Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Kevin: No-Knead Muffins

Of the three of us hosting this blog, I'm the artiste, while Beth and Susan are technicians. Alternatively, of the three of us Beth and Susan are the dedicated bakers, seeking perfection while I'm the gadfly with the attention span of, well, a gadfly. I prefer the first interpretation but suspect the second is far more accurate.

Nevertheless, one of our goals was to present different approaches to baking bread. My compatriots will make a recipe two or three or more times in a row, tweaking each iteration, until they've nailed it. You can learn a lot from them. Me? I'll make it once, take some notes about what I think worked and didn’t — notes that I often lose — and then not try it again for a year or more if ever. Yeah, gadfly is probably a more accurate description of my approach.

I've been making English muffins for many, many years and although I've produced some superior muffins, I've never produced something as good as what I want. In fact, I've never produced something close to what I want.

Like Beth, I wasn't tremendously impressed with the NY Times No-Knead Bread when I first tried it. It was certainly pretty, but the flavor was on the bland side. and it got stale rapidly. It wasn't suitable for sandwiches, too many huge holes, but given how quickly it became stale that wasn't really an option anyway. Besides, I didn't see that it saved me anything. Kneading only takes 10 minutes and if the long rest between mixing and baking seems like a good idea, then you should know that almost any bread can be refrigerated for 12 hours before baking without harm. In fact, 12 hours in the fridge usually helps the flavor.

Perfect English Muffins

When I was a kid my mother sometimes bought Bay's English Muffins. These gems weren't found with the rest of the breads — or other English Muffins — they were in the dairy compartment near the cheese, eggs, butter, and milk. Exactly were they belonged. I've eaten hundreds, perhaps thousands, of English muffins over the years, and Bay's remains the ideal.

An English muffin is cooked on a griddle — fried, in effect. But it should never taste fried, it should taste baked. And yet, baking wouldn't work. To achieve the proper crust it must be exposed to direct heat.

Split an English muffin open and ideally you should see a moonscape of large and small craters, these craters are perfect for collecting puddles of sweet butter and capturing snags of marmalade.

Bite into one and, unlike most bread — or English muffins for that matter — and you find you need your incisors to tear off a piece like picking up a steak and tearing off a bite. And like steak, you have to chew it.

A truly good English muffin has a noticeably sour note to it. A flavor that blends with something like orange marmalade and highlights a topping such as strawberry jam. Butter is its heart-mate.

Nevertheless, when I sliced into and ate my first piece of this bread I was immediately reminded of my favorite English muffins. It was immediately obvious that the failure in all the muffin recipes I'd tried was that they didn't use a slack dough. A wet, loose dough produces the chewy character and gorgeous nooks and crannies that collect butter and marmalade that, to my mind, is the height of English Muffindom. I don’t know why it took me so long to make that connection. But then, we gadflies aren't known for our intellectual attributes.

I immediately decided I needed to try the recipe as a muffin.

Step one was to get some muffin rings. None of the muffins I'd made in the past needed rings. They were sturdy enough to shape and then rise on their own, but using the no-knead recipe would produce pancakes, not muffins — unless the dough was confined. I ordered some muffin rings and they disappeared into a cabinet until this past Sunday.

On Sunday I mixed the dough according to the recipe except that I rounded off the water to 1 1/2 cups (what's with this 5/8 cup nonsense?) and then followed Beth's suggestion and covered the bowl with plastic and refrigerated it for about 15 hours.

On Monday I pulled it from the fridge and let it warm for an hour and a half. Bad move. Although the dough was still cold, it was too warm for easy shaping. Nevertheless, I pressed on and dusted my aluminum peel with a heavy coating of corn meal, arranged nine rings on it. I dusted my baker's mat heavily with flour and rolled the dough into a cylinder about 12 inches long. Actually, not so much a cylinder as a puffy, sort of rectangular pancake 12 inches long — this stuff is as hard to control as a two-year-old.

