Ten years. That’s how long I’ve been trying to make crumpets at home. When I lived in Scotland, I routinely bought packages of the thick, yeasted rounds at the grocery store, toasted them, and then slathered them with butter and jam or creamed honey. They reminded me of the English muffins I’d eaten growing up, but with their own charming features: exteriors that crisp up when toasted and moist, slightly elastic interiors full of deep holes that capture anything spread across them.
Making my own crumpets seemed logical when I moved back to the United States and realized that they’re not nearly as widely available. Plus, I figured homemade specimens would easily outclass the commercial ones. But even after trying no less than 15 recipes, I hadn’t made a single crumpet as good as one from the supermarket. The biggest problem? Their holes didn’t reach all the way to the top—and a crumpet without holes at the top is just a dense, yeasty, chewy pancake.
A holey honeycomb structure is a crumpet’s defining feature, and I was determined to find a way to reproduce it. And while I was taking on that challenge, I decided I would also figure out a way to skip using crumpet rings so that everyone could make these treats at home.
I started by mixing flour, baking powder, yeast, and salt with warm water until I had a thick batter. The two leaveners work in tandem to create a crumpet’s unique interior structure: Baking powder creates air bubbles when the batter is mixed, yeast causes the holes to expand when the batter rests, and both yeast and baking powder cause the holes to expand when the batter cooks.
I let the batter rest until it had doubled in volume, about 40 minutes. Following other recipes, I then added a little more water, though I didn’t yet understand the purpose of this second addition except that it loosened up the now-thick batter. Then, instead of portioning the batter into 3- or 4-inch crumpet rings set in a skillet, I poured about a third of it into an 8-inch nonstick skillet that I’d lightly greased and heated over a low flame for about 5 minutes. I kept the heat down as the crumpets cooked; every recipe I’d read called for a low‑and-slow approach. Subjecting the batter to at least 12 minutes of gentle heat allows it to cook all the way from bottom to top without burning the underside; plus, there is no need to flip the crumpet before the surface is dry, which would smear any uncooked batter into the holes.
This approach seemed promising: Bubbles rose to the top all over the crumpet and started to burst at the edges, a tantalizing harbinger of holey-ness to come. But after about 10 minutes, the bubbles in the center stopped bursting and I found myself busily—absurdly—popping them with a toothpick. However, this extra effort was all for naught: The batter in the center was still quite loose, so the holes just filled in. Desperate to cook the batter on top, I flipped the crumpets, which just pushed batter into the few holes that had formed.
I didn’t know what was causing the failure, so I tried tweaking every variable I could think of, including the hydration of the batter and the amount I poured into the pan. Nothing helped.
I’d dug deep when researching crumpet recipes, but I went back to look for anything that might explain why the center tunnels hadn’t made it to the top. I even enlisted my colleagues to do the same. That’s when Cook’s Illustrated intern Claire Toliver handed me a lifeline in the form of an obscure scientific paper she found online: D.L. Pyle’s “Crumpet Structures: Experimental and Modelling Studies.”
Contrary to everything I’d read, Pyle revealed that the biggest key to crumpets’ unique structure is not low heat but actually very high heat. It causes the water in the batter to convert rapidly to steam, which quickly expands the carbon dioxide bubbles and powers their upward expansion before the batter has a chance to firm up. (Also, much of the carbon dioxide formed during the rising phase is dissolved in the liquid batter, and the heat forces that carbon dioxide out of solution.) Now I understood the purpose of that second addition of water: Because it doesn’t have as much time to be absorbed by the flour, it provides “steam power” that facilitates the creation of the tunnels, giving the crumpets the appropriate light, spongy honeycomb structure. And according to the paper, crumpets should cook through in a mere 3 minutes, not 12.
With renewed hope, I mixed up the same formula, but this time I cranked the heat to high just after adding the batter. It was thrilling to watch bubbles rise to the surface and then break, leaving holes that remained open as the top dried out. But as soon as I smelled carbon and saw wisps of smoke emanating from the skillet—then lifted the crumpet to see its charred bottom—I knew I still had work to do.
Fortunately, I realized that the crumpets needed just a quick blast of heat to mostly establish the tunnels; Pyle’s paper actually notes that roughly 75 percent of the structure is established within the first 30 seconds of cooking. So I reduced the heat to medium-low after the first 45 seconds of cooking to avoid burning. The only drawback: Without high heat continuing to dry out the batter, the surface of the crumpet remained raw and loose, obscuring the holes. But I came up with two clever fixes.
First, I replaced a portion of the all-purpose flour with cake flour. Because the latter is bleached, its starch granules are better able to absorb water, and they gel at a lower temperature and set sooner, so there was less raw batter left after cooking. Second, I removed the teaspoon or two of residual raw batter by lifting it off with the back of a flat spatula, revealing the holes beneath, and then flipped the crumpet to thoroughly dry out the surface. (I returned the excess batter to the bowl for the next crumpet.)
Once they’d cooled, I cut the crumpets into wedges, toasted them, and then spread them with butter and jam. After 10 years, I’d found a way to make proper spongy, honeycombed crumpets. My own personal holey grail.