The best doughnuts are the freshest doughnuts, and the freshest doughnuts are the ones you make yourself.
That’s true for all doughnuts but especially true for yeasted doughnuts. When you bite into one that’s freshly fried, the soft, gently elastic dough yields in a way that feels satisfying and indulgent even before you taste just how buttery it is, and the glossy glaze dissolves in your mouth without a trace of graininess. Those ephemeral qualities won’t just satiate your craving for sweets; they’ll delight you—and ruin your taste for anything that’s more than a few hours out of the oil.
That’s what happened to me, and it’s why I spent the better part of two months sweating over my ideal yeasted doughnut formula. I rolled, cut, and fried my way through cloyingly rich doughs and leaner ones with bready chew; battled gas bubbles that made the doughnuts puff up—and deflate—like balloons; and learned that the pale ring that forms around the doughnut’s midsection is a sign of a properly risen, light doughnut. The results—as iconic as what you’d get from the best doughnut shop, but fresher—were worth it. Plus, knowing that I can churn out pro‑caliber sweets has been so empowering that I’ve since wondered, as Homer Simpson famously did, if there’s anything doughnuts can’t do.
Yeasted doughnuts are made from bread dough enriched with fat, sugar, and dairy. You stir together flour, sugar, and yeast in a stand mixer; moisten the dry ingredients with milk or water and eggs and mix to form a cohesive mass; work in salt and softened butter (waiting to add the salt and fat allows plenty of gluten to develop); and knead until the mixture forms a satiny dough. Then you let it rise for as little as 1 hour or as long as overnight; roll it out to about ½ inch thick; cut out rings (or rounds, if you’re filling them); let them rise again; and deep-fry them. Last comes the sweet part: glazing or frosting them and then filling them with jam or cream if desired.
The trick was calibrating how enriched the dough should be to produce moist doughnuts with light chew and restrained sweetness. Getting it right was largely a question of how much fat, sugar, and water I added in relation to the flour, so I started by making doughnuts from four classic doughs that span a range of richness and sweetness: brioche; challah; American sandwich bread; and the plush, feathery Japanese milk bread called shokupan, which contains more fat and gluten than ordinary sandwich bread.
Butter made up nearly half the brioche dough, which explained why its doughnuts fried up heavy. The leaner, lower-hydration challah and sandwich formulas were dry. The moderately rich, relatively wet milk bread dough yielded moist, airy doughnuts, but their crumb was too chewy. And when I fried them, those aforementioned air bubbles left gaping holes between the crust and crumb.
Making more tender doughnuts was simply a matter of minimizing gluten development: I switched from bread flour to all-purpose, which contains fewer gluten-forming proteins, and boosted the sweetness and fat in the dough (both of which interfere with gluten development) by adding a bit more granulated sugar and using all milk instead of a combination of milk and water. And I did away with the big gas bubbles by slightly lowering the dough’s hydration: Less liquid made the crumb tighter, so the gas bubbles that formed during fermentation couldn’t grow big and coarse. Ultimately, I landed on a formula that made a drier dough but doughnuts that were still moist and tender.
Before glazing, frosting, and filling the doughnuts, I thought about how the timing of the first and second rises affected when the doughnuts would be ready to eat. If I wanted them for breakfast, I didn’t want to spend the better part of the morning waiting for the dough to rise, so I mixed up more dough, let it rise at room temperature for an hour (to jump-start yeast activity, which would slow down in the fridge), and refrigerated it overnight. This cold fermentation step built more convenient timing into the recipe and allowed the dough to develop more complex flavor and its gluten to relax so that it was pliable. I easily rolled out the chilled dough into a 10 by 13-inch rectangle and then stamped out 12 rings with 3- and 1-inch cutters.
The drawback to working with chilled dough was that the doughnuts took 2 hours to rise at room temperature, so I sped up the process by setting up a loaf pan with boiling water on the bottom rack of my oven and the doughnuts and their holes (set on a parchment-lined baking sheet) on the middle rack. In the steamy environment, the doughnuts puffed up in about 30 minutes.
During that time, I heated 2 quarts of oil to 360 degrees in a roomy Dutch oven (a wok would also work well), where I could fry four doughnuts at a time. When I placed them in the oil, the rings floated calmly like inner tubes—no messy splatter—for about 60 to 90 seconds per side. I fished them out when they were golden brown with pale rings around their midsections—a visual cue that the dough had risen properly and expanded evenly during frying—and transferred them to a rack to cool slightly while I mixed up the glaze.
Confectioners’ sugar and hot water produced a thin, opaque fluid that dried sheer; those ingredients also made a satiny base for my chocolate, coffee, and matcha frostings. And as an homage to Homer Simpson himself, I made a vivid magenta raspberry frosting and topped it with rainbow sprinkles. (To make jelly and Boston cream, I dropped the oil temperature to 330 degrees, since frying at a lower temperature for a bit longer ensured that the hole-less rounds cooked through, and I piped in raspberry jam and pastry cream, respectively.)
The kitchen looked like a proper doughnut shop: pillowy rings, rounds, and holes embellished in more than half a dozen sweet, colorful ways. Making and eating them made me feel like a pro—and so happy.