It's easy to wax poetic about doughnuts. Whether they're light as air and melt in your mouth or caky and sugarcoated, ready to dunk, who can pass up a fresh one? The best are made by hand with wholesome ingredients. Even the ones that start with a mix - and those include your Krispy Kremes and Dunkin' Donuts - still taste pretty good, to be honest. It's fried dough.
For me, the perfect yeasted doughnut has been freshly fried, its brioche crumb offering the gentlest chew. It is completely coated with a glaze that is just set, and flecked with vanilla bean. The problem is getting to the bakery at exactly the right moment to snag it. So, here's the plan: DIY doughnuts.
As Tiffany MacIsaac, chef-owner of Buttercream Bakeshop in Washington, says of tackling DIY doughnuts, "If a freshly fried, hot doughnut isn't something you consider a bonus, I don't even know what to say."
All right then. Let's make doughnuts. We think we've cracked the code to make it achievable for home cooks.
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A yeasted or raised doughnut requires a properly rested dough, hot oil and patience. The dough itself needs enough fat, typically from eggs and butter, to help it expand in the hot oil, while the oil has to be hot enough - but not too hot - to achieve that golden-brown exterior. Patience is the glue that holds it all together, letting the dough properly rise to ensure the best texture and allowing the oil to heat up or cool down to the right temperature.
Even though making the dough is obviously the place to start, getting over the Fear/Hassle of Frying is often the first hurdle. Luckily, the executive pastry chef for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group has a plan for that.
"Clear everything off the counter before you start frying," says Naomi Gallego. "Dale Earnhardt doesn't have stuff on his dashboard."
Being accustomed to working in a professional kitchen, Gallego knows that preparation is key. When she recommends having a fire extinguisher handy, it is because she likes to avoid potential problems. Bottom line: Don't be afraid to fry doughnuts. It's less trouble than frying chicken, and it doesn't require a vat of oil or even an electric fryer. A couple of quarts of canola in a pot you have on hand - a wok works particularly well - and a thermometer is all that's standing between you and doughnut heaven.
Moving on, or really, back to the beginning of the process: The day before you want to fry the doughnuts you'll need to make the dough, so it can ferment slowly in the refrigerator. Can it take as little as six hours? Yes. But longer is better.
The dough itself, based on a classic brioche recipe of mostly flour, eggs and butter, will come together in just 30 minutes - and that includes 15 minutes for the yeast to proof in warm milk. Your first brush with patience, and a twinge of concern, will come in this step, as the butter is added in three parts to the flour, yeast, vanilla bean scrapings and eggs already in the bowl of a sturdy stand mixer. The mixture will seem too wet, almost like a cake batter. Do not lose heart. Let the machine, fitted with a dough hook, do its magic.
After 10 minutes, aided by scraping the bowl a few times, that soggy mass will meld into a supple, slightly sticky ball.
"When that dough comes together, it's a thing of beauty," Gallego says.
Patience will again be a virtue when it's time to proof, or ferment, the dough. There are a lot of variables, she says: "Humidity, the type of flour, the temperature in your kitchen - you may not always get exactly the same result every time, but sometimes it's the variables that make the most delicious doughnut. I want my doughnuts to look handmade, not like they came out of a machine."
Fermenting yeasted dough requires little supervision. The just-mixed dough rests for about 30 minutes in an oiled bowl at room temperature - covered with plastic wrap to keep a skin from forming - and refrigerated overnight, up to 15 hours. That slow, chilled fermentation is crucial to the process for doughnuts that will puff up and have an evenly tender interior.
The next morning, allow the chilled dough to rest for a few minutes before rolling and cutting. For home cooks, Gallego recommends rolling the dough into a rectangle and then using a square cutter. This will yield fewer scraps (rerolling is not optimal for this doughnut dough) - although some mighty tasty spinoffs can be created with them, as you'll see in the accompanying recipe.
