Doughnuts have a disputed history. One theory suggests they were invented in North America by Dutch settlers, and in the 19th century, doughnuts were sometimes referred to as one kind of oliekoek (a Dutch word literally meaning “oil cake”), a “sweetened cake fried in fat.”
Yeast doughnuts and cake doughnuts contain most of the same ingredients, however, their structural differences arise from the type of flour and leavening agent used. In cake doughnuts, cake flour is used, and the resulting doughnut is denser because cake flour has a relatively low gluten content of about 7 to 8 percent. In yeast doughnuts, a flour with a higher protein content of about 9 to 12 percent is used, resulting in a doughnut that is lighter and more airy. In addition, yeast doughnuts utilize yeast as a leavening agent. Specifically, “Yeast cells are thoroughly distributed throughout the dough and begin to feed on the sugar that is present… carbon dioxide gas is generated, which raises the dough, making it light and porous.” Whereas this process is biological, the leavening process in cake doughnuts is chemical.
The physical structure of the doughnut is created by the combination of flour, leavening agent, sugar, eggs, salt, water, shortening, milk solids, and additional components. The most important ingredients for creating the dough network are the flour and eggs. The main protein in flour is gluten, which is overall responsible for creating elastic dough because this protein acts as “coiled springs.” The gluten network is composed of two separate molecules named glutenin and gliadin. Specifically, “the backbone of the gluten network likely consists of the largest glutenin molecules, or subunits, aligned and tightly linked to one another. These tightly linked glutenin subunits associate more loosely, along with gliadin, into larger gluten aggregates.” The gluten strands than tangle and interact with other strands and other molecules, resulting in networks that provide the elasticity of the dough. In mixing, the gluten is developed when the force of the mixer draws the gluten from the wheat endosperm, allowing the gluten matrix to trap the gas cells.
Now that we’ve covered the chemical makeup and processes of doughnuts, here is a recipe that I use to make donuts. You will notice it is a brioche dough that is then fried and can be finished any number of ways. My favorite is rolled in sugar and filled with cherry jelly.
1/3 cup milk, warm
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh yeast*
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6 ounces butter, softened
Vegetable oil, for frying
To make the brioche doughnuts: Put the warm milk in a mixing bowl (an electric mixer works best for this recipe–so if you have one put the milk in the mixer bowl). Sprinkle the yeast over the warm milk and allow it to dissolve. Whisk 1 egg and 1 cup of the flour into the yeast mixture. When the dough-sponge is smooth, sprinkle it with an additional cup of flour. Allow the dough-sponge to rise in a warm place until the top layer of flour cracks, about 30 minutes.
Lightly beat the 4 remaining eggs. Then, using the dough hook attachment of an electric mixer set at medium speed, or a wooden spoon, work the eggs into the dough. When the dough is smooth, add the sugar, salt, and remaining 1 1/2 cups of flour all at once. If using a mixer, start on low and gradually increase the speed as the dough comes together, mixing for a good 15 to 20 minutes. If you do not have a mixer turn the dough out onto a clean, floured work surface and knead until it is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticky. (Don’t be alarmed if the dough seems too wet. It will tighten up into nice, soft, elastic dough.) When the dough comes together, add the butter and mix for another 10 to 15 minutes.
Cover the dough with a clean towel and set it aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours. Stretch the dough to release some of the trapped gasses and redistribute the yeast, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Gently stretch the dough into a rectangle, then roll it out about 3/4-inch thick. Cut the dough with a doughnut cutter. Transfer the doughnuts to a floured board or baking sheet. Cover the doughnuts with a clean towel and allow them to rise in a warm place until they feel soft and fluffy, about 1 hour.
To fry the doughnuts: Heat 2 to 3-inches of oil in a heavy, high-sided pot over medium heat until the oil reaches 350 degrees F. Working in batches of 3 or so, drop the doughnuts into the oil and fry until they float. Turn the doughnuts over in the oil and continue cooking. Cook the doughnuts, turning them once or twice more as necessary, until they are uniformly browned, then transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
Until next time,