What Are Doughnuts? A Classic American Pastry

Let’s talk about that cloud-like confectionary dressed with velvety-smooth frosting and doused with sugary sprinkles. Yes, we’re talking about doughnuts—those heavenly pastries that may evoke heartwarming memories of the past and continue to satiate sweet cravings in America. That’s right, even to this day, the pastry’s popularity continues to surge, with the North American doughnut market expected to increase by $689.57 million from now until 2027.

So what is a doughnut and how did this dessert sensation come to be? Let’s uncover some “sweet” history of doughnuts, explore different types, and find out how to whip them up at home!

What Is a Doughnut?

To start with the basics, a doughnut is a sweet pastry that is usually ring-shaped—with a hole in the middle—and deep-fried to golden perfection. Some professional bakers will intentionally design them into oval shapes and fill them with light fruit fillings or custards. However, traditional doughnuts are often dusted with sugar or thicker frostings and sprinkled with an array of toppings—from coconut flakes and chocolate shavings to crunchy, colored cereal bits.

Close up of colorful yeast and cake doughnuts

A myriad of classic yeast and cake doughnut flavors you might find at a typical doughnut shop.

The Doughnut Origin Story

While doughnut-like foods can be found in the remains of many ancient tribes, the contemporary doughnut traces back to its Dutch origins in New Amsterdam (what is now Manhattan). Back in the 1700s, the original doughnut called “olykoeks” was a Dutch dessert that translates to “oily cakes”—a very fitting description.

It wouldn’t be until the 1850s that a ship captain would give these cakes their iconic hole in the center. The sailor was Captain Hanson Gregory, the son of Elizabeth Gregory, a New England woman who made her own version of olykoeks for her son and his crew, which happened to be a convenient portable snack. Captain Gregory gave an interview to The Boston Post 50 years later that detailed his use of a tin pepper box to give the doughnut its hole.

A Century Later…

Since the original doughnuts were first consumed by sailors, the sugary treat has become a cultural phenomenon—shaping the quintessential American “dessert” identity. The success of brands such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme shows just how popular fried dough treats have become.

But the modern landscape of doughnuts also includes new doughnut innovations from boutique eateries and pastry masterminds. For example, the popular Cronut®, conceptualized by the Dominique Ansel bakery in NYC, made headlines throughout the world when it was released.

Duck Donuts, originally located in Duck, North Carolina, has been churning out “duckadent” made-to-order doughnuts since 2007 and now has over 100+ locations across the United States! Fan favorites include salty and sweet “Bacon in the Sun,” and “Beach Ball” drenched in colorful sprinkles, vanilla icing, and a chocolate drizzle.

Other shops, such as Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon reinvented the classic doughnut with bold, unconventional flavors, such as its signature bacon maple bar. Sidecar Doughnuts in California has changed the doughnut landscape by offering the “world’s freshest doughnuts”—using only the most seasonal ingredients, like foraged huckleberries that make up Sidecar’s popular Huckleberry Doughnut.

Doughnuts vs. Donuts—Which Spelling Is Correct?

To keep it short and sweet, both spelling conventions are correct when it comes to referencing this pastry, but there’s a bit of history to unpack! Way back in the 1700s, the spelling was always “doughnut” but the shortened version started to surface in the 1800s.

The “donut” spelling really didn’t gain traction until Dunkin’ Donuts first opened in 1950, which inspired several more stores to follow suit. Today, there’s no real right or wrong way to spell it—it just comes down to personal preference!

Types of Doughnuts

Believe it or not, there isn’t just one type of doughnut, which is why texture can vary significantly. When you bite in, is it airy and porous or more cake-like and dense? Here are two variations you may come across.

Yeast Doughnuts

Noted as the original type of doughnut, yeast doughnuts are generally puffy and lighter in nature, which is the result of leavened yeast—similar to brioche bread. You might detect some tang from the yeast and notice the texture is a bit on the chewier side. Common doughnuts like twists, shells, and honey buns typically fall into the yeast category.

Glazed yeast doughnuts piled on a wooden cutting board

Warm yeast doughnuts that are pillowy and softer to the touch than dense cake doughnuts.

Cake Doughnuts

Cake doughnuts are becoming increasingly popular in doughnut stores because a) they taste like a sweet, dense cake and b) they’re slightly easier to make since yeast isn’t a factor. These crumbly treats are naturally leavened with baking soda and baking powder, which can impact the overall consistency! So what flavors fall into this category? Typically, classic buttery old-fashioned doughnuts or crispy apple fritters are defined as cake doughnuts.

Glazed apple fritter next to a green apple

A glimpse of sweet apple fritters—classic cake doughnuts with a dense texture due to the leavening agent of baking soda or baking powder.

How to Make a Classic Doughnut

If you have flour, yeast, sugar, milk, eggs, and oil, coupled with a few handy tools like a candy thermometer and rolling pin, you’ll be on your way to making classic yeast doughnuts!

A Recipe for Perfect Yeast Doughnuts

Here’s how you can make classic doughnuts in 10 easy steps:

  1. Heat milk until lukewarm, add yeast, and stir.
  2. Allow the mixture to sit until the yeast is bubbling.
  3. Beat the yeast mixture with the eggs, sugar, butter, and salt.
  4. Slowly add the flour and mix until the dough cleanly pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
  5. Grease a large bowl and place the dough into the bowl.
  6. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size, about one to two hours.
  7. Empty the dough onto a lightly-floured counter and roll it into a ½-inch thick sheet. Cut the doughnuts out using a cookie cutter or glass.
  8. Place the doughnuts on a floured baking sheet and let rise for about one hour.
  9. Heat oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat.
  10. Carefully add the doughnuts to the oil, while making sure to not crowd them in the pan. Once the bottoms are golden brown (after about one minute), flip the doughnuts over and cook for an additional 45 seconds.

Enhance Your Baking Skills in the Kitchen

When it comes to the delicious world of doughnuts, you can easily experiment with different types of textures and flavor combinations to satiate your burning sweet tooth. If you desire to explore how to assemble more classic pastries in the kitchen, have you considered online cooking classes? With 320+ courses, you can explore how to perfect a litany of recipes, from chocolate truffles to flaky croissants.

And if you’re ready to explore baking fundamentals and perhaps turn your passion into a career, consider enrolling in baking & pastry school, with on-campus and flexible online options available.

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This article was originally published on June 3, 2014, and has since been updated.

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