The final proof can, alas, take an hour or two - and that's sad only because you're so close to having fresh doughnuts, you can almost taste them. Your commitment to patience will pay off because a properly proofed doughnut - it should hold a slight indentation when gently pressed and just about double its height - yields a light result when fried. So get up early, cut the doughnuts and then go have some coffee and check your news feed.
Both Gallego and MacIsaac offer tricks for home cooks that can help get those yeasty darlings fried just right.
* Let the doughnuts rise on individual squares of greased parchment paper. Once it's time to fry, you can slide both the doughnut and its parchment into the hot oil, and then remove the paper with a pair of tongs. That way the doughnut will hold its shape; otherwise, trying to move it with a spatula might deflate it before it hits the oil.
* The reason a wok works so well is that its wide expanse gives the frying doughnuts room to expand, yet its belly is shallow enough for doughnuts to slip in and be easily retrieved.
* You'll need a thermometer - preferably one that clips to the side of the pot - so that you can keep an eye on the oil temperature.
While Gallego typically fries doughnuts at 350 degrees, MacIsaac prefers to heat her oil to a maximum of 340, which will drop about 10 degrees after she adds a batch of doughnuts; this keeps her frying oil temperature in the 320- to 330-degree range. She also suggests turning the burner on and off as needed to modulate the oil while frying.
For the home cook who might be frying two or three doughnuts at a time, it's better to err on the side of keeping the oil slightly cooler, about 330 degrees. We found in testing this made the frying less scary - no hot spatters.
* Flip, and flip. Repeat. Fry for a few seconds on one side (once the paper has floated free), then gently turn the doughnuts over. Gallego likes to use a small wire skimmer and distribute four turns over a total of four minutes. (In testing, we found gas and induction burners required different timing and turns; see the annotated recipe.) Transfer the doughnuts to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet to cool for a bit.
* Glaze while they are still a bit warm yet cool enough not to collapse under the weight of that gloriously thick liquid sugar. The glaze should be at room temperature, and total coverage is nonnegotiable. So dunk the doughnuts, one at a time, turning them to coat on all sides. Set them back on the rack to drain.
* The last bit of patience requires you to wait till the glaze has set, which can take up to an hour. This may become too torturous, however, so eat at will.
And then there's the midriff.
As they fry, the doughnuts will, or won't, develop a narrow white band that runs around the circumference; it's the "midriff" to Gallego and a "bikini line" for MacIsaac. Whichever part of the anatomy it recalls, for pastry chefs, that delineation signals the true sweet spot in proofing perfection - a doughnut that went into the oil at exactly the right moment. MacIsaac suggests putting the proofed doughnuts in the refrigerator to chill for 10 minutes before frying, as a way to help them hold their shape and possibly yield that perfect midriff when they hit the oil.
"The sexiest thing is that doughnut midriff," Gallego says with a happy sigh.
Although the midriff is a worthy aspiration, it absolutely won't make or break the flavor of the doughnut as long as everything else has gone right.
"The goal is to strive for perfection," MacIsaac says. "But don't let perfection be the enemy of just getting in the kitchen and cooking. I've never had a freshly fried doughnut I didn't love."
Neither have we.
6 steps to better doughnuts
Homemade doughnuts can become more than an occasional treat - once you know the tricks of the trade.
FRYING (AND OIL): Sometimes the amount of oil that is needed for frying doughnuts - or anything else - can seem intimidating, especially when you aren't sure what to do with it when you're finished frying. The simple answer is that you can reuse the oil for future frying, usually several times, if it's properly stored.
First, be sure to keep the original container; if you don't have it anymore, then you can use a large glass jar with a lid. After you've finished frying, remove any large bits of fried debris, cover the pot, and let the oil cool back down to room temperature. Place a funnel lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter on top of the oil container and strain the oil into it. Seal and store in a cool, dark place or, in hot weather, in the refrigerator. To dispose of the cooking oil, chill it in the refrigerator so it solidifies, then discard with your garbage.
