What is a doughnut and how are the delicious treats made?

20 Mar 2020

Food + Drink

The delicious deep-fried delicacy comes to the fore every year for National Doughnut Week, and we’re going to take a look at how they’re made.

What comes to mind when you think of doughnuts? Is it the round, pillowy filled doughnut, drenched in sugar and stuffed with jam or chocolate? Or is it the ring with the hole, a glazed doughnut that glints in the light, inviting you to crack its sugary coating with your teeth?

To look at how doughnuts are made this National Doughnut Week, we first need to look at how we can define a doughnut. Is it the shape, the dough, the style or the flavour?

What is a doughnut?

Originally called olykoeks (oil-cakes in Dutch), the first doughnuts date back to the 15th century and were simply round blobs of deep-fried batter. Nowadays, when we think of the modern doughnut, it’s usually a choice between ring doughnuts and filled doughnuts, but now there are many contemporary twists on this classic fried treat: cronuts, beignets and churros have all come into the spotlight in recent years.

Pastry chef Dominique Ansel created the cronut in New York in 2013, and it is inspired by the doughnut, shaped like a ring doughnut but made with croissant pastry. A beignet, also called a French doughnut, is commonly served in New Orleans, but dates back as far as  Ancient Roman times: it is a type of deep fried batter, either with yeast-risen pastry or decadent choux pastry. Churros, delicious long tubes of deep-fried choux pastry, originated in Spain and Portugal and they are often dipped in hot chocolate or cafe con leche. But can they really be called doughnuts?

The Cambridge Dictionary states a doughnut is “A small, circular cake, fried in hot fat, either with a hole in the middle or filled with jam.” That leaves the cronut out, as it is baked not fried. A beignet is also out of the question, as it is neither a ring shape or filled. The churro is sometimes served in a ring shape, but its crunchy texture means it has none of the doughy, cakey texture expected from a classic doughnut. Delicious as they are, we will leave them to one side to contemplate another variation: the dough.

Different kinds of dough

Within our now officially-recognised filled doughnut and ring doughnut, there is still a variation in the dough used. Chemically raised doughnuts (or cake doughnuts) use baking powder as the raising agent, and the ingredients include flour, salt, eggs, milk, sugar, fat and flavourings. Resulting in a more cake-like texture, these doughnuts are sweeter in taste and denser in texture, and usually found as ring doughnuts.

The other style of doughnuts are made with yeast, and resemble more closely a bread dough than a cake batter. This takes much longer, as the batter needs to prove twice – once after the first kneading, and then again once the doughnuts have been moulded into shape. Most recently we’ve seen the rise in popularity of the sourdough doughnut, that creates a contrast between the tang of the dough and the sweet filling. You’ll find yeast doughnuts as both rings and filled doughnuts, and they are airier and less sweet than a cake doughnut.

Cooking a doughnut

Regardless of the type of dough, all doughnuts are cooked by being deep-fried in hot oil. There are some baked doughnuts that are increasing in popularity for home-recipes as they are easier to make and healthier, but according to the Cambridge dictionary, they cannot be called doughnuts!

Filling a doughnut

To make a filled doughnut, the round fried doughnut is covered in sugar – powdered or caster, depending on your preference – and the filling is piped into the centre. Try a jam filling to add some tartness, or melt some dark chocolate into a ganache and add a deep cocoa flavour and silky texture to the middle of your doughnut.

Decorating a doughnut

This is the fun part! If you’re a purist, cook the doughnuts and dip them in a glaze of powdered sugar and milk. Or dip it in icing and cover it in decorations; sprinkles, chocolate drops, or cocoa nibs if you want to add an extra crunch.

For National Doughnut Week, why not try making your own doughnuts at home? If you’re a chocoholic, add some cocoa into the dough mixture as well as filling it with chocolate. Then, use some white chocolate drops as a contrast for the decoration on top. The ultimate chocolate doughnut is at your fingertips.