The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a doughnut as
- A piece of sweet fried dough that is often shaped like a ring
- Something that has a round shape like a doughnut
Although they come in a variety of shapes and flavors, American doughnuts are typically round in shape, often with a hole in the center. Made of fried dough and eaten as a snack or desert, everyone has tried them at some point. The dough part of the name is straight forward, but what does the nut refer to? Is it the ring shape, similar to a nut and bolt, or does it refer to the ingredients used long ago but since removed?
Origins of the Doughnut
Most sources suggest that fried dough treats were first introduced to the US when Dutch settlers ended up in Manhattan. They ate a cooked dough called olykoeks or oily cakes which were made by dropping spoonful's of dough into pork fat.
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Why are they now called Doughnuts?
The origin of the name of doughnut is up for debate. Some believe it refers to the nuts that were added to the dough to add flavor. Others believe that the name comes from a recipe where by hazelnuts or walnuts were placed in the center of the cake as that part rarely cooked properly. Placing of the nuts in the middle of the dough avoided having an uncooked center. A third thought is that related to the shape of the doughnut. The dough was often tied in a knot style, a dough knot evolved into doughnut.
The use of the word doughnut in written form dates to the beginning of the 19th century. One recording being Washington Irving's reference to doughnuts in his 1809 Knickerbocker's History of New York.
Why do doughnuts have Holes?
Like the name, the origins of the hole in the doughnut is up for debate. One of these refers to the problem of the center of the doughnut not cooking properly. The outside of the cake cooked faster than the center resulting in a raw doughy middle. By removing this center the problem was removed.
Another idea for the hole was simple convenience. During the growth of the popularity of bagels in New York, doughnut makers copies the shape of a bagel for ease of display. Bagels were stacked on wooden dowels for storage and customer viewing.
The Smithsonian Magazine suggests that the American Hanson Gregory claimed to have invented the ring-shaped doughnut in 1847. During his time at sea he was unhappy with raw center of round doughnuts. He claimed to have punched a hole in the center of dough with the ship's tin pepper box, and to have later taught the technique to his mother Elizabeth..
Why are they so Popular?
The popularity of the American doughnut is evident at the number of doughnut shops that can be found on street corners, train stations and towns all over the country. The Dunkin Donuts websites states 'there are more than 11,300 Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants worldwide and more than 8,000 restaurants in 41 states in the US, and this is just one company. Becoming part of American culture, doughnuts have become an eat any time food. The popularity of this cheap, sugary cake was added by the development of machines able to churn out doughnuts at a much greater speed than handmade ones. The first doughnut machine has been credited to Adolph Levitt a refugee form Russia. He invented a machine that churned out 80 doughnuts per hour, all identical. People would flock to see their doughnuts being made in person and eat them fresh off the machine. As time went on machines were developed to produce the cakes faster and some stores still have the production on display in their stores.
Their popularity increased during the first World War when Salvation Army girls began cooking doughnuts for the soldiers. These girls became known as the doughnut girls and hey used whatever means they had available to roll, cut and fry the dough. The Salvation Arm websites explains that the doughnut became the symbol of all that it was doing to ease the hardships of the frontline fighting man.
During the Depression the doughnut was cheap enough for most people to access and became a cheap sweet treat. Over time they have continued to grow in popularity and have become the go to convenient breakfast, snack or treat.