A Deep-Fried History of Doughnuts

Doughnuts have a delicious but mysterious history.
Doughnuts have a delicious but mysterious history. / cagkansayin // iStock via Getty Images Plus

The history of doughnuts is difficult to trace. Did doughnut history begin the first time a sweet dough was fried in oil? Does it start when the first hole was punched into a yeasted dough before frying? And what do oil balls have to do with it?

Doughnuts (or donuts, if you like) are at once a delicious confluence of international fried dough traditions and a distinctly American confection. Read on to learn where doughnuts come from (to the best knowledge of the historical record), how Doughnut Lassies came about during World War I, and other interesting facts about the history of the doughnut, adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.

Fried Dough and the Invention of the Doughnut

Humans first started frying dough thousands of years ago. One of the earliest records of the marriage between oil and dough appears in the Bible. A verse in Leviticus mentions possibly fried “cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour” as an acceptable offering to God. The ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed fried cakes with honey, and different versions of the sweet treat eventually spread throughout Europe. 

But all that fried deliciousness is problematic for tracing the history of the doughnut, because there are just so many possible origins. Traditionally the dish has been traced to Dutch cuisine. When Dutch immigrants arrived in New York City, formerly known as New Amsterdam, they brought food from the Netherlands with them. One popular recipe was olykoeks, or oil cakes, which were made by frying lumps of dough in pork fat. Alternatively, they were called oliebollen, or “oil balls” in English. An early connection between oil balls and doughnuts is in Washington Irving’s 1809 book A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. The Sleepy Hollow author wrote of “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks.”

While the most widely accepted version of the American doughnut’s history points to this Dutch provenance, not all food historians are convinced. Some think doughnuts come from an English fried dough; they could be a delicious amalgam of English, Dutch, and German fried carb traditions. (No matter what, though, it’s probably for the best that we stopped calling them oil balls.)

What most think of as a doughnut—a ring-shaped treat with a hole in the middle—may not have appeared until 1847. That’s when an American sailor named Hanson Gregory later claimed he came up with the culinary innovation.

As he tells it, doughnuts in those days were just solid hunks of dough, and when they were crispy on the outside they’d still be raw in the center. He was working aboard a lime-trading schooner at age 16 when he had the idea to remove the middle of the cake altogether. Using the lid of a tin pepper box, he “cut into the middle of that donut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes,” as he told the Washington Post nearly 70 years later.

When he got to land he went home to Maine and showed this new doughnut method to his mother. Her ring-shaped doughnuts became a local sensation, and the world of deep-fried pastries would never be the same.

The Etymology of the Word Doughnut

Dunkin' Donuts To Challenge Starbucks For Coffee Supremacy
Dunkin' might have a little something to do with popularizing the spelling donut. / Tim Boyle/GettyImages

While it’s clear where the first half of the term comes from, the nut in doughnut is more mysterious. Some etymologists think it’s a reference to the original shape of the snacks, which were small and round—like nuts—before they gained their distinctive hole. Another theory posits that the nut comes from literal nuts. Or at least culinary nuts, like almonds and pecans. To solve the problem of undercooked dough in the middle of their oily cakes, Dutch cooks sometimes stuffed them with ingredients like nuts. The rise of the ring-shaped donut made this unnecessary, but the trick may have had a lasting impact on the dessert’s name.

The language we use to describe fried rings of dough would undergo another transformation over the next century. By the early 1900s, many doughnut purveyors had shortened the name to donut. Today this alternate spelling is nearly as common as the original, but it didn’t get to be that way overnight. The version starting with dough maintained its domination until around 1950, when the simplified word began to steadily increase in popularity. The first Dunkin’ Donuts opened in Quincy, Massachusetts, that same year, and the business went with the snappier spelling of donut for its name. The growth of the chain in the latter half of the 20th century correlates with the shorter word’s upswing—though now that Dunkin’ has dropped the Donuts from its title, the older spelling may be poised for a comeback. 

World War I and Doughnuts

Salvation Army workers giving fresh doughnuts to soldiers. Varennes-en-Argonne, France Oct 12, 1918
Salvation Army workers giving fresh doughnuts to soldiers. Varennes-en-Argonne, France Oct 12, 1918 / Historical/GettyImages

As of 2020, there were more than 18,000 doughnut shops in the U.S., but the tasty treat wasn’t immediately embraced around the country. The fried treats were largely considered a Yankee food throughout the 19th century, and it took a stint overseas in the 1910s for them to earn their all-American reputation.

