After tasting so many doughnuts, we spotted a few patterns, and we learned what’s crucial to positive outcomes. Herewith, our Ten Commandments of Doughnuts for those who make and sell them:
I. Fresh is best. (And warm is a bonus, of course. We appreciated the places that cooked to order.) If you still have doughnuts unsold at the end of the day, give them away or use them to make new desserts, such as bread puddings and other confections.
II. Keep the oil clean and replace it often. Nothing kills the flavor of an otherwise nicely fried glazed doughnut quicker than rancid oil or, heaven forbid, oil that tastes of other, non-doughnut items.
III. Grease, though, isn’t the word. Or it shouldn’t be when describing a doughnut. That means you must keep the oil hot enough for proper frying, and you must properly drain the thing. A little bit of oil on our fingertips, mouths and/or napkins is expected; a lot is off-putting.
IV. Speaking of frying, make sure you’re neither undercooking (leaving a gummy texture) nor overcooking (drying out). Timing, obviously, is crucial.
V. Cake vs. yeasted? Our panel had its biases, reinforced by so many bakeries’ decision to use the same packaged cake doughnut mix. If you’re going to offer both kinds of doughnuts, don’t whiff on the dense side.
VI. We said it regarding cupcakes in 2008, and it bears repeating. Learn to walk before you run. Perfect a simple doughnut before you start getting all fancy. The more intricate and involved your flavor combinations, the more room for error.
VII. Use high-quality ingredients, because we can taste the difference. That may apply to toppings and fillings even more than to the dough itself. Give us real chocolate — real, deep, dark chocolate — and we’ll love you for it. Make jam filling from real fruit and sugar, not the contents of a Sysco-delivered vacuum pack. If you’re going to use maple, make it the actual stuff that was once in a tree. (You do know that’s where maple syrup comes from, right?) Pastry creams and custards are simple to make from scratch, and they elevate a doughnut immeasurably.
VIII. Speaking of filling, make sure there’s enough in there, and distribute it evenly. Whoever first invented square doughnuts with filling in the corners (was it Doughnut Plant in New York?), we’re forever grateful.
IX. Size matters. A doughnut that is richly filled and/or topped can be a tad smaller. Consumers will appreciate it — and maybe even buy two, for sharing. The novelty of going big can work, as long as it’s well executed (see Nothing but Donuts’ Dinosaur glazed). And don’t cede the doughnut-hole operation to the double D folks; the holes can be a vehicle for test-driving new flavors.
X. Don’t forget eye appeal. We don’t need every doughnut to look fanciful, but it should be decorated — or at least glazed — with care. And don’t think your work stops once you finish making the doughnuts. The more involved your toppings, the more carefully you need to box up those doughnuts so they arrive at their destination looking close to as good as when they left your shop. Two previously beautiful doughnuts can look like road kill when mashed up against each other in a hastily packed container.