Food: US vs UK Round 1 — Muffins

by Brenda W. Clough

usukBritain and the United States are divided by more than their common tongue. The Atlantic Ocean, pooh — a  mere pond. What really divides us is our food. There are so many examples of this, that we have to have a blog series about it!

First up: muffins. I was born in Washington DC, and when I eat English muffins they are made by Thomas and are available at grocery stores everywhere. They look like this:Thomas

You take these out of the packet and split them, ideally with a fork and not a knife. Into the toaster, and then butter, possibly marmalade or jam. These are almost always eaten at breakfast, very occasionally as a snack. Only very recently, at high-end farm markets, have we been offered artisanal English muffins — l will take a photograph of mine.

I am absolutely certain that this is not how it is done on the other side of the ocean, and I call upon my British counterpart to explain how they do it over there.



About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


Food: US vs UK Round 1 — Muffins — 15 Comments

  1. Actually, that’s pretty much exactly how muffins are eaten over here. I make my own artisanal muffins (using a recipe from an American — Peter Reinhart in Artisan Bread Every Day), and we eat them split, toasted and buttered. Home-made ones are much better than ones from a shop, but you need to have a griddle, preferably large enough for eight or even twelve crumpet rings.


    One step further, across the North Sea in Holland, we get muffins in bakeries too. I think they’re supposed to be American muffins, but they’re nothing like yours above.
    They’re mostly made of something cake-like, with lots of different flavourings (e.g. blueberries, or lemon and poppyseed, or chocolate chips, or oatmeal and cranberries, etc.). They’re generally eaten as a rich teacake or snack, not for breakfast or lunch.
    I rather think they should be called cupcakes instead of muffins, as they’re always baked in little round paper cups, but they’re never decorated after baking which seems to be a cupcake thing, so I’m not quite sure.
    If I search for pictures of muffins, I get lots of these kinds and none of your English muffins. I’ll stick that link in here, and hope you get the same pictures I did. It insists on landing at the top of my answer.

    • Nope, blueberry muffins are still muffins. What is required for a cupcake is that the batter be sweet.

      • The cakelike muffins shaped like chef’s hats that we see around here are almost universally sweet in the way that cakes taste sweet – they taste like vanilla cake (with or without fruit or chocolate chips), chocolate cake with chocolate chips, apple cake with cinnamon, etc.; only the rare ones meant as healthy alternatives like oatmeal with cranberries taste more chewy and tart instead of the sweet cakes.
        So I guess that means the usual ones are cupcakes, if the presence of sweetness/sugar is the defining characteristic.

      • I think the distinguishing feature of cupcakes is icing (the more, the better). That, and the fact that they don’t have things like fruits or berries or nuts in them. That would make them muffins, and thus suitable for breakfast. Anything to be able to justify eating cake for breakfast…

        • Disclaimer: I am a home baker rather than a professional (but not a home baker to a degree that you’d see on The Great British Baking Show, which has begun to turn up on this side of the pond).

          The technical answer to the muffins-vs.-cupcakes question, over here in the US, actually has to do with the size of the crumb (and, by extension, the amount and type of mixing one does with the batter). Muffin recipes will generally tell you to mix the ingredients by hand, to do so “just until moistened” and to avoid overmixing. Thus, you get a somewhat lumpy batter with a larger, heavier crumb. Also, most muffin recipes will call for ordinary all-purpose flour.

          Cake and cupcake recipes, by contrast, encourage the use of electric mixers and usually call for batter to be mixed longer and at higher speeds, until it’s smooth. Cakes and cupcakes are also often made with “cake flour” or “pastry flour”, which is finer-grained. Mixed-in ingredients (raisins, chocolate chips, etc.) are rarer, and when they’re added, they’re added after the batter is fully mixed/beaten, whereas muffin mix-ins may be added to the bowl right at the start so that everything is mixed together at once.

          Note also that muffin and cupcake recipes printed in general-use American cookbooks (Betty Crocker, Better Homes & Gardens, Fannie Farmer) typically call for a standard muffin/cupcake pan which is designed to hold 12 individual servings, each in a relatively small cup; the resulting pastry is at most the size of a normal person’s fist., and often a bit smaller. Again by contrast, the muffins you see in commercial bakeries (and often, but not always, the cupcakes too) are produced in a significantly larger size — the home versions of those pans produce six at a time and I have seen the pans referred to as for “Texas muffins”. A normal cookbook recipe that says it will make 12 muffins produces enough batter to make maybe half that many of the size you’ll find in the bakery department at Safeway or Kroger.

  3. Perhaps the problem is that Americans (somewhere along the line…) started calling not only the Thomas form a muffin, but the cupcakish form a muffin? And those pseudo-not-muffins have grown larger…larger…*they can eat New York*….

  4. So I guess that means when people talk about “muffin tops” we need to distinguish between the North American kind and the English kind.

    I think I’d prefer an English muffin top. Unfortunately, the North American ones seem to prevail in my neck of the woods…

  5. The English muffins look and sound like the halfway stage for the favorite Dutch breakfast food called “beschuit” which gets translated as rusks. In fact it’s halved English muffins (beschuitbollen) double-baked (toasted?) ’till they’re crisp and dry and cinnamon-brown. They’re sold in rolls of 13 (a baker’s dozen) already done, and serve as a light and neutral vehicle for any kind of topping one might like for breakfast, from the traditional dutch cheese or jam to fresh fruit (especially strawberries!), chocolate sprinkles, aniseed sugar, or whatever you like. It’s fairly rare to find the unhalved, untoasted “beschuitbollen” for sale, wbile the pre-toasted ones are ubiquitous.

  6. Oh god, this is confusing. I knew it would be, What Americans call muffins are different from what Americans call English muffins. Which are different from what English people call muffins. I hope somewhere in this sprawling spectrum are the objects that Dutch people call muffins. This clearly calls for another blog post. We may never get out of muffins and on to pie (another hot point of contention).

    • As long as you don’t start on the other-side-of-the-pond differences between “crisps” and “chips” or “cookies” and “biscuits” we should be able to nibble our way out of the confusion eventually.

    • If you really want to be confused, in Lancashire a muffin (also known as an oven-bottom muffin) is a soft white bread roll baked on the bottom of the oven after the main batch of bread has been baked.

  7. Backtracking now, to the business of “English muffins”. Based on what I see via the various links scattered through the discussion (and a bit of ancillary Googling), the history of these seems fairly straightforward. They are:

    (a) technically of American origin, specifically traceable to the above-mentioned Mr. Thomas (though subsequently copied and brought back across the pond to the UK),

    (b) a descendant of (but not a substitute for) the English crumpet, being originally very similar in appearance and preparation,

    (c) a yeast-leavened bread or bun, as opposed to the American muffin (a “quick bread” leavened with baking soda and/or baking powder), or cupcake (a pastry, ditto).

    • I’m happy to allow that “English muffins” are American, but that’s just nomenclature. We Brits had muffins long and long before Samuel Bath Thomas left the UK with (presumably) the process in his pocket. Muffin men had been banned by Act of Parliament from ringing their accursed bells forty years before; our famous Hannah Glasse cookbook included a recipe in 1747.

  8. Pingback: Food: US vs. UK Round 1.2 — More Muffins. | Book View Cafe Blog