During World War I, the Salvation Army sent 250 volunteers to France to provide snacks and supplies to U.S. troops stationed there. The female volunteers had planned to bake cakes and pies for soldiers on the front lines. There was just one problem: Ovens became harder to access the closer they got to the battlefield. But they did have pans at their disposal, which they could fill with lard and heat over a fire. Switching their focus to doughnuts was a no-brainer.

The volunteers had all the ingredients they needed to make doughnuts, plus the equipment to fry them in. When it was time to shape the sweet morsels, they took a page from Hanson Gregory’s book and used what they had on hand. They rolled out the dough with juice bottles and shell casings. They cut the doughnuts with empty baking powder cans and punched out the holes using part of a broken coffeemaker. The women, who came to be known as Doughnut Lassies, were so dedicated to their work that they were willing to risk their lives. In her book The War Romance Of The Salvation Army, Evangeline Booth, the daughter of the Salvation Army’s founders, recounts one volunteer’s response when she was told to stop serving doughnuts to troops under fire. She said to the regiment leader, “Colonel, we can die with the men, but we cannot leave them.” Booth, by the way, eventually became the general of the Salvation Army.

Evangeline Booth
Evangeline Booth In America / General Photographic Agency/GettyImages

World War I soldiers developed a taste for fried dough that they brought home with them. Following the war, the association between doughnuts and the military helped cement the snack’s place in the country’s cuisine. And because the ingredients needed to make them were adaptable and affordable, frying doughnuts during hard times was seen as patriotic. According to the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, Crisco published recipes for wartime doughnuts that called for swapping valuable lard for their vegetable shortening.

Doughnut Lassies are also the reason we have two national doughnut days. In 1938, the Salvation Army declared the first Friday in June to be National Doughnut Day as a way of promoting its charity work. The second National Doughnut Day is celebrated on November 5, and its origins are less clear. Because it falls so close to Veterans Day on November 11, some historians suspect it was borne from the pastry’s ties to the military as well. Or maybe we all just wanted another excuse to eat some fried dough.

Doughnuts Around the Country (And the World)

Doughnut history in America varies by region. While Dunkin’ has dominated the East Coast for decades, it’s never really taken off on the West Coast. The chain’s absence gave smaller doughnut shops in California a chance to thrive, and an entrepreneur named Ted Ngoy definitely took advantage of that opportunity.

Ngoy arrived in Southern California in 1975 as a refugee from Cambodia. He tried his first doughnut shortly after immigrating to the U.S. It reminded him of the round, fried pastries called nom kong served out of street carts back home, and he decided he would make his living off the confections. He did this by becoming a trainee at a doughnut chain called Winchell’s, taking over his own store, and eventually buying a second doughnut shop called Christy’s. Under his ownership, Christy’s grew into a local successful chain. He leased his acquisitions to other Cambodian refugees in the area looking to get started in business. Ngoy sponsored many of the refugees personally before setting them up with housing, loans, and their own stores to run. 

Giving other refugees a leg up wasn’t just a nice thing to do; it also turned out to be a good business move: By 1985, Ngoy owned around 60 shops and had earned millions of dollars through his sugary empire.

The Donut King’s impact on the industry can still be seen today. Decades later, many of Southern California’s independent doughnut shops are still owned by Cambodian immigrants and their descendants. Ngoy is also responsible for the prevalence of pink doughnut boxes. He told the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that either he or his former business partner Ning Yen had ordered the color early in his career because they were looking for a cheap alternative to the standard white boxes. Their supplier, Westco, offered them pink boxes at a discount, and customers quickly grew accustomed to the distinctive packaging.

Ring-shaped doughnuts are an American invention, but sweetened, fried dough is consumed around the globe. In Israel, it’s estimated that over 15 million jelly-filled doughnuts known as sufganiyot are eaten in the weeks around Hanukkah. In China they enjoy crispy golden sticks called youtiao. Churros are consumed in many countries, and the French enjoy light dough fritters called pets de nonne, or “nun’s farts.” Suddenly oily balls don’t sound too bad.