The Untold Truth Of Donuts

You might think that you pretty much know all there is to know about donuts. You make a dough circle, put a hole in the center, fry it up, and if you're feeling fancy you add some sprinkles and frosting. How much more can there be to it? It turns out, kind of a lot. From donut-like treats found in prehistoric American settlements to fried dough snacks in ancient Greece and ancient Rome to Dutch olykoek (oily cake) in the early 1800s to today, the donut has come a long way to reach the shelves of the Dunkin' around the corner from your house. 

Even today, there are so many different types of donuts that you could travel all 50 states, spend years traveling the world, and still find yourself discovering new types of donuts you've never tried before. Basically, the possibilities of these tasty treats are just about endless. 

Donuts in antiquity

Donuts are truly immemorial. There's evidence to believe that they predate our historical records. As Smithsonian Magazine describes, "Doughnuts in some form or other have been around so long that archaeologists keep turning up fossilized bits of what look like doughnuts in the middens of prehistoric Native American settlements." 

It wasn't just in the Americas either — a food that was basically a proto-donut was created apparently independently in classical civilizations. As Nebraska bakeshop Goldenrod Pastries explains, "In ancient Rome and Greece, cooks would fry up strips of pastry dough, coated with honey or fish sauce — very different from what doughnuts are currently fried in. Better known as the early version of fritters, they spread into northern Europe becoming popular in Germany, the Netherlands and England during the 1400s." 

Of course, these ancient donuts should come as no surprise. Anyone who's ever tasted a fresh, perfectly fried donut could tell you that the taste for donuts is a deep, essential part of human nature. 

Modern donuts reach the Americas

According to Eater, an early version of the European donut had reached America — then the Thirteen Colonies — by 1750. A housekeeping book, The Country Housewife's Family Companion, included a recipe for a fritter desert. By 1802, we can see a recipe closer to the treat as we know it today: a book called The Frugal Housewife printed a recipe for a "dough nut." 

Soon after, in 1809, writer Washington Irving described the treat in his History of New York as follows (via Google Books): "balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog's fat, and called dough-nuts, or oly koeks: a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city, excepting in genuine Dutch families."

In 1847, The Spruce Eats explains, an American ship captain, Hansen Gregory, punches a hole in the center of an olykoek before frying it to solve the problem of the treat's undercooked center. Thus the ring-shaped donut was born. 

In 1920, Adolph Levitt, a Russian-born immigrant, invented the first automated donut maker. In World Wars I and II, Eater adds, Salvation Army and Red Cross volunteers, women referred to as Doughnut Dollies, would serve donuts to frontline soldiers, securing the treat's status as an American staple.

Donuts around the world

When you picture a donut today, you probably think of the standard Dunkin, Krispy Kreme, or (if you're Canadian) Tim Horton's kind, a round pastry usually with a hole in the center, but there are all sorts of variations in the U.S. and abroad.

You've got the churro, which originated in the Iberian Peninsula and which is especially popular in Spain, Mexico, and parts of Latin America, Matador Network explains. There's the Canadian BeaverTail, a flat fried dough treat covered in toppings sweet or savory. In France, there are pets de nonne ("nun's farts"), small, airy fried dough balls in powdered sugar. In Nepal, sel roti is a ring of fried dough made from rice flour. In India, balushahi is a flour ring deep fried in ghee and dipped in syrup. In Peru, syrup-covered picarones are made from fried squash and sweet potato. 

These are just a few of the many kinds, which don't even touch on the regional variations of doughnuts in Italy, Israel, Colombia, Egypt, Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Poland, China, the Caribbean, and so many more. So next time you're eating a vanilla-frosted, rainbow-sprinkled donut from your usual place, just know that there's a literal world of donut possibilities out there.