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The Science of Basic Yeast-Leavened Donuts (+ Recipe)
Chocolate, lemon, red velvet or maybe you prefer just a plain donut? There’s so many donuts out there, it can be hard to choose. Even though flavours might be overwhelming to say the least, texture wise most of us know what we’re looking for. Are you looking for a light and airy donut, or a more dense, rich, cakey one? If it’s the former, a yeast donut is probably your thing! And you’re in luck, because, we’ll be disussing all thing yeast donuts. (If you’d prefer a cake donut, no problem. No idea whether you’d like a cake or yeast donut? Learn more about the difference!)
What is a yeast donut?
Yeast donuts, as the name says, are donuts that you make using yeast. The dough is leavened and made airy thanks to the yeast in the dough. The yeast ferments, it eats sugar in the dough and transforms it into water and gas, carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide gets trapped inside the dough and will puff it up.
Making a yeast donut starts pretty similarly as a rich sweet bread, a bit like a brioche. You mix flour with butter, sugar, milk, eggs, yeast and a few other minor ingredients into a nice dough. The butter and the fat in the eggs help make your donut soft and rich. The sugar sweetens the dough and helps it brown during frying (thanks to the Mailard reaction).
After that, you’ll have to leave it for the yeast to do its work. The dough leavens, develops flavour and becomes somewhat softer in texture.
Types of yeast donuts
Of course, there are a lot of other dough variations for a yeast donut. First of all, you can make them using sourdough. This type of donut wil require some more patience since these doughs don’t leaven as quickly. Alternatively, you can use a water roux to help improve and soften the texture further.
Shaping yeast donuts
Once a yeast dough has proofed properly you can transform it into a donut. Some recipes ask you to roll out the dough and press out the donut shape (this one for instance). Others ask you to make a strand of dough, bring the two ends together and form a ring. Others just say to make a ball of your dough and leave the characteristic donut ring. These roundish donuts are especially good to use for making a filled donut.
Donuts are flexible and so are the ways of making them. When choosing a way to shape them keep in mind the type of dough you’re using. Some doughs simply aren’t up for being made into a strand (not enough gluten/strength to hold it up) whereas others really can’t be rolled out (too sticky).
What happens when frying a yeast donut?
Once you’ve transformed the dough into donuts and have left them to proof for a second time, it is time to fry the donuts. Frying of yeast donuts is very similar to oliebollen, also called Dutch donuts. You fry the dough in hot oil, of about 180C. The hot oil immediately sears and cooks the outside. The starch gelatinizes, the sugar & proteins form brown colours (thanks to the Maillard reaction), moisture evaporates and the yeast leaves one last puff of air before it dies because of the high heat.
Can you bake yeast donuts in the oven?
Yes, you could. However, baking them will take a significant longer amount of time. The efficiency of heat transfer through air as opposed to snow is simply lower. Also, the overall texture will be slightly different and chances are it turns out more like a rich bread then a light and airy donut.
Storing yeast donuts
If you happen to not finish your donuts within one or two days, you would want to know how to store them best. Before looking into that though, you would need to know what happens when a donut gets old, so you can come up with the optimal storage conditions to prevent exactly that.
How yeast donuts get old
If you leave a donut lying around on a plate for a while there is bound to be transfer of moisture. Moisture from within the donut will evaporate. Moisture from an icing may also evaporate, making the icing crispy instead of soft.
If you’ve got a sugar coated donut the sugar layer will absorb moisture from the donut and the environment. Sugar is quite hygroscopic, meaning it attracts moisture. This can cause the sugar to look a little more clumpy.
Also, as with any flour based bake, the donut will start staling. The process is actually very similar to that of bread and involves starches the recrystallize. Extra fat in the dough can delay the process though which is why donuts won’t be as stale as fast as a bread (and why cake donuts tend to keep longer than yeast donuts). The same goes for sourdough donuts, these also tend to stay fresh and moist for longer than their non-sourdough counterparts.
These moisture migration and staling issues are pretty much irreversible. Therefore, eating the donuts fresh is always the best solution. But when you can’t, at least cover the donut up. Don’t do this in a completely closed plastic container, paper or a box work better here since they prevent moisture from sitting on your donut. However, this will make the donut dry out more quickly.
