Donuts (or doughnuts, pick your poison) are no longer just for Homer Simpson and your neighborhood cop. Gourmet donuts have swept the nation as the next food fad. Could they even *gasp* replace cupcakes? Let’s make the case, shall we?
Donuts are replacing cupcakes on the cute scale. (Although which is cuter is all up to the eye of the beholder)
Donuts have also inserted themselves into many areas of culture. Fashion, for example has begun to use donuts in many of its ad campaigns. Food and fashion have always intersected, but donuts are even being emulated in fashion designs and in street fashion.
Convinced? Maybe? Well donuts are also super cool from a chemistry perspective! Of course donuts can be all kinds of fried dough, but the most prevalent donuts in America are the cake donut and the yeast donut. What exactly is the difference among the cake and the yeast donut?
First, an explanation of frying is required. Frying is a mass transfer phenomenon. In other words, when you drop something into oil, something really awesome happens. The oil is hot enough to heat the water to a boiling temperature. As the steam rushes out of the food, it creates a vacuum pulling oil into the product. The oil is also hot enough to create an environment similar to an oven. It “bakes” the product from the outside creating Maillard Browning reactions and also from the inside after the oil rushes in replacing the evaporating water.
Just a side note: I do not fry things often (aka ever) because a) I have a fear of frying my face off and burning my apartment building down and b) the smell lingers forever. So be careful, and always have candles around!
Okay now that we have that covered, let’s look at cake donuts versus yeast donuts.
Yeast donuts are the more classical type. They are classified by a fluffy inside and soft, tender outside. The dough’s lift comes from yeast and the structure depends on gluten development. Because of this, the donut dough requires more care. First the yeast needs to be hydrated so special attention is required to keep it happy. (Check out the yeast explanation here!) Second, in order to begin the gluten formation, the dough needs to knead for a few minutes. It’s not as high maintenance as bread, but just a little push to help the structure out works wonders! And finally, because you’re using yeast, you have to let the dough rise. I know it sounds exhausting, but don’t worry! It’s worth it. Because, donuts!
Cake donuts are much easier and all the rage in home baking because they don’t have to be fried. Cake donuts have a firm outside and a tight crumb on the inside. They have more of a batter consistency sometimes, and yep! You can bake ‘em! Instead of yeast, chemical leavener such as baking soda or baking powder is used to create some rise in the product much like a cake. Those are activated by water and heat to create carbon dioxide. Because the gluten is not as important for the interior structure of the doughnut (like cake), you don’t have to mix the donut dough/batter for long. In fact, you are encouraged to mix it just long enough to combine the ingredients to keep the crumb tender.
Classic Yeast Donut
Adapted from Food52
Makes 2 dozen large donuts
The first recipe is the yeast donut. Feel free to get creative with the shapes or glazes. I used a cup and a shot glass (I know all of you have those) to cut the donut shape out. Obviously a donut cutter works great, and you can also use different shapes like a square (great for filling) or a heart! For the glazes, I did a lemon glaze, a huckleberry glaze, and a simple glaze with pistachios. The recipes follow the donut recipe.
1 ½ cups whole milk (or, alternatively use skim milk with a couple tablespoons of heavy cream)
1/3 cup water
4 tablespoons butter
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 pinch nutmeg
1 pinch cinnamon
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon or 1 ½ dry yeast packets
2 large eggs
Vegetable oil, for frying
1. In a saucepan, heat the milk, water, and butter until the butter has melted. Let the mixture cool until just warm to the touch (around 100⁰F). Sprinkle the yeast on top of the mixture and let sit for several minutes or until you begin to smell the yeast. This hydrates the yeast.
2. By hand, mix the flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the milk mixture and mix to combine. Add the eggs, scraping the bottom of the bowl. Place the bowl on the stand mixer and mix on medium speed with the dough hook until the dough pulls easily away from the sides of the bowl. The top should look rather smooth like this:
3. Oil a large bowl and transfer the kneaded dough to it. Don’t worry, it should be rather sticky. Set in a warm place for an hour to let it rise.
4. About 20-30 minutes before the dough finishes rising, pour oil into a large pot (around 5 inches tall) and set a fryer/candy thermometer on the side of the pot. I used a cast iron dutch oven. The cast iron keeps the heat rather constant and makes it easier to keep a frying temperature. Heat on medium/high until it reaches 360⁰F.
5. When the dough is done rising, roll half of it out to a ½ thickness using some extra all-purpose flour. Use your cutter or cup/shot glass and cut your donuts out gently. Add flour if it is still too sticky. Make sure that you pay attention to your dough. If it gets too tight and no longer pulls easily, it is overworked.
6. Prep your draining station. In a large glass baking dish or large sheet pan, pile layers of paper towels. This is where you will put your donuts following frying to drain the excess oil off.
7. When the oil is hot enough, place a donut hole or scrap into it to check. It should rise to the top of the oil within 20 seconds. If it browns too quickly, turn the heat down.
8. Fry your donuts/donut holes in batches. Use a slotted spoon, spider, and even a spatula (not a rubber spatula) to flip the donuts over halfway through. The donuts should be a nice golden brown, but feel free to check the inside of them after the first couple of donuts finish frying.
9. Finish the donuts after they cool slightly. You can either dunk the tops in a shallow pool of glaze or pour over the top if you have a rack.
Original glaze—mix ¼ cup powdered sugar, a splash of vanilla, and a splash of milk together. Add milk until desired consistency is reached.
Pistachio—following dipping donuts in original glaze, dip the top in finely chopped pistachios (I used roasted/salted because it adds a nice contrast of flavor to the sweetness)
Lemon—mix ¼ cup powdered sugar with 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice. Adjust for consistency.
Huckleberry—mix ¼ cup powdered sugar with 1-2 tablespoons huckleberry jam. Adjust consistency with a splash of water depending on jam consistency.
Chocolate Cake Donut Holes
This second recipe is the cake donut. I did not change anything about the recipe, so click on the link to check it out! Some words of caution however:
I used vanilla bean paste rather than vanilla extract. They substitute at the same ratio. If you feel like getting really fancy, 1 tablespoon vanilla extract = 1 vanilla bean (=1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste)
The chocolate dough will not look like it will come together when you add the wet and dry ingredients together. Keep stirring! It will happen. Do not use a spoon that may be on its last legs. My spoon broke.
Begin to heat your oil when you place the dough in the fridge to rest. Both should take around 30 minutes.
Do not make your holes too big! By the time the middle is done, the outside is overdone.
Because the dough is chocolate, you will not be able to tell when they are done. Use the first couple of donut holes to get your bearing on when they’re done.
I do not have a rack, so if you don’t either, when you glaze the donut holes it is fine to place them on a paper towel to harden slightly. The bottom won’t be as pretty, but it will work fine.
Beware the addictive qualities!
Also, donuts do not keep well, so enjoy them the same day you make them.
Top photos from Cherry Bombe, Hummingbird High, Chanel, BlogSpot, Tumblr, Brides.com, The Gunny Sack, thegloss.com, thehousethatlarsbuilt.com