How did the doughnut get its name?

19 Mar 2020

Food + Drink

Doughnuts are a staple of bakeries all over the world, and these deep fried delicacies have been around for centuries. This National Doughnut Week, we took a look at where the name comes from.

How the doughnut got its name is a just-so story shrouded in mystery and surrounded by myth. There is no widely accepted version, but the stories surrounding the etymology of the deep-fried treat are as interesting as they are varied.

What is known to be untrue, however, is the myth that the name was invented during the First World War in America, as doughboys (foot soldiers) went “nuts” for the treat when the Red Cross distributed them. In fact, History magazine says that the name could stem from the foot soldiers being covered in white dust which made them look as if they were covered in flour. This National Doughnut week, let’s go back in time a little to look at the history of the doughnut and its name.

History of the doughnut

Dutch bakers had been making olykoeks (oil cakes) since the 15th century. When the pilgrims left England in the early 1600s, they learnt how to make them as they passed through Holland. They then left on the Mayflower for North America, taking the recipe for deep-fried dough with them.

It wasn’t until centuries later that the first mention of doughnuts in written literature appeared, with American Author Washington Irvine’s reference to them in his 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York:

“Sometimes the table was graced with immense apple-pies, or saucers full of preserved peaches and pears; but it was always sure to boast of an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called dough-nuts, or olykoeks: a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city, excepting in genuine Dutch families.”

The name of the doughnut

Here we move onto more speculative ground. Some believe that the Pilgrims called the small olykoeks doughnuts because as the dough balls were fried so quickly, the centre would never fully cook, resulting in a “doughy” centre.

The “nut” could be because the olykoeks looked like crunchy, wrinkly walnuts once they had been fried, whereas other sources say that it was because bakers added nuts to the dough to add flavour. There is also an old doughnut recipe where nuts were placed in the middle of the dough so that the middle would be full of nuts, rather than having that doughy, undercooked centre, creating the term dough-nut.

Regional variations

First popularised in the United States, they have kept the same name in pronunciation but the spelling is often simplified to “donut.” In some areas of Scotland, classic glazed doughnuts with a whole in the middle are referred to as “doughrings,” whereas the round filled doughnut retains its standard name. In Northern Ireland, ring doughnuts are sometimes called “gravy rings,” as gravy is an archaic word referring to hot cooking oil.

Twisted and glazed doughnuts in a long thin shape are called yum yums, but when we’re talking about the standard round filled doughnut, there aren’t too many name variations.

The modern day doughnut

Today, doughnuts don’t look at all like nuts and they are available in a plethora of different flavours; classic glazed doughnuts in either ring form or round, and filled doughnuts, which can be packed with chocolate, jam, custard, cream, or any filling you can think of!

Call us biased, but here at Hotel Chocolat we think chocolate is the best filling – and topping – for any doughnut. Why not have a go at making them yourself and melt down some of our chocolate – milk, dark or white – as a delicious glaze? Or, melt down our dark chocolate drops and whip them into cream and butter to make a mouth-watering ganache as a filling. It is National Doughnut Week after all!