No Fear

I didn't screw up my first batch of muffins on purpose. But I did make them knowing I'd screw up. I even suspected some of the ways I'd screw up. But this effort was an experiment. I wanted to learn and that meant I needed to know what could go wrong.

I believed Beth when she said shaping the dough cold was a good idea, but how cold? So I let it warm up some and then tried it. Bad idea. I learned to do it straight from the fridge.

With most breads you let them double in bulk before cooking, but I didn't know how that translated to a slack dough in a ring. So for my first batch I tried several degrees of filling and rising. The conventional wisdom proved correct — fill each ring half way (more or less) and cook when the rings are filled with risen dough.

I also learned that this dough is probably too wet for this purpose, I'll use a bit more flour on my next effort and knead the additional flour by had to understand the texture I want.

I baked my first brick 40 years ago, I'm still learning. Never be afraid of learning.

I divided the cylinder-rectangular-pancake in half and cut that up to form the patties. Not knowing how much rise to expect or plan for I varied the size of the patties I placed in each ring. I also ended up stealing some dough from the second half to fill all the rings. I let the dough rise until the rings were filled and pressing against the plastic wrap I'd covered them with.

I should have anticipated the next problem. But didn't. The muffins stuck to the plastic. Unsticking them was a delicate operation, but I accomplished it and they went onto a griddle lightly brushed with lard. Sadly, they didn’t slide neatly off the foil. Despite the generous layer of corn meal they stuck to the peel too, so I had to use a spatula tomove them from peel to griddle.

Another problem. Although I was careful to use very little fat, I still used too much and the muffins fried. That didn't hurt the flavor, but did hurt the texture of the crust. I made a note to use a paper towel to wipe the griddle after oiling it for the second batch.

Last error. I should have greased the insides of the muffin rings. Actually, it did cross my mind, but for some reason (I'm not sure why) I didn't. I had to run a knife around the inside of the rings to free the muffins, which destroyed their edges.

Click to enlarge

So, given all these problems, what was the result? A decent muffin. Not great, the crust was too crisp and they were too thin, but the holes I'd desired for so many years were there as was the chewy texture. The flavor? Not so great.

I'd wrapped the unused dough in plastic and put it back in the refrigerator. So the next day I unwrapped it and made a second batch and allowed for my earlier problems. So I:

  • didn't allow the dough to warm up at all before forming the patties

  • filled the rings half way and cooked them when the dough hit the plastic

  • coated peel with both flour and corn meal

  • buttered the inside of muffin rings

  • dusted the tops of the muffins with flour to at least minimize sticking to the plastic

  • wiped the griddle with a paper towel so only a trace of oil remained

Click to enlarge

So how'd did this change in procedure work out? WOO HOO!

As you can see from the photo, the second batch of muffins is gorgeous. The .8-ounce weaklings became 1-ounce giants.

Perfection though? Nope. And perhaps some difficulties are inevitable. Despite the addition of flour to the cornmeal underneath the muffins I still needed a spatula to get them off the peel, but I accomplished that with much less damage to the muffin. There was also still some sticking to the plastic covering, but, again, much less sticking resulting in less damage to the muffin's structure.

Half of the muffins simply slipped from their rings when I used tongs to turn them over, and the others only stuck because a bit of dough overlapped the ring. They were easily freed.

The crust is still a tad crisper than I'd prefer and although several solutions occur to me, I want to think on it further.

The second batch did taste a bit better, but I can put that down to the longer stay in the fridge and to more air in the muffin. The flavor wasn't significantly improved. This dough is bland — and doesn’t keep well.

But I learned I want a slack dough. I learned (thanks Beth) that it should be formed cold. I learned how to use muffin rings. And I learned that choosing a good marmalade for your breakfast muffin is essential. Actually, I already knew that last one.

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Anonymous Mary said...

Looks like there's agreement that no-knead bread is best for breakfast. I've been making it with 1/2 whole wheat, you get fewer holes, but that's good for using it for toast and sandwiches, which is what I've been using it for. These English muffins are a great idea, I just wish your finished product had left you more enthusiastic. For flavor, I think that a sourdough started (or just a poulish) is a good idea if you have one kickin' around. As for the slack dough and stickiness and all that, I've been using a tad less water and haven't been having so many of those issues.


