Finding historic muffin recipes is always a bit confusing, as no one seemed to be able to agree on the term “muffin” throughout history.
Early muffins were more like either modern-day English muffins or crumpets. They were typically made with yeast and cooked in a ring on a griddle. In the 1800s, more recognizably modern muffin recipes were developed, although they were often called “gems” instead of “muffins” (and for extra uncertainty, the term “gems” could also refer to a type of popover instead). This cookbook illustration from 1903 depicts both gem and muffin pans:
Although modern muffins usually include some sort of filler ingredient such as berries, nuts, or chocolate chips, many of the gem or muffin recipes I’ve seen from the 1800s are plain. I decided to try this recipe from Fannie Merritt Farmer’s 1896 The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook because it was the earliest muffin recipe I could find that included berries.
I followed this recipe exactly as written, and baked the muffins at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. The recipe made 18 muffins total; 12 in a muffin tin, and 6 slightly smaller ones made in baking cups since I didn’t have another tin.
From looking at the ingredient list, I thought at first that these would be exactly like modern muffins. However, I was a bit surprised that the directions tell you to cream the butter and sugar together, rather than using melted butter or oil like most modern muffin recipes.
It turns out that the recipe is not like modern muffins at all – it comes out much more like a dough than like a batter. The dough was thick enough that I was able to scoop it out of the bowl with my hands. It reminds me more of drop biscuit dough than of muffin batter.
The texture is definitely more like biscuits than like muffins – a little bit drier than muffins, which makes them great as a vehicle for jam or to have along with tea. If you wanted to make this more like a modern muffin recipe, you could try reducing the flour, melting the butter, or possibly adding another egg to make it more like a batter. For that true historic experience, however, make it as written and enjoy some blueberry biscuits!
Ayto, J. (2012). Muffin. In The diner’s dictionary: Word origins of food & drink. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Farmer, F. (1896). The Boston cooking-school cook book. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. Retrieved from https://n2t.net/ark:/85335/m51d4w
Smith, A. (2004). Breakfast foods. In The Oxford encyclopedia of food and drink in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.