Savoury muffins, two ways

Over the past fortnight I’ve been making savoury muffins for breakfast. I don’t like sweet breakfasts, especially on a work day, and these savoury muffins are probably healthier than a big bowl of sugary cereal (I hope!). They take about 40 minutes to make and are portable, making it easy to grab one on the way out of the door in the morning. I make them on a Sunday evening and they last 4-5 days in an air-tight tin (which works out well since we get free bagels at work on Fridays anyway!).

Savoury muffins, two ways
Savoury muffins, two ways

This recipe is inspired by both Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s column on savoury muffins and Heidi’s Pumpkin & Feta muffins over at 101 cookbooks.

I’ve listed two variations: a butternut squash & feta muffin, and a more indulgent red onion, pancetta & cheddar muffin. Use the basic muffin recipe as a jumping-off point, to explore various additions according to your tastes. I imagine an olive and sun-dried tomato muffin (with or without feta) would be brilliant. And a chilli-pepper-sweetcorn combination is on my list to try.

A quick note on the flour : I use one cup of regular all-purpose flour (not self-raising flour, since I add baking powder separately) and one cup of spelt flour. It’s nuttier and healthier. Feel free to use two cups of regular flour, or a mix of whatever flours you have to hand.

An aside on the chemistry of muffins

There are two chemical reactions you need to think about when making any baked good: leavening and the formation of gluten. Leavening causes the muffin to rise, and gluten–formed when the flour meets water–holds the muffin together.

Unlike unleavened products (chapatis, shortcrust pastry etc) we want our muffins to rise in the oven, so we add a leavening agent. A rule of thumb is to use 2 tsp of baking powder or 1/2 tsp of baking soda for each cup of flour. (I’ve also seen other rules of thumb that call for half this amount–you’ll have to experiment with your individual flour mix + baking powder combination to see what works best.) If you add more than required, perversely, the product could rise too much and “pop” in the oven, resulting in a heavy, sunken cake or muffin. For a batter that is non-acidic simple baking powder will do. If you incorporate an acidic element (say yoghurt, buttermilk, sour cream, or lime) then you need to substitute some of the baking powder with baking soda instead to neutralise some of the acid. Here is a much more detailed explanation, but a simple rule is–use baking powder if your batter is neutral, substitute half the baking powder with the required amount of baking soda if your batter is acidic. Remember that 1tsp of baking powder = 1/4tsp of baking soda.

These chemical reactions begin in your mixing bowl, as soon as the dry and wet ingredients make contact. So before you mix them, make sure your oven is preheated, the trays are greased, and work quickly with a light hand.

For those of us who are lucky enough not to be allergic to gluten, it’s a brilliant “glue” that holds all our baked goods together. As soon as the flour hits the water, proteins in the flour “grab on” to each other in an elastic fashion. The more you work the dough, the more gluten is formed (here’s an excellent article if you’d like to learn more). This is why as you knead the dough, you feel it becoming more like putty, and when you pull it apart it takes on the quality of bubblegum. We might want that for a chapati or pizza, but we definitely don’t want that for a muffin. Instead we want a little gluten to be formed, to hold the muffin together, but we want the muffin to stay moist and aerated. Many recipes call for a large amount of butter or vegetable oil to add back this moisture which is lost in the process of gluten-formation. Instead, I prefer to leave it out, using milk, and the fillings to keep it moist. If you go down this route, remember that working quickly is key and don’t over mix the flour with the wet ingredients. Pour the wet mix into the flour with the fillings, combine until mixed (30 seconds) and then place in the trays!

Savoury muffins, two ways

For the muffins

2 cups flour (see headnotes)
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
Butter to grease the baking trays

Butternut squash & Feta filling

2 cups butternut squash (or pumpkin), cubed
100g Feta cheese, cubed
30g Parmesan or Cheddar, grated
1 large handful spinach, chopped
2 tablespoons mixed herbs: Coriander, or Parsley
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, or sunflower kernels
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil

Red onion & Cheddar filling

1 cup Pancetta (optional)
1 red onion, sliced
1 cup Cheddar
A handful of chives, chopped finely
Cooking oil (if you’re not using the pancetta)

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt in a bowl. In a separate jug or bowl, beat the eggs lightly along with the milk and set aside. Cook the fillings as follows and allow to cool.

Butternut squash & Feta muffins
Season the butternut squash with salt and pepper, and drizzle with some olive oil. Mix well. Place on a baking tray in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes, until fully cooked. Once fully cooled, combine in a bowl with the spinach, herbs,  and sunflower seeds.

Red onion & Cheddar muffins
Red onion, cheddar & pancetta muffinSauté the pancetta in a pan, if using, and drain with paper towels. Meanwhile, in the same pan cook the onions until soft. Once fully cooled, combine the onions in a bowl with the pancetta, Cheddar, and chives.

To make the muffins
Add most of the cooled filling to the bowl with the flour, followed by the eggs & milk. Stir (lightly; see headnotes) to combine, and then spoon into muffin tray. Top with the reserved filling. Bake for 15-18 mins until fully cooked. A skewer inserted into the muffins should come out clean.
Cool and store in an airtight tin.

Prep time: 15-20 min; Cook time: 15-20 min. Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s column on savoury muffins and Heidi’s Pumpkin & Feta muffins

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