We were reminiscing about our croissant taste-off last year, when a ridiculous plan was hatched and quickly spun out of control. Doughnuts. Let’s see where the well-known favorites stack up against Seattle’s mom and pop shops.
We retrieved doughnuts from all ends of the city and convened on Father’s Day morning for a taste-off of epic proportions. If you thought four dozen croissants was excessive, try eleven dozen doughnuts in the same room. Perhaps it was an ambitious plan.
Frost Doughnuts. Open for less than a year, this is the youngest doughnut shop in our taste-off, offering sophisticated creations out of their boutique shop in Mill Creek. The shop is so popular that they are rumored to be looking for a second location closer to Seattle.
King Donuts. They sell teriyaki and doughnuts next to a Maytag Laundromat in Rainier Beach. Needless to say, we were curious to see what kind of doughnuts are baked in a place like this. Teriyaki doughnuts while you wait for your last load to finish spinning?
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. The Original Glazed Krispy Kreme was popular across the country before they opened three stores in the Seattle area, including the SODO location where we picked up fresh glazed doughnuts for our taste-off.
Mighty-O Donuts. Organic vegan doughnuts might make you imagine a tofu ring covered in glaze, but you would be hard-pressed to identify their doughnut as vegan in a line-up. While the bakery is situated in Wallingford, you can also find these doughnuts in high-end area grocery stores like Whole Foods and Madison Market.
Original Bakery. Open for decades, this neighborhood favorite in West Seattle is our oldest taste-off contender. They sell no-frills doughnuts and other home style bakery items to go with your coffee at this friendly family-owned shop.
Top Pot Doughnuts. Top Pot’s “hand-forged” doughnuts are in such demand that they’ve now got six brick-and-mortar shops, along with an Airstream mobile unit, plus a presence at our own Qwest field and in Starbucks across the country. The doughnuts for this taste-off came from their original location in north Capitol Hill.
Lara Ferroni’s homemade doughnuts. How do homemade doughnuts stack up against the very best doughnut shops in Seattle? Lara made us a few batches from her soon-to-be-published Doughnuts cookbook, which is scheduled to hit bookstores this fall. No fancy, professional bakery equipment here; just a stovetop pot and thermometer. We should note for our taste test that only two of the twelve people judging knew that there were homemade doughnuts in the mix, so the doughnuts were judged as if they were from a professional bakery.
Six couples, three kids, two babies, plus one on the way gathered after some self-imposed carb fasting. Those with voting rights were our hosts Kye Soon Hong and Eric Vigessa, along with Catherine Reynolds and Ken O’Hara, Laurie and Matthew Amster-Burton, Rebekah Denn and David Dickey, Michael and Robin Bruchas, plus yours truly.
Revealing the results
The Ranking Method
This was a blind taste taste, with an arbitrary letter assigned to each doughnut for identification. Each person independently stack ranked them, from their most to least favorite.
A doughnut was given one point when it was the top of someone’s list, a second choice doughnut received two points, all the way on down the list. So if there are seven doughnuts, the best possible score is 12 (i.e. when everyone ranks it top on their list) and the worst possible score is 84 (all twelve people rank it 7th on their list).
We decided that the only way to make a fair comparison between shops was to compare the same kind of doughnut from each place. However, it was tough to whittle the playing field so that we could avoid each person having to eat dozens of different doughnuts on a single morning. (I know, you’re asking, how is that a bad thing?)
To focus our attention on the doughnut recipe, we stuck with the quintessential plain cake and glazed raised doughnuts as our categories. This meant we’d only have to try around a dozen different doughnuts, which should be no problem, right?
But then we got tempted by all of the other doughnut possibilities. Apple fritter? Buttermilk bar? Bismark? How could we ignore each doughnut shop’s specialty? In the end, we decided a third category might be disastrous, but we would allow a specialty doughnut flavor from each shop, which people could taste, but these doughnuts would not be part of the judging.
The Plain Cake Doughnut
A plain cake might not be the doughnut that you choose when you’re distracted by chocolate, maple glaze, sprinkles, and jelly. But it’s an important doughnut because it tells you a lot about the bakery. What is the flavor of the oil they use for frying? Is the cake dense or light? What kind of crumb? Is it fried with a crunchy or soft exterior?
