Who put the nut in doughnut?

A doughnut is a confection made from flour dough that is deep-fried in oil. To serve, they are covered in sugar or different flavoured icings or filled with jam. Its ingredients are salt, sugar and fat; it contains between 200-300 calories; and provides absolutely no nutritional value, whatsoever. While the doughnut is still legal, obesity will never disappear.

Although deep-fried battercakes are part of all national cuisines (for instance, France has oreillettes) it is the American torus-shaped, doughnut that has become the deep-fried cake of choice among the world’s gourmands.

In geometry a torus is a surface generated by revolving a circle in three dimensions around a central point. Torus-shaped objects include inner tubes, lifebuoys and O-rings—however in plain English these are almost always referred to as doughnut-shaped.

The first written mention of doughnut is in an English cookbook of 1803 referring to American cuisine. The first literary reference to doughnuts was from Washington Irving in 1809 in his History of New York where he described them as:

… balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks.

Olykoek is a Dutch word meaning oil cake that, understandably, did not catch on—if it had, we may not be in the trouble we are now. Its use indicates a probable Dutch origin for the doughnut.

The word doughnut is made up of two parts: dough and nut. While the dough part is straightforward the origin of the nut part has proved difficult to find. There are many theories as to how the cakes became nuts: some doughcakes are formed from a knot of dough so the original word may have been doughknots; they are cooked in oil similarly to nuts hence doughnuts; or the shape resembles a zero so they may have been known as doughnoughts.

As attractive as these explanations are the answer is probably quite different. It is likely that the doughnut is a deliberate confusion of the cooked ring with its cooked hole. The reason doughnuts have a hole in the centre is to help them cook evenly. A large ball of dough cooked rapidly in hot oil ends up with an uncooked centre. The initial solution was to cut the centre out with a hole cutter. Rather than waste the small ball of dough it was also cooked and this is probably what became known as a dough nut!

And this provides the health solution. If we want to reduce unhealthy eating we should encourage the consumption of the doughnuts rather than the dough toruses.