Posted on December 7, 2022.
Cake doughnuts are better for dunking, but yeast doughnuts have more chew. Which one are you?
In the world of pastry lovers, the cake doughnut versus yeast doughnut debate ranks right up there with chocolate chip versus peanut butter. Each side has its proponents, who will argue fiercely that yeast doughnuts are better because they’re lighter, and won’t stick to the roof of your mouth, or that cake doughnuts are better because they’re more filling, more dunkable, and more, well, like cake. Those less committed to sweet, carby treats may find this argument silly—isn’t it all just sweet fried dough in the end? Some (yes, these people exist) may not even know the difference between a yeast doughnut and a cake doughnut. And, to be fair, it can sometimes be hard to tell at a glance what sets the two apart. But there is a difference, a big difference, and it’s important to recognize it for the sake of every breakfast meeting and brunch potluck in your foreseeable future.
First, the basics: a yeast doughnut, obviously, is made with yeasted dough, usually something similar to brioche. It’s puffy and light, maybe a little chewy, and has little or no sweetness without some sort of glaze or sugar coating. Alex Talbot, who, along with his wife Aki Kamozawa, may be best known for the site Ideas in Food, says the ideal yeast doughnut should be “moist, with a honeycomb texture and that yeasty, fermented flavor.” He should know, since he ran through 12 different versions developing the perfect one for Curiosity Doughnuts, the shop he and Kamozawa run in Stockton, NJ. A cake doughnut, on the other hand, is made from what’s essentially cake batter, and gets its lift from chemical leaveners (baking powder and/or baking soda). Ideally the inside is moist and crumbly, and either dense like a muffin or fluffy like birthday cake. “A cake doughnut is much more tender,” says Talbot, “whereas a yeast doughnut has more chew.”
In terms of seniority, the yeast doughnut came first. We know it’s been around longer than the cake doughnut because yeast has been around many centuries longer than chemical leaveners. And for about as long as people all over the world have made bread, they have also fried it. The ancient Romans fried strips of dough and dipped them in syrup, and even before that the Chinese were making their own version. Poland has its paczki, and Italy has its zeppole. And the American doughnut as we know it started, most likely, with the Dutch, who brought their yeasted, pork fat-fried olykoeks (literally, oily cakes) with them to New York. As Paul R. Mullins explains in his book Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, these fried dough balls quickly became a staple of early Yankee cooking, and eventually earned the name dough nuts (probably for their shape). It’s also in America that the doughnut’s hole was invented, supposedly by Hanson Gregory, a ship captain from Maine. Tired, he told the Boston Post many years later, of the greasy “sinkers” with undercooked centers sailors often took on long journeys, he decided to cut out the middle.
Cake doughnuts, on the other hand, are more thoroughly American. According to Mullins, cake doughnuts first appeared in US cookbooks in the 1830s, around the same time that baking soda and baking powder first became commercially available. In other words, as soon as there was a way to make doughnuts without waiting for the yeast to rise, Americans were doing it. But cake doughnuts really earned their stripes as a national staple when the Salvation Army set up canteens in France during World War I, where women served soldiers a taste of home in the form of freshly fried doughnuts and coffee. As Mullins describes in his book, the operation was so popular that the YMCA and the Red Cross quickly followed suit, and the cake doughnut earned its place as a distinctly, patriotically American snack.
History aside, both types of doughnut have their pros and their cons, and it’s important to be able to tell the two apart at a glance, or else face the consequences, which Kamozawa points out can be serious. At Curiosity Doughnuts, she says, “I occasionally have people come in who bought the wrong type the weekend before and are in the doghouse. They need to redeem themselves at home with a box of the right doughnuts and hover over me as I pick them out to make sure they are the right ones.”
Yeast doughnuts, with the rare exception of Talbot’s, are generally pillowy and large, with a smooth surface. Talbot’s only “blow out,” developing weird bubbles and deformities, because he loads the dough with an unusually high amount of fat and liquid. Cake doughnuts, lacking that honeycomb structure of big yeast bubbles, are often (but not always) smaller, with a puckered little hole. A subset, the old-fashioned doughnut, always has a cracked, craggy surface, and in the most classic versions the sides splay out like the petals of a flower. Cake doughnuts made with a wetter batter will have an uncracked surface, though one still rougher than any yeast doughnut. Chicago’s Doughnut Vault offers textbook versions of both, and general manager Jessi DiBartolomeo explains that the leavening in the old-fashioned “causes the dough to ‘crack,’ creating its distinctive crown shape.” Talbot adds that old-fashioned doughnuts are made with a dough thick enough to roll out, whereas cake doughnuts are made with a much looser batter that must be dropped in the oil. As a result, old-fashioned are usually denser, with crispy, crunchy outsides, while cake are soft and fluffy.
The big advantage of a cake doughnut is that the batter can come in all kinds of flavors, whereas yeast doughnuts typically get most of their flavor from the glaze (except at Curiosity Doughnuts, where Talbot also makes a chocolate yeast dough). Scott Levine, who makes only cake doughnuts at his shop Underwest Donuts in Manhattan, says he prefers them to yeast because: “I see an opportunity to layer flavor into the cake each step of the way. From the beginning, flavor can be added through your dry and wet ingredients, glaze, and toppings.” At Underwest, that has yielded specimens like a tahini-laced, halvah-topped doughnut, and a doughnut loaded inside and out with brown butter.
Then again, the pliable dough of a yeast doughnut is much easier to fill with jam or cream. Few places besides New York’s Doughnut Plant, which injects its tres leches cake doughnut with condensed milk, have figured out how to fill anything un-yeasted. The closest most have gotten is the old-school pom-pom doughnut, which has a jelly center like some sort of enormous thumbprint cookie. But in general, the filling possibilities are a flavor point firmly on the side of yeast doughnuts.
Another thing to consider: Talbot argues he “has yet to have a nice, moist cake doughnut,” barring his own “new-fashioned” doughnut, which he makes using a cooked paste of milk and flour to better retain moisture. This may be an exaggeration—Underwest’s doughnuts, for one, are plenty moist—but he’s right that cake doughnuts are more likely to be dense and heavy, to stick to the roof of your mouth. But this is why they’re better for the quintessential doughnut activity: coffee dunking. A dunked yeast doughnut has the texture of a wet sandwich, but a dunked cake doughnut is like eating tiramisu.
Obviously, there will never be a winner in the cake vs. yeast debate. “It’s Ford or Chevy,” says Talbot, “It’s preference. It’s what you grew up on.” Personally, he remembers going to Dreesen’s, on Long Island, as a kid, to get one of their fresh, sugar-coated cake doughnuts. And though his tastes have broadened since then, he aims for “that experience, that warm doughnut out of the bag, with the grease and the sugar.” Because when it comes down to it, a warm, fresh doughnut, whether cake or yeast, is truly the best doughnut.