FREEZING: You can freeze both the dough and the fried, unglazed doughnuts. For the dough, cut out the doughnuts, let them proof (along with any scraps), place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and freeze until solid, then store in the freezer in plastic zip-top bags. Let them defrost completely at room temperature before frying. For the cooked doughnuts, follow the same freezing process, then defrost fully and microwave on LOW for 10 seconds before eating.
STORING: It's not often you hear this, but glazed doughnuts are best kept in the open air to keep them from weeping or becoming soggy. Doughnuts can hang around (as if!) for up to two days, placed on a baking rack to provide complete air circulation. You can pop them in the microwave for 10 seconds to perk them up.
TIMING: Depending upon your cooktop and whether it's gas, electric or induction, you may have to adjust the frying times. Bottom line, you're looking for a golden brown exterior, and this may take anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes per side, so keep a close eye on the doughnut while it's frying and pull it out when you've got the optimal color. Test the frying time with a couple of scraps or doughnut holes first; keeping the oil temperature between 325 and 350 degrees should help keep the doughnuts from going over to the dark side.
GLAZING: You'll want to make a lot of glaze - about double what you think you need - to coat each doughnut completely. It won't go to waste and can be refrigerated for months. The flavor is easy to change up by adding fresh citrus zest, substituting lemon or other types of fruit juice for the water or adding fresh herbs and spices.
FLAVORING: The accompanying recipe makes a double batch of dough and yields a few scraps, so you may like to try savory applications, too. (The small amount of vanilla bean in the dough does not skew sweet.) You can toss just-fried doughnuts or holes with olive oil or melted butter, Parm and crushed red pepper flakes, or make a monkey bread.
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Instead of glazing the warm doughnuts or holes, dip them briefly in melted, unsalted butter then roll in grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Pinch scraps or extra dough into walnut-size balls; dunk them in a mixture of extra-virgin olive oil and fresh chopped herbs (such as rosemary and thyme), then pack them loosely together in a greased baking dish - like monkey bread. Drizzle more of the herbed olive oil on top and sprinkle with Parm. Let them proof/rise for 20 to 30 minutes, then bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes; they're done when a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve warm.
Instead of coating the individual balls of dough in an herbed olive oil, bake them plain in a greased baking dish at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, then brush liberally with your favorite barbecue sauce. Continue to bake for another 20 minutes, until browned and cooked through (use the same tester method for doneness). Serve warm, with more barbecue sauce for dipping.
Vanilla-Glazed Brioche Doughnuts
24 servings doughnuts, plus holes
Yeasted, glazed doughnuts are otherworldly when made fresh at home, and these are some of the best we've tried. Their vanilla flavor really comes through. Frying them is less trouble than you might think.
A kitchen scale makes the dough easier to put together. You'll need a 3-inch doughnut cutter and a small cutter for the center holes; we found in testing that you'll have fewer scraps to reroll when you use a square cutter or a sharp knife and a ruler to measure 3-inch squares. You'll also need an instant-read thermometer.
You'll probably freeze half the dough and fry a batch of 12 doughnuts plus holes; the remaining dough can be kept in a freezer-safe zip-top bag with as much air pressed out of it as possible, for up to 2 months. The glaze can be refrigerated for up to several weeks; bring to room temperature and stir or beat to make smooth again before using.
Scraps or the rest of the brioche dough can be given a savory treatment; see the VARIATIONS, below.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rise twice; the first time, for 6 to 15 hours (preferably overnight), then for 1 to 2 hours after it has been rolled and cut. The glazed doughnuts are best eaten the same day they are made, but they do hold up for a day stored, uncovered, at room temperature. The frying oil can be cooled, strained and reused.
Adapted from a recipe by Neighborhood Restaurant Group executive pastry chef Naomi Gallego.
