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The History of Doughnuts

The history and legends behind the origin, name, and shape of doughnuts.

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Iced doughnuts in a cardboard box
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The origin of the doughnut is heavily debated. The concept of fried dough is not exclusive to one country or culture and variations of the doughnut can be seen across the globe. Although the exact place, time, and person responsible for creating the doughnut are unknown, there are a few events in the history of the doughnut that stand out.

The Dutch Doughnut

Record shows that the Dutch were making olykoeks, or “oil cakes,” as early as the mid 19th century. These early doughnuts were simply balls of cake fried in pork fat until golden brown. Because the center of the cake did not cook as fast as the outside, the cakes were sometimes stuffed with fruit, nuts, or other fillings that did not require cooking.

As Dutch immigrants began to settle in the United States, they continued to make their olykoeks, where they were influenced by other cultures continued to morph into what we call doughnuts today.

The Doughnut Shape

One solution to the gooey, uncooked center of the doughnut was to stuff it with fillings that did not require cooking but Hansen Gregory, an American ship captain, had another solution. In 1847 Gregory solved this problem by punching a hole in the center of the dough ball. The hole increased the surface area, exposure to the hot oil, and therefore eliminated the uncooked center.

More colorful versions of Gregory’s invention of the doughnut hole include him impaling a doughnut on the ship’s steering wheel so that he could use both hands to steer, or the idea for the shape being delivered to him in a dream by angels. However Gregory came up with putting a hole in the middle of his olykoek, he is the man credited with inventing the classic hole-in-the-middle shape.

The Name “Doughnut”

The origin of the name “doughnut” is also highly debated. Some say it refers to the nuts that were placed inside of the ball of dough to prevent the uncooked center while others claim it refers to “dough knots” which were another popular shape for the olykoeks.

The first written record of the word “doughnut” is in Washington Irving’s 1809 publication, A History of New York. By the early 1900’s, many had shortened the word to “donut.” Today, “doughnut” and “donut” are used interchangeably in the English language.

Doughnut Automation

In 1920, Russian born immigrant Adolph Levitt created the first automated doughnut machine. The futuristic automated donut making process was featured at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. The Fair advertised doughnuts as “the food hit of the Century Of Progress” and they became an instant hit across the country. Doughnuts have been a favorite breakfast and comfort food for Americans ever since.

Doughnuts Today

Large doughnut chains like Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts have reigned supreme in the donut world for the past few decades but as the “botique foods” trend continues to grow, doughnuts are not being left behind. Specialty shops making homemade doughnuts with unique flavors and toppings are cropping up in major cities across America. Maple and bacon doughnuts, doughnut ice cream sandwiches, and even hamburgers on doughnuts instead of buns; it’s clear that doughnuts aren’t just for dunking anymore.

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