Every Thursday for the past quarter, seven of us have gathered in a Post conference room on a mission: Taste and judge doughnuts.
Sounds simple, right? Not so much. For one thing, before we started, we needed criteria. I insisted that we try as many doughnuts from as many places as possible, but that immediately presented logistical challenges: How would we manage such a quantity?
With doughnuts sold at bakeries, at restaurants high and low, and from delivery services and food trucks, we knew we had to narrow our focus. Our first decision: We would taste only from places in the Washington area where a customer could go most any day of the week to quickly and easily get some fried rounds to go. No ordering dinner and waiting for dessert (sorry, Palena). No waiting for Saturday and heading to a farmers market (sorry, Mac’s Donuts). And no places that serve pre-fab doughnuts made elsewhere (sorry, Starbucks).
When we counted what we had left, it was 24: Yes, two dozen shops that we could feature two at a time for . . . a dozen weeks of doughnuts. At the end of the first rounds, we would return to each shop and sample its winning doughnut against all the other winners for a grand decision about the best. Here’s how we pulled off and structured those tastings:
●On Thursday mornings, freelance writer Nevin Martell picked up the doughnuts, sometimes enlisting help from a Post staffer to manage the farthest-flung places. We bought three samples of up to 12 varieties. (Exceptions: In the case of our sole delivery-service contestant, District Doughnut, we were required to buy three dozen. In the case of our sole food truck representative, Mama's Donut Bites, we bought a dozen because they’re tiny.)
●We photographed, measured and weighed each doughnut and recorded its price.
●We evaluated each doughnut for appearance and then cut it into bite-size pieces (usually one-eighth of a doughnut) for tasting. We tried to make sure each taster got a bite that included every element of the doughnut, if possible.
●On tasting sheets marked with the name of the bakery and each doughnut, we also scored them on five criteria — dough, glaze/frosting, topping, filling, originality and overall — and wrote comments.
●The tastings were not conducted blind, but to prevent any undue influence from one judge to another, they were conducted in silence until judges recorded their scores. (We tried our best, but sometimes we were unable to restrain reactions: either moans of approval or grunts of despair.)
●Regular tasters were myself; Martell; deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick; staff writer Tim Carman; editorial aide Becky Krystal; and multiplatform editors Jane Touzalin and Jim Webster. Backup tasters were lifestyle/entertainment Web producer Marie Elizabeth Oliver and Weekend/Going Out Guide writer Maura Judkis. (One week we invited guest judge Penny Karas, owner of Hello Cupcake.)
●I plugged the results into what became a massive spreadsheet, figuring the average score for each doughnut and each shop, their prices per ounce, the average scores for each judge and more.
●The first rounds extended to 13 weeks (a baker's dozen) as we discovered new possibilities thanks to reader recommendations. We tasted from three shops one week when we realized Breadline sells just one variety.
●For the finale tasting, we all pitched in and fanned out, picking up four of the winning doughnuts from each of 26 shops (we would have been at 27 if Zeke’s DC Donutz hadn’t closed). If the first round’s winning doughnut wasn’t available, we bought the second-place doughnut from that shop instead; that switch happened at six places. In two cases — Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken and WTF — we resampled two doughnuts, because our initial tasting had yielded ties.
●We reweighed, rephotographed, remeasured, retasted, rescored. Nine tasters — all the regulars plus our two backups — took part.
●We entered the new results in the spreadsheet. I crunched the numbers to compare the first-round and finale-round scores, seeing which doughnuts rose and fell the most between tastings, and also used the price per ounce and judges’ scores to figure an overall price/quality score.
●Most important, we discovered that our winner was Astro’s creme brulee, barely edging out GBD’s chocolate-pudding-filled. By a mere tenth of a point.