For the doughnuts
227 grams whole milk (1 cup)
21 grams (2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon) dried yeast, preferably SAF brand
21 grams warm water (105 degrees; 2 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon)
750 grams flour (5 1/2 cups plus 2 1/2 tablespoons), plus more for rolling
113 grams granulated sugar (1/2 cup)
14 grams kosher salt (2 1/2 teaspoons)
Scrapings of 1 vanilla bean (may substitute 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste)
3 large eggs plus 5 large egg yolks (about 240 grams total)
285 grams unsalted butter (20 1/2 tablespoons), at room temperature
2 quarts vegetable oil, for frying
For the glaze
About 5 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 to 3/4 cup hot tap water
Generous 1/2 cup vanilla extract
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Scrapings of 1 vanilla bean
For the doughnuts: Warm the milk in a small saucepan over low heat, to 105 degrees. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle the yeast over the milk and add the water; let the mixture sit for about 15 minutes. It will thicken.
Combine the flour, granulated sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the yeast mixture, vanilla bean, eggs and egg yolks; beat on medium-low speed to form a shaggy mass with no visible dry ingredients.
Add the butter in three additions, waiting until each one is well blended before adding the next. Beat until the dough looks somewhat smooth.
Switch to a dough-hook attachment. Beat/knead on medium-low speed for 10 minutes; the dough should look smoother still, and most of it will gather around the dough hook. To see whether gluten has developed, take a golf ball-size piece of dough and stretch it gently between your thumbs and first two fingers on both hands. If it doesn't break or tear and stretches enough to create a somewhat transparent swath of dough, it's good to go. If not, beat for another 5 minutes.
Grease a large bowl with cooking oil spray; scrape the dough into the bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap directly on the surface. Let sit for 30 minutes, then fold over to smooth the surface. Re-cover and refrigerate for 6 to 15 hours.
Uncover and transfer the dough to a floured work surface. If you wish to make just one batch, divide the dough in half (best to weigh it) and place the rest in a freezer-safe gallon-size zip-top bag, sealing it as you press out any air. Freeze for up to 2 months.
Flour the rolling pin. Press down the dough on the work surface and roll into rectangle that's about 9 by 10 1/2 inches; the slab should be about 1/2-inch thick. Let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut thirteen or fourteen 4-inch square pieces of parchment paper, then grease their tops lightly with cooking oil spray and arrange them on two baking sheets.
Use the 3-inch cutter or knife and ruler to cut 9 doughnuts, as close together as possible. Use the small cutter to cut out the doughnut holes. Place each doughnut on its own piece of parchment, and gather the holes on their own piece or two of parchment. Gather together the scraps and re-roll to a thickness of 3/4 inch (thicker than the first roll); cut 3 more doughnuts and corresponding holes, placing them on the papers and baking sheet like before.
Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours, in a draft-free spot; the doughnuts should almost double in height. (If the doughnuts rise in a turned-off oven that had been preheated to 170 degrees, they will rise faster.)
Meanwhile, make the glaze: Combine the confectioners' sugar, 1/2 cup of the hot water, the vanilla extract, salt and vanilla bean scrapings in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld mixer; beat on medium speed until smooth, adding some or all of the remaining hot water, as needed, to form a thick glaze. Cover with plastic wrap until ready to use.
Heat the oil in a wok over medium to medium-low heat (325 degrees).
Working with two or three at a time, slide the doughnuts on their papers into the hot oil; use tongs to pluck out the papers, which should float free within seconds. Flip the doughnuts right away; then turn them a total of four times over a total of 4 minutes, until golden brown and puffed.
Monitor the oil temperature and adjust the heat, as needed.
Use a Chinese skimmer to transfer the doughnuts to a wire rack set over paper towels to cool for 5 or 10 minutes. When you're done with half of them, toss them one at a time into the bowl of glaze, turning to coat all over. Place on a second wire rack, seated inside a rimmed baking sheet, until the glaze has set.
Repeat to fry the remaining doughnuts and holes; glaze the rest of the batch the same way.