muffin of the month, january 2016: muffin history

previous monthly muffins: 

11/15, pumpkin streusel | | 12/15, gluten-free sweet potato

It’s easy to say that muffins were “invented,” but in fact, they weren’t. Bread was invented. When and how bread came to be is an entirely different blog post.

Bread is a universal food, and everything from doughnuts to muffins to biscuits to that childish “bread dough” I used to make by soaking a hunk of bread in my wet mouth, those are all variations on the world’s oldest baked good. Even beer comes from bread, an accidental discovery in ancient Mesopotamia when John in marketing mis-calculated how much flour they needed and ended up hammered on the conference room floor.


But how did American* muffins come to be?

*American and English muffins are different. One is yeasted and cooked on a griddle, and the other is superior in every aspect. That one is made of batter, then baked in the oven in cupcake pans.

As far as the etymology goes, “muffin” began appearing in print in the early 1700s (1703) and recipes showed up half a century later (1747.) Some sources say the word comes from French moufflet, meaning “soft” in reference to bread, while others say it comes from a German word muffe, meaning “cake.”

Hannah Glasse is credited with the recipe in her cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Although the American and British breads are now completely different, a look at culinary history tells us this was not always the case. At some point between the 1800s and now, American muffins became more cake-like, sweeter, and deeper. Old American culinary sources describe muffins as small cakes**, or poundcakes baked immediately in “snowball cups.” At first, American muffins were relatively uniform: flour, rye, or bran, with apples, dates, raisins, and/or nuts. In the late 1900s, only a few decades ago, we went muffin crazy: they blew up in size and people started adding all kinds of new flavors (I guess I’m 45 years late to this party.) Modern American muffins, so ubiquitous a pastry, were the cronuts of the late 20th century.

Think about that the next time you throw your cronut against the wall to see if it makes the poof sound.


**Maybe the subject of a future Monthly Muffin, but there are vast differences between cake/cupcakes and muffins now. More on that later this year.

In short:

American and English muffins are like chimpanzees and orangutans: they come from the same ancestor but are now as different as chimpanzees and orangutans…or as American muffins and yeasted biscuits.


Cheerio, y’all,

Nick P.



Olver, Lynne. Food Timeline FAQs. 3 January 2015.

Categories: Breads, food history, muffins