4/26/2007 7:11 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

I've used my sourdough starter before and while it came closer than anything else (particularly in flavor) the texture wasn't quite there, now I know the solution.

4/26/2007 8:19 AM  
Anonymous Robin said...

Kevin, this was so remininsent of some of my own past experiments, and not to rub salt into a wound, but so glad to read about it rather than be the one doing it. I was excited at first, because like you, I've never gotten the holes in my english muffins that I really wanted. But reading what you went through, at least now I know to make a slacker dough, but not necessarily a wet one. Now that you've got me thinking, I'm wondering if something closer to a ciabatta would work....hmmmmm. With a poolish for starting to give it more flavor (I'm too use to a slow rise bread that the No-Knead Bread has no appeal to me at all, not a bit surprised to find it's rather tasteless). I think I see another experiment looming in my future....Robin

4/26/2007 9:39 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

A poolish would help for sure, and as I said to Mary, I'm going to revisit my sourdough starter. I'll revisit this issue before the year is up and develop a genuine recipe as opposed to this collection of notes.

But I wanted folks to see the experimental/learfning process and to realize that it's part and parcel of making bread.

4/26/2007 10:27 AM  
Blogger Doreen said...

Hello. What a great blog...Stephanie Sargel led me to it...:)...i'm so glad. I will be back later to read everything...:)

Take care

4/26/2007 3:07 PM  
Blogger a year said...

Welcome to the mad house!

4/26/2007 7:48 PM  
Blogger oopsydeb said...

Oooh...I really love English muffins. Either with butter and honey or a wonderful slightly creamy, slightly runny yolk from a poached egg. Yum. I have NO idea when I'll get around to making these, but I WILL make them.

Also, I read but did not comment on your vegetal post on Seriously Good/Spot On. So much to respond to, but I find myself sticking with, "Yeah, why don't more people grow English shelling peas!?" I love shelling peas. I love the act of shelling. We get them possibly once per year in our CSA share, and I look for them at the farmers' market. But their season is to short and apparently their fans to sparse. Sigh. So much better than sugar snaps. So, so much better.

4/26/2007 8:49 PM  
Blogger a year said...

"I have NO idea when I'll get around to making these, but I WILL make them."

You should have all the tips you need, but I promise to get a proper recipe posted eventually.

"So much to respond to"

Try writing all this stuff.{g}

"Sigh. So much better than sugar snaps. So, so much better."


4/26/2007 9:46 PM  
Anonymous At Home with kim vallee said...

I am glad to hear about the drawbacks of the no-knead bread from you and from Beth's post.

English muffins with marmalade, it sounds good for tomorrow’s breakfast.

4/28/2007 10:12 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Thanks for stopping by, I hoped our experiences might interest you. And be sure to check back next Thursday to see what Susan comes up with.

4/28/2007 10:31 AM  
Blogger Dorine said...

Thanks for sharing your process. I look forward to reading more as you go on perfecting your English muffins.

To improve flavor, would it help to add more salt? Some dead yeast? A little semolina flour?

I'm a huge fan of peas, too! I've got some seedlings sprouting and getting ready to be planted. I bought 2 packets of seeds, one of which claims to be heat tolerant so I hope they lengthen my personal pea season.

4/29/2007 11:51 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Using the sourdough starter should do the job, if you don't have one, you might try addig a bit of sour salt (citric acid).

4/30/2007 7:48 AM  
Anonymous christine (myplateoryours) said...

Interesting experiment. You are so right about the similarity of the bread to English Muffins, though I hadn't thought of it. Looks like it's too fussy for me, though -- I'd get the dough stuck everywhere.

