1. Make the dough starter: Mix the flour, water, and yeast for the starter in a small mixing bowl. Beat until the batter is smooth and glossy, about 100 strokes.
2. Let the starter sit 1 to 12 hours: Cover the starter and place it out of the way for at least 1 or up to 12 hours. The starter will become increasingly bubbly the longer it sits and will double in bulk. The longer you can let the starter ferment, the better the flavor and structure of your finished English muffins.
3. Whisk together the milk, yeast, and starter: In the bowl of a stand mixer or large mixing bowl, combine the milk and yeast for the dough. Scrape the starter into the bowl and use a whisk to break it up and dissolve it into the milk. It should become quite frothy.
4. Mix the dough together: Add the sugar, butter, and salt to the bowl and whisk to combine. Add 3 cups of the flour and stir with a stiff spatula until you form a shaggy, floury dough.
5. Knead the dough: With a dough hook on a stand mixer, knead the dough until it comes together in a smooth ball, 5 to 8 minutes. Alternatively, knead by hand against the counter. If the dough is very sticky like bubble gum, add extra flour as needed, but err on the side of caution. The dough is ready when it forms into a smooth ball and springs back when poked; it will feel slightly tacky to the touch, but shouldn't stick to the bowl or your hands.
6. Let the dough rise overnight in the fridge: Transfer the dough to a large bowl lightly filmed with oil. Cover and place in the fridge overnight or for up to 3 days.
→ Quicker English Muffins: You can also let the dough rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, and then make the muffins immediately. These muffins will have a milder flavor.
7. Divide and shape the muffins: Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Use a pastry scraper to divide the dough into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece gently against the counter to shape into smooth, round balls.
8. Transfer the muffins to a baking sheet to rise: Scatter cornmeal generously over a baking sheet and arrange the balls on top, spaced a little apart. If you have muffin rings, place them around the balls at this point. Sprinkle the tops of the balls with more cornmeal.
9. Let the muffins rise until puffy: For dough that was refrigerated, this will take 1 1/2 to 2 hours; for room temperature dough, this will take about 1 hour. Depending on the size of your muffin rings, the muffins may not totally fill the rings — that's okay.
10. Warm a skillet: When ready to cook the muffins, warm a large skillet over medium heat. Melt a small pat of butter — enough to just coat the bottom of the pan and prevent sticking.
11. Cook the muffins 5 to 6 minutes on one side: Working in batches, transfer a few of the muffins to the skillet — allow an inch or so of space between muffins and do not crowd the pan. If using rings, transfer the muffins with their rings to the pan. Cook until the bottoms of the muffins are golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes.
12. Flip and cook 5 to 6 minutes on the other side: Flip the muffins and cook the other side until golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes. If you prefer thinner, less puffy English muffins, you can gently press the tops with the spatula to prevent them from rising too much.
13. Adjust the heat as needed: If your muffins seem to be browning too quickly on the bottoms (or not quickly enough), adjust the heat as needed. (If you find that your muffins are browning too quickly, throw them in the oven at 350°F to finish baking through.)
14. Finish cooking all of the muffins: Transfer cooked muffins to a cooling rack. Continue working in batches until all the muffins have been cooked. Add a small pat of butter to the pan between batches to prevent sticking.
15. Split and serve! Split the English muffins with a fork, spread with butter or jam (or both!), and eat. English muffins will keep for several days in an airtight container on the counter and are fantastic warmed in the toaster oven. Fresh English muffins can also be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil, and kept frozen for up to 3 months.
Vegan English Muffins: Replace the milk in the main dough with water, almond milk, or soy milk. Replace the butter with olive oil.
Crumpets: Increase the milk by 3/4 cup — this will make a looser dough, closer to a batter. Instead of shaping muffins by hand, allow the batter to come to room temperature after refrigeration, then drop generous spoonfuls onto a hot skillet, using English muffin rings as molds. Allow to cook until bubbly (like pancakes), then flip and cook the other side.