We moderns are filled with all sorts of conceits. As such, we’re all too ready to believe just about any made-up thing about our forebears. In the context of today’s discussion, that means accepting without question the notion that generations of doughnut eaters were perfectly content to eat half-raw sinkers for lack of a better alternative. Just hang on a few more decades, Adelade, the industrial revolution’s almost here! It’s an assumption that forms the basis of just about every doughnut hole story I’ve seen.
The reality is that the ring shape design was known to bakers and pastry makers well before the doughnut ever came along. The Germans employed it in a variety of cookie designs, European Jews used it for bagels. Arabs fried ring-shaped breads as far back as the Middle Ages. Why? In part because it was decorative, but mainly because rings are extremely efficient, allowing breads to cook up far faster than they would if they had a solid center. The reason is of course the increased surface area, which allows heat to penetrate the dough from more directions.
Just who first started making doughnuts in this shape is a mystery (despite the continued insistences of the Gregory family). Many food historians attribute the innovation to the Pennsylvania Dutch (the Amish, in other words) who’ve always been wicked good bakers of sweets. But who really knows? Myself, I’m inclined to date the definitive arrival of the ring-shaped doughnut to 1889, the year that the mass-produced ring-shaped doughnut cutter was brought market. That innovation, more than any other, was responsible for at least standardizing the ring shape in America. Prior to that time, doughnuts were made in just about every shape imaginable.