The History of Donuts (and doughnuts) 🍩

The History of Donuts (and doughnuts)

Foods like doughnuts (or donuts) fascinate us. Obviously they’re delicious, but they’re so chronically bad for us it’s astonishing they’re legal. Think of Scotland’s deep fried Mars Bar as a shining bastion to such horror.

For donuts, we’ll take a look at the naming conventions later.

But for now we’re delving into the sickly sweet badness of these things to understand how they’ve become an international institution.

Donuts: The Basics

Right, before we get into the historical side of things… let’s cover some basics!

What’s a Donut?

A doughnut (or donut) is a snack made out of leavened fried dough—it looks like this 🍩 and it tastes like heaven in a sugary bun.

The Different Types of Donut

Yes, believe it or not there are different kinds of donuts. They include:

  • Raised
  • Ringed
  • Topping (think glazed, sugar, power, vanilla sprinkles, chocolate etc.)
  • Holed
  • Filled (such as with custard or jam)
  • Cake donuts
  • Fritters (such as the big apple fritter)
  • Tiger tails
  • Big cinnamon rolls
  • Donut holes
  • Malasada (a Portuguese version of flattened rounds zested with lemon, sugar, and cinnamon).
  • Éclair.
  • Powder Bavarian filled.

We could go on (but won’t). Fact is, the two most famous types appear to be the circular ones with the hole in the middle.

Or the fully formed ones covered with powered sugar (featuring custard in the middle). A delicious treat, no less! And one that’ll put hair on your eyebrows.

Are Donuts Healthy?

No. Although some donuts provide minor health benefits (such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin—vitamins readily available in far healthier foods) on the whole you’re just getting a load of trans fat, salt, and sugar.

And that should be pretty obvious to anyone eating these things. As an indulgent treat they’re fine, as a constant lifestyle choice they’re deadly.

A Circular History of Donuts

A type of donut dates back to the Middle Ages, with the cookbook Küchenmeisterei (Mastery of the Kitchen) first published in 1485 by Peter Wagner.

He was the printer, but no one has any idea who the author was.

Anyway, in the book there’s a recipe for a Gefüllte Krapfen—basically a fried dough cake. Right there, then, it’s clear this sickly treat has been around for a while.

However, the real history of donuts could date back thousands of years. Archaeologists often dig up fossilised bits of foods from pre-history that kind of look like donuts. Those have been found at Native American settlements.

As with many desserts, such as the glorious cheesecake, we’re looking at a complex and long history shaped by time and various cultures. What’s clear is:

  • Dutch settlers olykoek (a sweetened cake fried in fat) to New York in the early 18th century, which greatly resembled modern day donuts (minus the ring shape). And this introduced Americans to the thing for the first time proper.
  • In England, by 1750 a recipe for “nuts” was published in The Country Housewife’s Family Companion by William Ellis. This potentially triggering off the use of “nuts” for the foodstuff.
  • “Dow nuts” turned up in Hertfordshire, England, around the 1800 mark. This was in a cookbook by a human female married to Baron Thomas Dimsdale (yes, the Baron Thomas Dimsdale).
  • 1803 saw the first use of “dough nuts”, from an American cookbook called The Frugal Housewife: Or, Complete Women Cook.
  • Then in 1809 another American book, called A History of New York by Washington Irving, listed the “dough-nut”.

Nowadays we think of the donut as a quintessentially American snack, but it’s had a long old history around the world.

It’s the 20th century that truly defined it as iconic—there’s no denying the US did that pretty much singlehandedly, in part due to America’s war effort from WWI. As Smithsonian Magazine notes in The History of the Doughnut from March 1998:

“One likes to think that less was more. But in fact doughnuts didn’t come into their own until World War I, when millions of homesick American doughboys met millions of doughnuts in the trenches of France. They were served up by women volunteers who even brought them to the front lines to give soldiers a tasty touch of home. When the doughboys came back from the war they had a natu-ral yen for more doughnuts. (The name ‘doughboy.’ though, didn’t derive from doughnuts. It goes back to the relatively doughnutless Civil War, when the cavalry derided foot soldiers as doughboys, perhaps because their globular brass buttons resembled flour dumplings or because soldiers used flour to polish their white belts.)”

Donuts took off in popularity and inventors/chefs such as Adolph Levitt invented donut machines doon after. That was in 1920 in New York, an invention that was soon bagging him $25 million a year.

Levitt was a refugee from Tsarist Russia who served donuts from his bakery, often to theatre/cinema crowds who’d stumble out of a show wanting a snack. They hassled him to speed up his baking and, there we go, he made the machine.

