collection of donuts

The History of Cake and Yeast Donuts

Have you ever wondered about the difference between cake and yeast donuts? Wondered where donuts come from and how they’re made? If so, you’re in luck because we’ll be diving into the inspiring world of donut science, discussing doughs, yeast vs cake, frying, decorating and in short, everything donut.

What is a donut?

This may sound like a very question to answer. But it’s actually quite hard to define donut. Your typical definition might be a fried, sweet, round, with a hole in the middle (that shape is also called a toroid) flour based snack.

However (see links at bottom of post!), nowadays you can make donuts in both the deep fryer as well as the oven, there are savory donuts out there and not all donuts have a hole in the middle (although most of them are round). Interesting to see is that the less sweet, non-fried donuts typically have the classical donut shape. I guess that shape helps people to recognize that it is actually a donut!

So defining a donut isn’t easy, but for this post we have to narrow it down before we get into the territory of muffins, breads and egg bites. So here, we will call thing donut if: they are fried, made with mostly flour as a base and are sweet.

Cake vs Yeast donuts

Within that still broad realm of donuts, there is one common distinction to make: cake vs. yeast donuts. Both methods have been around for decades.

Yeast donuts use, as expected, yeast to leaven the donuts. They are most likely the older of the two since yeast has been around for thousands of years whereas baking soda (used in the cake donuts) is a pretty recent invention.

When you make a yeast donut you need some patience since the yeast in the donut will need time to puff up and create air bubbles. As it does so it will also transform the flavour of your donut. That said, a yeast donut does come out light and airy.

Cake donuts use baking powder and/or baking soda to puff up the donut. As a result, the cake donut tends to be a lot denser than a yeast donut. However, a cake donut can be made faster since it doesn’t require any proofing time, which the raised donut does.

inside of pumpkin cake donut hole
A cake donut hole

A short donut history

Donuts don’t have a short history, instead it is at least centuries old, seemingly coming from Europe. The exact origin though is, like is the case for most foods, not exactly known. That said, in the early 19th centuries cookbooks you will be able to find doughnut recipes. Lydia Maria Child for instance has a recipe in her Frugal Housewife cookbook from 1829.

Recipes in this era were made with yeast since baking soda & powder had not yet been invented at this point in time. Despite the fact that the donut had European origins, the current donut is a mostly American development. It was in the US that the donut became a daly snack instead of a treat for special occasions. That said, a lot of European forefathers of the donut do still exist, in their original state (like the Dutch oliebollen).

Donuts in the war

For American soldiers donuts became a food of home during the both world wars in Europe. Donuts were even made for them overseas to support them during their war time efforts. This seemingly mostly helpful deed impacted the rest of the donut’s history quite a bit. The donut gained in popularity in the US, resulting in more donut shops, several of them started by veterans. 

How the cake donut almost caused the yeast donut to go extinct

During that boom in new donut shops a lot of effort was put into mechanizing the donut production. It was a time of great change, the ownership of cars expanded rapidly (which was great for these donut shops) and also the world of food production changed rapidly. As opposed to making most food at home, in the US more an more inventions were introduced to either make cooking at home easier or to make fresh food more efficiently and cheaper.

During those efficiency improvements, the yeast donut was at a clear disadvantage. Since it needed to rise and was more finicky to handle, most bakers chose to go for the cake donuts. The baking soda was more predictable and the overall process as easier to automate.

Luckily, the differences between the both proved to be big enough to consumers to as for both types. Over time, also te yeast raised donut making process could be mechanized, making it interesting for businesses to make as well.

4 types of donuts, Bavarian, maple bacon long John, chocolate cake, pumpkin cake

Big American donut chains

In the following decades the number of donut shops continued to increase and several large national chains were formed. You will notice that nowadays you can find both cke as well as yast donuts at the chains, so they both survived. Some chains are well known for their yeast donuts whereas others specialize in cake, although more often than not you will find boh at the same store.

If you have a good look at the ingredients of the donut of your favorite donut store you will notice that they either contain yeast or baking powder/soda (look for a phosphate)! 

It’s not just an American story

The donut and the donut shops didn’t just gain ground in the US though. Canada has its own succesful donut history. The biggest donut chain in Canda: Tim Hortons with its own unique assortment.

Why a lot of donuts have holes

Before we sign off, other other thing. Donuts are famous because of their shapes, the ring with the hole in the middle. How they got this shape, isn’t well known, various stories circulate.

When you make a donut nowadays though, there is a good reason for these holes. It makes frying easier since the heat travels to the center of the dough quickly in every location of the donut. If you would like a donut with the same diameter but then without a hole that’s a lot harder to fry well.


Burnt Lumpia Blog, Ube doughnuts with coconut milk glaze, link (uses yams & flour)

Eater, Everything you need to know about the great American Doughnut, Daniele Galarza, May-28, 2015, link

Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal housewife, 1829, p.73, link

Open table, No sweet tooth, no problem: 7 savory doughnuts for national doughnut day, June-2 2017, link

Reader’s Digest,Where did the doughnut hole really come from, Brooke Nelson, link

Saveur, Donut Planet, Michael Krondl, March-11, 2013, link

Steven Penfold, The Donut: A Canadian history, 2008 ,link

The Kitchy Kitchen, Cheddar jalapeno green onion donuts, link

The Globe and Mail Inc, How Canadians saw their doughnuts rise, Tralee Pearce, Jan-23, 2008, link

The SAGE Encyclopedia of food issues, volume 1, edited by Ken Albala, p.378-379, link

The oxford companion to sugar and sweets, edited by Darra Goldstein, 2015,  p.225-227, link

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