.

Just more American baking ingenuity? Or a good idea gone horribly wrong? You be the judge.

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