Everyone can agree that doughnuts rule. The only debate that surrounds doughnuts is which doughnut style is better: cake or yeast? But what is the difference between cake and yeast doughnuts? If you ask me, a self-proclaimed doughnut traditionalist, yeast doughnuts are the be-all end-all of the doughnut world. Doughnuts should be fluffy, perfectly browned, not sickeningly sweet, and have a delightfully chewy texture. But despite my convictions about fried, leavened dough, I will concede that a sour cream doughnut has its own special place in my no doubt partially congested heart.
If we’re taking the history of doughnuts into account, the OG doughnut is the yeast doughnut. It was invented by the Dutch, who made olykoeks, or “oily cakes,” in the 17th century. Legend has it, 200 years later the doughnuts of yore was transformed by New England sailor Hanson Gregory’s mother, Elizabeth, who would make him fried dough for his long voyages. She would stuff them with spices, fruit rinds, and nuts (hence “dough-nuts”). But it was Hanson who supposedly fathered the fried dough ring by hastily kebabing his doughnut on a spoke of the ship's wheel in order to better steer during a storm. To be fair, saving a doughnut would also be my first instinct.
The history of cake doughnuts is far less colorful and not nearly as old. Cake doughnuts, while not OG doughnuts, are actually the United States’s true doughnut. They were even in the trenches of World War I.
So what makes the two types of doughnuts different beyond their humble beginnings? It’s mainly the leavening agent. Cake doughnuts, so named for their cakey taste and texture, are leavened with baking soda and baking powder, whereas yeast doughnuts are leavened with, you guessed it, yeast. Yeast is made up of little single-celled critters responsible for digesting simple sugars in dough and producing the carbon dioxide waste that yields a rise. Both styles involve risen dough and using a deep frier. You cannot call it a doughnut unless it is fried.
Cake doughnuts are made with all-purpose flour, granulated sugar, milk, baking powder, salt, eggs, shortening, and, depending on the flavor, spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. Look familiar? All those ingredients are also in a basic vanilla cake. Because it is a batter and not a dough, you have to be careful when you drop it into the oil because it will cook quickly and absorb much of the oil. This is why cake doughnuts tend to be very dense and much more moist than actual cake.
Yeast doughnuts are more or less made of the same ingredients, plus yeast, but the ratio of ingredients is different. There’s more liquid, less fat, less flour, and way less sugar. And they are in fact made of dough. The process is more involved because the dough must be kneaded and left to rise before getting cut, rolled, and fried to golden brown perfection.
Some people prefer cake doughnuts because you can create the flavor in the batter and you don't have to worry about glazing. Yeast doughnuts, unless filled, get their flavors from an icing-like glaze. A New York City doughnut shop called Doughnut Plant offers a wide selection of both styles. They’ve even mastered a “filled” cake doughnut in the sense that they inject their tres leches doughnut with condensed milk. At other shops like the highly popular Dough Doughnuts and the flavor innovators at The Doughnut Project, yeast doughnuts are the future. They tout the quality of their traditional, simple doughnuts and then use glazes, texture, toppings, and beautiful designs to spruce them up. Plus, many new-school doughnuts tend to be the size of small tires, and that’s something everyone can get behind.