Sourdough muffins

Muffins are one of my favourite tea-time treats, but the ones you buy in the shops are often heavy and disappointing. A friend who, like me, has been baking sourdough bread during lockdown mentioned that they were easy to cook, so this week I tried them out. They are indeed easy to make and you can use the sourdough starter you discard when you’re refreshing it. All the recipes I found online suggested that you needed to add dried yeast too, but yeast has been as rare as hen’s teeth in supermarkets so I thought I would experiment with just relying on my starter.

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The results exceeded my expectations – the muffins (English muffins for anyone reading from across the pond) have an almost fluffy, toothsome crumb and delicious sourdough flavour. They proved exceedingly popular, disappearing even faster than a fresh loaf of sourdough bread. So I’m writing this post primarily to remind myself of what I did so that I can make them again.

My starter is drier than many, following my brother’s formula (probably originally derived from Richard Bertinet) of 50g flour to 30ml water. If your starter is 50/50 flour and water you may need to adjust the amount of water in the recipe accordingly. I make quite small quantities of starter as I only bake bread once a week, but refresh it about twice a week. Each time I put the discarded starter in a separate jar in the fridge, and then use it for baking crackers – and now muffins.

I used strong white flour without thinking and then realised that many recipes specify plain flour, so next time I will try a 50/50 mix and see how that works. Most recipes also seem to include milk or milk powder, but I didn’t have any, and the results seem to be just fine without it. I may experiment with the adding milk if I have any in the fridge next time around. This quantity makes a dozen muffins.

  • 120g sourdough starter discard
  • 420g strong white flour
  • 30g butter
  • 1 dstsp sugar
  • 220ml warm water
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • semolina or polenta for dusting (about 2 tbsps)

I started in the late afternoon by mixing together 120g of the starter discard with 120g flour and 90ml of warm water. I covered the bowl and left it to get going for a few hours. Mine took about 4 hours to start showing signs of activity, but how long it takes will depend on how old your starter is, how warm it is in the room and other variables. If your starter discard is still very active you could probably skip this step and move straight to mixing the dough (using the full quantity of flour and water). Mine was a bit sluggish and I have learnt the hard way that baking with a sluggish starter is a sure route to disappointment.

The next step is to rub the butter into the remaining 300g flour, just as you would for making scones. I did this by hand but in the bowl of my mixer, so that I could knead the dough using the dough hook. You could use the mixer to incorporate the butter, and doing the whole thing by hand would be equally fine. Scoop the starter mixture into the flour and butter. Dissolve the sugar and salt in the remaining 130ml of warm water, add that too and mix everything together well. Now knead it until it comes together into a fairly firm, elastic dough. Put it into a bowl, then into a plastic bag and pop into the fridge overnight.

In the morning, pull the dough out of the fridge as soon as you wake up (I know, baking does weird things to your morning routine). About an hour later the dough should be starting to wake up and look a bit lively. Now you need to shape your muffins. Prepare two baking sheets by sprinkling them with the semolina or polenta.

I couldn’t follow the method of rolling out the dough and cutting out the muffins as you would scones, as I don’t have a plain 7cm/3in cutter, and my attempt to use a suitably sized glass didn’t work. Instead I shaped the muffins by dividing the dough into 12 pieces and briefly kneading each piece into a muffin shape. I read that you get a better rise if you use a cutter to stamp out the dough, and you would certainly get a more uniform shape than my slightly wonky ones. Lay the muffins out on the two trays as you go, sprinkle the tops with semolina/polenta, then cover with a tea towel and leave to prove for around 45 minutes. They should visibly puff up and relax.

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When they’re nearly ready put a heavy frying pan or plain (not ridged) griddle on to heat  up on a medium setting. Once it’s well heated, put the first batch of muffins in (unless you have a big griddle and can do all 12 at once). After about 10 minutes – keep an eye on them, as they may need a little less or more time – they should be ready to turn over. The bottom should become firm and browned, the top will dome a little and therefore be a bit less brown, while the sides stay softer. I found mine needed 10-11 minutes on the bottom and 8 minutes on the top. Put on a cooling rack while you cook the second batch.

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Now use a fork to pull the muffins apart, slather with good butter and eat greedily. My timings mean that the muffins will be coming off the stove in time for morning coffee! I can recommend mature cheddar and apricot jam (separately) as excellent adornments.

You can keep them wrapped in a paper bag for a day or two (if you can stop yourself eating them) or freeze them. They are most delicious eaten while still warm, so if you’re eating them later warm them through in the frying pan or griddle. I warmed the top and bottom for a couple of minutes, then split them and warmed the crumb too.

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