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Cake Doughnuts 101: The Completist's Guide to Shaping, Glazing, Frying (& Baking!) Your Own

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It was way back last spring when I first delved deep into one of my favorite baking (or should I say frying) topics: yeast doughnuts. Those perfect vessels for your favorite icing and sprinkle combo: crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside.

Everything You Need to Know About Doughnuts
Everything You Need to Know About Doughnuts

But for all the love I gave to the yeasty variety, I glossed (glazed?) over some of the other varieties of doughnuts, many of which are just as beloved.


So, time to rectify that oversight. First up, doughnuts 2.0: cake doughnuts.

What are cake doughnuts? Unlike yeast doughnuts, their light and airy cousins, cake doughnuts are made, well, a lot like cake. They use chemical leaveners (baking powder and/or baking soda) instead of yeast. They have an even matte finish (and that exterior has a bit of chew) and a tight, denser crumb structure inside. They can be baked or fried.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

As a self-proclaimed lover of all things yeasty and delicious, I fully admit to having shoved cake doughnuts aside in the past. There may have been some serious side-eye—perhaps even a scoff—when someone opted for a cake doughnut in lieu of the yeasted alternative. But I’ve changed my tune: Just like so many misunderstood baked goods out there, cake doughnuts have some serious advantages.


Here's what you need to know:

  1. Types of cake doughnuts.
  2. Ingredients.
  3. Mixing.
  4. Shaping methods.
  5. To bake or to fry?
  6. Garnishing.
  7. Fresh is best.
"Don't mind us: We're just sitting here, waiting for glaze."
"Don't mind us: We're just sitting here, waiting for glaze." Photo by Bobbi Lin

1) Types of cake doughnuts:

  • Piped Cake Doughnuts are made from a looser batter that is leavened with chemical leavener (baking powder or baking soda). The batter is piped into rounds or molds. These are usually baked, but can also be piped directly into frying oil.
  • Rolled-Out Cake Doughnuts are made with a firmer, sturdier dough that is leavened with chemical leavener (baking powder or baking soda), rolled out, and cut into shapes before baking or frying.
  • Crullers are a piped doughnut, most often thought of as rings (but they can also be long rectangles). American crullers are generally made with cake doughnut batter, whereas French crullers are made with pâte à choux dough.
  • Cider doughnuts are a type of cake doughnut made with apple cider and plenty of cinnamon. No fall would be complete without one. Or five.
  • Old-Fashioned Doughnuts are a type of cake doughnut that is piped or scooped, giving it an irregular shape and therefore, a crispier, craggier outer crust.
Using two circular cutters to shape rolled-out doughnuts.
Using two circular cutters to shape rolled-out doughnuts. Photo by Bobbi Lin

2) Ingredients:

The ingredient list for cake doughnuts will seem familiar: It’s pretty much the same ingredients that go into cake!

The main difference in ingredients for cake doughnuts versus yeast doughnuts is the higher level of enrichments. Cake doughnuts will have a noticeably greater amount of sugar in the dough or batter—it helps keep the doughnut tender and soft. They also usually have a slightly higher ratio of eggs and liquid to flour. This is all to achieve a softer, looser, more cake-like batter and, ultimately, a doughnut with a lightly toothsome exterior and a soft, tight interior crumb structure. (Though remember, rolled-out doughnut dough will be stiffer and may still contain a similar ratio to yeasted dough, just with more sweetener and the addition of chemical leavener.)

Getting a little crazy with the cake doughnut batters.
Getting a little crazy with the cake doughnut batters. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Because the batters are made like cake batters, the ingredients can be easy and fun to adjust to suit different flavor preferences. You can add citrus zest or vanilla bean to the butter before creaming it with the sugar. You can substitute nut flours, cocoa powder, or fruit powder (from freeze-dried fruit) for some of the flour. Other liquids can be subbed in (like, say apple cider) easily. You can add inclusions galore: chopped chocolate, nuts, fresh or dried fruit, candied ginger, cocoa nibs, or swirls of filling: cream cheese, caramel, jam, etc. This flexibility and freedom to play around is part of what turned me around to cake doughnuts. While most yeast doughnuts get their flavor from their garnishes or fillings, cake doughnuts can have some of the flavor mixed right into the batter.

Chocolate-Coconut Cake Donuts
Chocolate-Coconut Cake Donuts

3) Mixing:

Cake doughnut batters should be mixed minimally to ensure tenderness. Most recipes use the blending method (mix dry ingredients together in bowl, add wet ingredients, et voilà!) or the creaming method. Some may employ the foaming method, using the volume of beaten eggs to create an even lighter batter.

Whichever method is being used, be sure to mix uniformly—a flour pocket could mean serious unpleasantness in a bite-sized pastry such as this. Scrape the bowl well to make sure all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated, but avoid over-mixing, which can make the batter tough.

Apple Cider Donuts

Apple Cider Donuts by Yossy Arefi

Baked Chocolate Donut Holes

Baked Chocolate Donut Holes by Erin McDowell

4) Shaping methods.

There are three main ways to shape a cake doughnut, and the path you choose is pretty much determined by the recipe itself and what kind of dough or batter you’ve ended up with.