I am curious about the wildly different experiences with no-knead bread, though. We have loved it and it's so moist (it's biggest drawback, in my eyes) that at our house it molds before it stales. But the flavor has been good, the crust crackly and delicious (much better than the regular bread we bake) and on the whole, better than local bakeries. (Of course, maybe that's it -- enthusiam for the no-knead bread may be inversely proportional to the quality of the available alternatives.)

4/30/2007 8:02 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

"(Of course, maybe that's it -- enthusiam for the no-knead bread may be inversely proportional to the quality of the available alternatives.)"

We've wondered about that, and also theorized that it sounds easy so a lot of folks who've never baked before tried it -- and it certainly looks impressive when it comes out of the oven.

4/30/2007 2:12 PM  
Anonymous Charlotte said...

You might try adding some sourdough starter to the no-knead recipe. I've been making a hybrid for months now ( the flavor is great -- it still goes stale pretty fast, but since I live in Montana, where it's very dry, I don't have the mold problem nor do I have big issues with the bread being so wet you can't work with it (after all, we only get 13 inches of rain a year).

5/01/2007 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Richelle de Wit said...

Hi all, just love your blog and it seems the experiences with the NoKnead are widely diverse. I adapted the recipe some... who doesn't :-) and it comes out with a nice crunchy crust and a lovely moist crumb that doesn't have as many wholes as I use only homeground organic flour and add a tablespoon of homemade malt for taste-improvement.... Did you know that you can make a lovely nutty malt by germinating soybeans (yellow, green and red azuki's) and then toast them in a slow oven, cool them and grind them?

Greetings from a (sigh) still rainy Spain... long, long winter here...

5/03/2007 2:30 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

To avoid having a crispy crust on the muffins, try cooking them in a dry skillet, something heavy over medium high heat, so they won't just burn. A heavy non-stick skillet works well. I've had some luck with this, but the dough might also need to be a little less sticky than the no-knead dough typically turns out, maybe a little less water.

5/17/2007 11:35 AM  
Blogger corrinie said...

I might have a solution for you.

I share your pain when it comes to fluffy English muffins...and being a former fan of the no-knead bread recipe, I too made the connection to try it as a muffin.

I began by searching for an Italian style bread recipe with a moist chewy interior, full of holes, much like the no-knead recipe but with a crust you can actually chew through. I found it. It starts with a biga. The recipe suggests letting the biga 'ferment' for 3-5 hours, but I actually let it go 24-36; the flavor greatly improves with a longer ferment.

The result is a chewy, holey, fabulous tasting muffin that isn't as crisp as the no-knead version and a bit easier to work with...but only a bit as it too is a very slack dough. I'll email you the recipe if you would like.

Corrin C. Phillips

9/15/2007 6:27 PM  
Blogger kitchenmage said...


Yes! We'd love the recipe. Please send it to us at ayearinbread (at) gmail (dot) com.



9/15/2007 9:39 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

I'd love to see it! Thanks!

9/16/2007 1:33 PM  
Anonymous David M. said...

Just a hint about the plastic wrap sticking to the dough: a quick spritz with cooking spray solves that problem, any residual grabbing can just be pulled away with the silicone spatula.

6/26/2008 5:53 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

I'm sure I did that, it's a reflex action.

6/26/2008 6:37 PM  
Blogger Our Piece of Country Paradise said...

I am eager to try to make english muffins with my Artisan bread in five minutes a day recipe. I have recently started using this method in the book in the recent months. I have been generally pleased with it. Baking bread has never appealed to me. I am a busy mother of three and it just seemed too time consuming and to finicky to deal with. But reading your )Kevin's) seemingly negativity toward this bread is discouraging to me. I have had some issues with the bread it doesn't keep well but it is a life saver to pull the dough out of the fridge at any moment and have some fresh bread in an hour. It keeps for 14 days in the fridge so it is just very convenient. Do all that to ask why do you seem to dislike this method so much? Are there no benefits of it in your mind? And it is just as easy to make from scratch fresh bread every day? I am just a curious why you seem to not like that bread method.

Thanks, Amy

2/16/2010 5:50 PM  

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