And that was pretty much the turning point.

Donuts en masse! Scary, huh?

These days there are mass donut chains such as Krispy Kreme, which suddenly started popping up in Manchester, England (where we were living at the time) in 2012. The donut revolution is unstoppable. Be still our beating hearts.

Do You Call it a Doughnut or a Donut?

Either doughnut or donut is fine. But the etymology on this is clear—doughnut was the first name attributed to the snack, with a written recording first appearing in an 1808 short story by in a January 8th edition of The Times in Boston, Massachusetts.

Donut first cropped up in writing back in 1900 in a work by American author George W. Peck. In the work Bad Boy and his Pa, Bad Boy rants:

“Pa said he guessed he hadn’t got much appetite, and he would just drink a cup of coffee and eat a donut.”

However, these days it appears the preferred spelling in the US is donut… is it, dear American readers? It’s certainly the spelling us lot (here in England) automatically head to.

Doughnut seems archaic.

And according to our research, donut didn’t become the preferred spelling until the 1950s. Since then it’s become the spelling of choice. Not least forwarded by popular chains such as Dunkin’ Donuts.

Donuts Around the World

Different cultures, different varieties of the things. That also leads to all sorts of words to call a donut a donut. Here are some of the most intriguing:

  • China: Ngàuhleisōu (牛脷酥) and saa1 jung (沙翁) constitute dishes in the West we’d most associate with a thingy (donut). There’s also a chewy one called a shuangbaotai (雙包胎) that has the nickname the horse hooves. Guess why that is!
  • Cambodia: Here we have nom kong (នំបុ័ងកង់), with “kong” in Cambodian meaning “wheel”. You see where that’s going.
  • United Kingdom: Donut (with a posh British accent)
  • America: Donut or doughnut
  • India: There are a variety here, including the gulgula and the Balushahi. Many of these are heavily spiced and are served with coconut chutney (which sounds rather fab).
  • Indonesia: There’s a potato donut out there called the donat kentang. It’s made from mashed potato! Bodger & Badger!
  • Greece: The distinctive loukoumas (λουκουμάς) are what’s going on here, which are soaked in syrup and are super sticky as a result.
  • Japan: This is the an-doughnut (あんドーナッツ), one of the most aesthetically pleasing things out there. It’s made out of bean paste. Japanese donuts are often also adapted to meet kawaii (cute) culture standards, if you note the video at the top of this section.
  • Jupiter: It’s unknown if there are donuts on Jupiter.

Yeah, so if you ever thought donuts were pretty straightforward things… no. The enormous list of national differences and intricacies is too big to fit onto this page here, unless you want 20,000 words to read.

If it’s piqued your interest, though, go and have a look online.

But global cuisine is such they become a delightfully unhealthy menace whichever corner of the world they occupy.

How to Make Donuts

Glorious madman Gordon Ramsay is on hand to help YOU make some donuts. Which can help burn off some calories before you gain 17,000 of them by eating a few of the things.

Follow Ramsay’s instructions above. But the ingredients you’ll need for the dough are:

500 grams of strong white bread flour
60 grams of sugar (try to contain your amazement on that one)
15 grams of fresh yeast
4 eggs
zest 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons of fine sea salt
125 grams of softened unsalted butter
2 litres of sunflower oil
Sugar (for dusting)

As you can see, the more sugar the better. And the more oil the better. Just deep fry those SOBs up and you’re good to go.

Donuts in Popular Culture

Homer Simpson’s relentless lust for donuts is a big deal in The Simpsons. His obesity, and gluttonous personality issues, make him an ideal candidate for donut addiction.

But yeah, really the only thing we can think to add here is The Simpsons.

That’s not us being lazy, it’s simply the show and Homer Simpson are so heavily identified with the humble donut there’s nothing else to add.

Addendum: Behold the First Donut in Space!

Last but not least, if you’ve got a spare two hours you can relive the 2015 flight of this intrepid donut into space.

This was launched by a pair of Swedish brothers (Alexander and Benjamin Jönsson). Once it returned to Earth they actually ate the thing. Excellent non-food wastage there.

For the record, the foodstuff travelled some 62 miles (100 kilometres) above our planet. It returned to Earth and was recovered by the Swedish Sea Rescue Society.

The intrepid duo used a weather balloon to get it up there. Alexander explained:

“I’m really into space and photography, and I used to play around with weather balloons back in school. Then we had the idea that we should send something really crazy into space and thought, ‘Hey, nobody has ever sent a doughnut up before.'”

Congrats to those two for this most mesmerising of feats.


Dispense with some gibberish!

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