1. If you’re making a roll-out cake doughnut dough, you’ll roll the dough out and cut it into the appropriate shape (you can use a doughnut cutter or two round cookie cutters to make a traditional shape, or, for no scraps, a pastry wheel to make squares). Since a chemical leavener doesn’t always produce as dramatic results as the yeasted dough, I opt to roll my dough out a bit thicker—usually about 1/3-inch thick—to ensure my doughnuts are still tall enough.

Piping allows you to skillfully mix batters.
Piping allows you to skillfully mix batters. Photo by Bobbi Lin

2. A looser batter can be piped: Transfer the batter to a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip (or a star tip, if you’re making crullers or old-fashioned style doughnuts). If you don’t have a tip, just cut about 1/2-inch opening from the end of the bag.

Some recipes pipe batter directly into hot oil, but I find it’s easier to pipe onto squares of parchment paper (I cut them about 3-by 3-inches wide) and then to drop the whole thing into the oil. This also gives you flexibility to shape the doughnuts fully ahead—you can even freeze them for 10 to 15 minutes to ensure you get sharper shapes if you’re using a star tip or other decorative finish. And as soon as you drop them into the fryer, the paper will easily release and you can peel it away.

Parchment paper never fails.
Parchment paper never fails. Photo by Bobbi Lin

3. If you’re using a doughnut pan or mold for baking, you can scoop the batter into the prepared pan (I usually grease and flour the indentations, as if I were prepping a cake pan). To be honest, I usually still use a piping bag to distribute the batter into the prepared molds—it helps keep it even and eliminates major air pockets!

Whether you pipe or scoop, be sure to firmly tap your pans on your work surface to reduce any major air pockets that could ruin the top of your doughnut come glazing time.

Air pockets, begone!
Air pockets, begone! Photo by Bobbi Lin

5) To bake or to fry?

Cake doughnuts can be either baked or fried, though with some limitations.

Looser batters need to be piped (either directly into hot oil or onto a piece of parchment, frozen, and fried later) if they are going to be fried; otherwise, they must be baked in molds.

Roll-out dough can be either baked or fried, but I would trust the recipe and not try switching cooking methods without some experimentation.

The differences are minimal: Frying will produce a crisper and usually more golden exterior—and it will be faster! But baking produces an even product with a lovely crumb structure and often a glossy sheen on the surface. So both are winners.

High time for fry time.
High time for fry time. Photo by Bobbi Lin

6) Garnishing:

This is where it gets fun: the finishing.

To coat baked doughnuts in confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon-sugar, or another sweet blanket, allow the doughnuts to cool for 10 minutes or so. After a bit of cooling, toss the doughnuts generously in the sugar. But if you wait for the doughnuts to cool for too long, the sugar won’t stick to the doughnuts. Also, remember that confectioners’ sugar will eventually absorb into the doughnuts, so plan on serving them immediately (or toss them again!).

Photo by Bobbi Lin

For a thin, all-over glaze (think classic glazed doughnuts), let baked doughnuts cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then transfer to a wire rack and cool for a few minutes more. Pour the glaze evenly over, fully coating the doughnuts, and let set.

For a thicker glaze (think top of the doughnut only), let the baked doughnuts cool for a full 10 minutes outside the pan, on a rack, then dip the doughnuts in the glaze. The thinner the glaze, the more it will run (yum). The thicker the glaze, the more precise it will be (also yum). Apply any garnishes to the top of the glaze before it sets, which can take anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes, depending on the glaze.

Photo by James Ransom

For fried doughnuts, the rules are pretty much the same: Let them cool for a few minutes, but not completely, once they’re out of the fryer before tossing in sugar; for a thin, all-over glaze, they only need to have cooled for 4 to 5 minutes; and for a thicker, top-only glaze, let them cool for at least 10.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

6) Fresh is best:

The best doughnuts are fresh doughnuts. I heartily encourage eating doughnuts warm, minutes after being removed from the oven or fryer. Bonus points if a single bite earns you glaze dripping down your wrist. No judgment if there’s confectioners’ sugar everywhere. If you have leftovers (pssssh), store them in airtight containers for a day or two, but know they’re at their very best the same day they’re made.

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Basic Cake Doughnuts

0fecd8f8 6ef1 4649 9f57 83bf4668f3d0  3572 Erin McDowell

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Makes about 1 1/2 dozen doughnuts
  • 1/4 cup (2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
  • 1/4 cup (2 fluid ounces) vegetable or melted coconut oil
  • 3/4 cup (5.25 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 2 large (4 ounces) eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 cups (12.75 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
  • 1 1/4 cups (10 fluid ounces) whole milk, at room temperature
  • Glazes or other finishes (optional, see step 9)
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German Chocolate Cake Doughnuts

0fecd8f8 6ef1 4649 9f57 83bf4668f3d0  3572 Erin McDowell

48 Save Recipe
Makes 1 1/2 dozen doughnuts
  • One 12-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 2 cups toasted chopped pecans
  • 2 cups shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened, whichever you prefer)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 recipe Chocolate Cake Doughnuts (, cooled

You get (or make!) a box of doughnuts: Which do you go for first? Tell us in the comments!