Food Manual: Doughnuts

“How do I make doughnuts?” you might ask. I have various pages dedicated to fried doughs like doughnuts and churros, but I think it’s time to accumulate all of the knowledge I have acquired about making, frying, and embellishing beautiful doughnuts. This will become your fried dough manual. Everything you “knead” to know in one place. (Click on the pictures to see the recipes.)

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Ultimate Soft Doughnuts With Simple Glaze

The Power of Gluten

Gluten manipulation is the key to making great, personalized doughnuts. Knowing how physical contact and ingredients effect your doughnut will be the difference between light, airy doughnuts and dense, rich doughnuts. (Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to have light, rich doughnuts you’ll learn why soon.) Gluten is the result of gliadin and glutenin binding in the presence of water. These two proteins are the reason that gluten is sticky and elastic.

If your goal is to make cake doughnuts, then you will want to have only small amounts of gluten formation because the carbon dioxide from baking soda and baking powder do not have enough time or enough strength to “inflate” the elastic gluten molecules. If too much gluten is formed then the doughnut will be tough in the areas that the gluten did not fully expand. Yeast risen doughnuts have the ability to utilize extensive gluten networks because the yeast is constantly producing more carbon dioxide. Yeast doughnuts are very similar to balloons in the sense that their gluten is constantly being expanded by gases. Overexpansion of the gluten will result in the gluten breaking, much like balloons that are overinflated.

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Cinnamon Vanilla Cake Doughnuts

Kneading is a Double-Edged Sword

Kneading is very complicated business. The key to successful kneading is to stretch (push) about 1/3 of the dough away from your body then to fold (pull) the dough back upon itself. Rotate the dough slightly and repeat until gluten structure is in place. It seems simple enough, but it really is a delicate balance. The right balance exists somewhere between the Mountain of No Rise and the Abyss of Broken Gluten. Putting your foot into either of these zones isn’t deadly, but if you find yourself lost in either place you may be in trouble.

The first extreme is underkneading. This is much more common than overkneading. The result is that the gluten network isn’t sufficiently formed. This greatly reduces the amount that the doughnuts will be able to rise. Usually, underkneading is the result of muscle strain or just being unaware of how much kneading is required. Overkneading is the opposite. It has many symptoms. In the case of cake doughnuts, the end result will be slightly tough. In the case of yeast doughnuts, the gluten strands will begin to break. This means that your doughnuts will not be able to rise as effectively because the gluten is shredded. Overkneading is the result of being a bit too eager or if you’re a fan of appliances being too far removed from what you are cooking.

For yeast doughnuts: As you knead the dough, you will notice that in the beginning of the kneading, each time you stretch the dough it will go a little further. However, there is only so far that to the dough will go. The goal is to continually stretch the dough until it no longer goes further. If you notice that the dough is beginning to break at shorter stretches than earlier on in the kneading process, you need to stop immediately.

The best method for determining if you have the gluten network in place is the window pane method. Begin by taking a small glob of dough from the main doughnut dough. Gently stretch the dough, rotating after each pull. Well-developed dough will be able to spread very thin without breaking. If kneading is done really well, you should be able to see through the thin dough window.

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Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice

Now that we’ve covered kneading and gluten we can take a step back and visit the issue of what goes into the dough. At this point you have a tough decision to make. Do you want a light, airy doughnut or a dense, flavorful doughnut? There is no way to have both because sugars and fats inhibit the formation of gluten. If you think about your local doughnut shop, you’ll no doubt realize that the actual doughnuts themselves are relatively flavorless. They, usually, rely on the frostings and fillings to carry the taste.

Why can’t sugar, fat, and gluten exist together peacefully? Well fats have a nasty habit of coating the individual gliadin and glutenin proteins. This coat stops them from interacting with water. Sugar has a high affinity for water, so it competes with the flour proteins for bonding to water. It’s almost like a military pact to sabotage gluten’s army from reaching optimal strength. Sugar and fat are the most valiant soldiers that gluten will ever encounter.

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Caramel-Apple Doughnuts

Molding and Shaping

There are a variety of options for molding doughnuts. You can make your doughnuts with holes in the middle, as spheres, funnel cake style, or even waffle shaped. It is possible to make traditional doughnuts without a doughnut cutter. I have found that if you roll out the dough then cut the dough into strips about 6 inches long by 1 inch wide then you can connect the ends to create a circle. Next gently push on the top of the doughnuts to cave in the sides of the doughnut until the hole in the middle is the size you want it to be. If you find that you are having trouble molding the dough because it is too sticky, then freeze the dough for about 15 minutes before handling. This will temporarily (for as long as it stays cold) alleviate the stickiness.

Also keeping the shape of the doughnut can be troublesome when you are about to put the doughnut in the oil. A tip to avoid misshaping the doughnut is to coat your hands in a little bit of oil before you pick up the doughnuts. This stops the dough from sticking to your hands, which will ensure that the shape remains the same.

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Classic Doughnuts

Frying Doughnuts

Have you ever wondered why we fry things with oil? Why not water, milk, juice, or alcohol? This might seem like a simple question, but other than tradition what reason is there for frying with oil? The reason for oil is twofold. The first reason is that the boiling point of water and alcohol are much lower than the boiling point of oils because the sum of the intermolecular attractive forces between oils are stronger than those in water. Because water is unable to reach temperatures about 212F it would take a very long time to cook things. Especially compared to vegetable oils, which easily obtain temperatures in the 400F area without smoking.

The second reason is that water based liquids will make the object being cooked soggy. A simple observation you might say. My response will be: Why does water cause food to become soggy, but oil create a crisp texture? The answer to this question is polarity. Put simply, fats are hydrophobic (not attracted to water). The primary components in most foods are proteins, starches, and water. These components are all hydrophilic (attracted to water). Hydrophobic and hydrophilic molecules are like cops and robbers. They don’t get along too well. Thus frying fats don’t pass the outside layer of most foods that are fried. Thus with proper frying technique, the end product will not be greasy and oily because the oil will not want to associate with the food being fried.

I don’t care what any recipes tells you. If you follow the recipe, and the end result isn’t fully cooked then you have to alter it. This is a problem I ran into when I first began getting into doughnut making. Most recipes call for 350F and higher temperatures, but when I was frying my doughnuts the inside was not completely cooked through. Cooking times and temperatures depend on the size of the doughnut and your stoves ability to maintain temperatures. My recommendation is to start at the temp suggested for the first doughnut. If the inside of the doughnut is not completely cooked through then you need to lower the temperature. As annoying as this might sound, temperature regulation is essential for delicious donuts.

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Mexican Chocolate Doughnuts

The Fixins

What to add to the doughnut is a matter of personal preference. You can add simple confectioner’s glaze, powdered sugar, chocolate ganache, or the fruit of your choice. The sky is the limit. The most important thing is to enjoy yourself. Also don’t forget the possibility of fillings!

P.S. This is my first food manual post. If you have any suggestions, feedback, or recommendations leave a comment or email me. I’m constantly trying to improve the site and I am very responsive.