Storing donut dough
For the recipe at the bottom of this post you can freeze the donut dough at the point that the dough is just ready to start its last rise. When you take the dough balls out of the freezer again you’d have to thaw them. This will also slowly reactivate the yeast which sets in the last rise you need just before baking.
If you would have given them that last rise before freezing they wouldn’t really be able to introduce any more air once they’ve been thawed and give less fluffy donuts.
Cake Spy, Holey Grail: Why do donuts have holes, link; a great collection of possible backgrounds of the hole in the donut
RVO Info central, What is the difference between a yeast raised and cake donut?, link
I tried this recipe but the donuts were a little dry from inside. What could be the reason. Can you please suggest something. Thanks
Thanks for coming by and trying the recipe! There are a few options here: the first thing I would suggest is to reduce the frying time. Frying it for too long (or at too high temperatures) can dry out the dough. Also, tastes differ, if you like your donuts a bit more moist, you can try increasing the fat content slightly, or cover the donut in a glaze. The glaze will also help moisture stay within the donut while you store it. As goes for most donuts, these donuts do turn dry quite quickly. They will definitely still be edible a day later, but will be a little drier. Reheating them in the microwave for several seconds (but only if you don’t have a glaze) can in most cases revive the donut again.
Hope that helps! Good luck.
Why does my donut oily? Like every bite is like drinking oil. There is like so much oil trapped in my donuts
Great question and despite there being a ton of research in this area, the researchers have not found a main mechanism that helps you to prevent this. Here are a few tips that should help:
Hope those tips help!
Hii I am just a bit confused about custard filled doughnuts. I don’t particularly want to use yeast or eggs to make my doughnuts but my question is if I do make an eggless no yeast doughnut, can I still fill it with custard filling?
Most custards really depend on egg, however, you can also try to use custard powder (type of corn starch generally) that will give you a very similar consistency! The flavour is slightly different but it should still work nicely!
I love the doughnut recipe.
Wow, I actually love this recipe and I’m going to try it🥰
I want to ask if I use custard powder for the custard filling is there still any need to use eggs to make the filling?
Glad you like it :-). If you use custard powder for the custard filling you do not need the eggs anymore, that’s correct! This article on ice cream explains the concept in some more detail!
Why does my doughnut shrink when I cut it
Did you cut the donut while hot? It might have not been fully cooked and by cutting it you release the steam that might cause it to collapse. Could that have happened for you?
My name is Rufus and I make donuts and use 20kilograms of flour but my donuts sometimes comes out soft but other times hard. How much yeast should I use for the Said amount of flour 20kgs?
I’m afraid that it’s not just the amount of yeast that will impact the softness of your donuts! If you’re using the same amount of yeast every time, but do not work in a room where temperature and humidity are well controlled, the donuts can still turn out very differently! It might be that for some you’ve left them too long to proof, whereas others have not been proofed long enough.
Also, softness is influenced quite a bit by other ingredients you add, for instance, the amount of fat (e.g. butter, margarine, egg yolks) and proteins (e.g. eggs, milks). Generally, enriched doughs are a lot softer than those made with just flour, water and yeast. This article might help.
With regards to your question on yeast quantity. If you’re using our recipe, you’d need: 20/0,6*4=133 tsp of yeast. However, you probably realize that’s not very practical to measure :-). So for these larger quantities I would switch to a by weight basis. It’s best to determine this for the yeast type you use.
I try to get by with as little sugar in my dough recipe as possible but definitely the oil gets all up in there if there is none at all. But funny, I prefer the taste of them with all the other sugary add-ons. I’m wondering if there is a minimum ratio, flour to sugar, when the maillard reaction won’t work anymore.
I also prefer my donuts themselves not too sweet and let the toppings make up for that!
Interestingly enough, the Maillard reaction will happen even if there’s no sugar at all (just think of bread making, where you’d only use flour, water, yeast and salt, those breads still brown nicely!). However, it will be slower. Also, if you’re using yeast in your dough, the yeast will probably eat a good amount of the sugar you’re adding (it’s ‘free’ food for them!) so the sugar (especially in smaller quantities) serves more to feed your yeast than to brown your donut. As such, you can leave out all the sugar and still get a brown (though maybe a little lighter in color) donut! If you want it browner, simply fry at a slightly higher temperature.