The doughnut is a food item that is rooted in tradition. The list of fried dough items from across the world is quite impressive. It seems that just about every culture has a different variation of a fried dough item that they fancy. Ask for a doughnut in Europe, chances are that you will be handed a jelly-filled Bismarck (or Berliner). In New Orleans, a beignet.
The initial hurdle that you must overcome as a doughnut consumer is the memory of the first doughnut that you ever had. I look back fondly the cinnamon sugar doughnuts that my mother used to make for as a kid, and yet I’m sure that if I tasted them now I would be disappointed. Sorry mom, my standards have changed.
A doughnut should be judged by the same criterion as any other pastry. Things like crumb, colour, and proper frying all factor into making a pleasurable doughnut experience. Taste and texture are easily ruined by incorrect temperature or length of fry time. An average fry time for a doughnut is under two minutes, which is incredibly short in comparison to baking pastries. It’s very easy to undercook, or overcook the doughnut leaving the outer crust hard and oily and the inside far too dense.
The fry medium adds complexity to the process as well. Oil is absorbed into the doughnut affecting flavour. It is very important to choose a shortening that is right for the style of doughnuts that you make. Beignet makers swear by cottonseed oil, whereas most modern companies use Canola/Palm combos that are virtually flavourless and are free of the EVIL transfats. Personally I love lard, but don’t use it in my own shop because of the stigma attached to using animal fat. There’s a reason that McDonald’s switched over their fry medium away from animal fats, but it wasn’t necessarily the most delicious choice.
A bartender friend of mine once taught me a basic rule for building a good cocktail. Two parts strong, combined with one part sweet and one part bitter make for delicious beginnings. I’d like to think that there is a formula for making the perfect doughnut. As a general rule I think it smart to have the base of the doughnut have twice as much flavour as any of the toppings. Typically a topping will involve a sweet element (glaze or frosting) and some sort of textural addition, whether it’s sprinkles, nuts, etc.
Adding new flavours to classic doughnuts is a tricky endeavor, because you don’t want to ruin the allure of the doughnut style that you have chosen to work with. There is a fine line between adding complexity and depth of flavour to the doughnut, and just piling ingredients on top to create the illusion of something gourmet. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and ruin a classic doughnut in order to create something different.