Why Do Donuts Have Holes?

Kyle asks:

Why do doughnuts have holes?

Because bakers make them that way… In truth, nobody knows for sure why people started putting holes in the fried cakes.  There are some outlandish tales from a sailor, Captain Hanson Gregory, who claimed to have invented the holed doughnut in 1847 at the age of 16. There is even a plaque in Rockport, Maine near Clam Cove that states “In commemoration. This is the birthplace of Captain Hanson Gregory, who first invented the hole in the doughnut in 1847. Erected by his friends, Nov. 2, 1947.”

There are a variety of versions of this tale, but the version he himself put forth in the Washington Post (Mar. 26, 1916) was as follows:

Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted. I don’t think we called them doughnuts then—they was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters.’

Well, sir, they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough. And the twisters used to sop up all the grease just where they bent, and they were tough on the digestion.

Well, I says to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t a space inside solve the difficulty?’ I thought at first I’d take one of the strips and roll it around, then I got an inspiration, a great inspiration.

I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper box, and—I cut into the middle of that doughnut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!

…Well, sir, them doughnuts was the finest I ever tasted. No more indigestion—no more greasy sinkers—but just well-done, fried-through doughnuts.”

He then claims to have taught this to a variety of people and thanks to being a sailor, the holed doughnut idea spread throughout the world.

Whether this is true or not (I’m personally extremely skeptical, particularly because Captain Gregory seems to have changed the details of the tale significantly as he aged), most bakers do think that the reason doughnuts have holes is the reason Captain Gregory stated, to get rid of the slightly doughy center.

My personal favorite theory, which seems quite plausible given the timing of it and given that people have been frying up dough and making doughnut-like cakes for centuries and no one thought there was much need to remove the center, excepting some who would put fruit and the like there instead, is simply that it made a convenient way to display the cakes for sale.  Around the same time doughnuts with holes popped up in New York City, bagels were also becoming very popular in New York and were commonly put on display stacked on wooden dowels.  It may simply be that bakers in New York first got the bright idea to put holes in the dough before frying when one or more of them thought to display the doughnuts in the same way as bagels, on dowels, which no doubt saved display space.  With this theory making more evenly fried dough may or may not even come into play.


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