And besides, sometimes a plain doughnut is all that will do for dunking into your coffee. And in case you’re wondering, no, Dunkin’ Donuts was not a participant in our taste-off, since they closed all west coast outposts a couple years ago. Krispy Kreme was the only one of our contenders that didn’t participate in this category, because let’s be real here: which doughnut do you buy when you go to Krispy Kreme?
|7th place: A majority ranked Mighty-O’s doughnut dead last, due to the off-flavor (excessive baking soda and the taste of corn oil?) and lack of crunch to the crust. With a uniform texture throughout, it was uninteresting and bland, garnering a score of 74.|
|6th place: Top Pot was all over the map, landing everywhere except in the number one spot on the stack rankings. But the median score was 5, giving it an overall rating of 53. The texture on this doughnut was bready with no crunchy crust, and some felt that it was oily, with a strong nutmeg or clove flavor.|
|5th place: With only a point advantage over 6th place (52), Frost had a score distribution similar to Top Pot. This is a very sweet doughnut that seemed bland to some, and like Mighty-O and Top Pot, it had a soft exterior with no crunch.|
|4th place: The rankings for Family Donut ran the gamut. It might have placed better if it hadn’t been fried in slightly rancid old oil, since it was crunchy with a good open crumb. Overall, it received a score of 48.|
|3rd place: Homemade doughnuts did well in our taste-test, yielding two first-place votes and an overall score of 46. The crust was crisp, which was an important criteria for most in the cake category, and there was a good crumb with a subtle nutmeg flavor.|
|2nd place: The sweet, cakelike doughnut from King Donuts made it into the top two slots in half of our stack rankings. Its score was 35. The nutmeg was well balanced and while many liked the texture and crunch, a few felt that it was a bit too fluffy.|
|1st place: Original Bakery was the clear winner with a majority voting the cake doughnut as their favorite. The crunchy crust and light interior made this the perfect doughnut for many. This doughnut had a slightly unique (some called it citrusy) flavor to it, unlike the customary nutmeg flavor. Was it cinnamon? However, there were a few who didn’t go for the non-traditional flavor of this doughnut, resulting in a score of 28.|
Raised dough is a canvas for many people’s favorite doughnuts: jelly-filled, maple bars, bismarks, and the ever-classic raised glazed.
This category was harder to judge than the cake category. A few people mentioned that they thought only the top few cake doughnuts were worth eating, whereas they would be happy eating any of the raised doughnuts, including the lower ranked ones. The rankings here were based more on subtle nuances, although the highest ranked tended to be doughnuts that had an airy soft interior with a touch of crunch on the edges.
Mighty-O doesn’t make a raised glazed, so didn’t participate in this category, and we were unfortunately unable to include Top Pot’s ring for this tasting. Next time.
|6th place: Homemade doughnuts did not fare as well in this round as in the previous round. Raised doughnuts can be tricky to make without professional equipment like a proof box, and some felt that they tasted a bit yeasty and not as sweet as the others. The overall score was 69.|
|5th place: Half ranked the Frost Doughnut fifth on their stack ranking, but the rest placed it higher. The resulting score of 44 put it marginally behind the next couple doughnuts. This doughnut was more cakey than the higher ranked doughnuts, and some felt that it, too, was yeasty.|
|4th place: With a very sweet dough, Krispy Kreme’s Original Glazed doughnut was no one’s favorite, rating an overall score of 42. It was uniformly soft and had a shiny thick glaze. And yes, our Krispy Kremes were eaten at room temperature, just like all the other doughnuts.|
|3rd place: Family Donut had four first place votes, but the rest of the votes spanned the entire range, pulling it down to a score of 39. This doughnut was fairly sweet and if it didn’t have a slight old-oil flavor similar to their raised, it might have placed higher.|
|2nd place: Half of the people placed Original Bakery’s doughnut in their top two, and a couple said this was a clear winner above the rest. This sweet doughnut had a strong nutmeg flavor and a bit of a crunch to the edges that people liked. The overall rating was 35.|
|1st place: The King Donut was far and away the favorite, with nearly everyone placing it into their top three, and five ranking it their favorite. It came in with a score of 23. The doughnut had a good all-around flavor and sweetness, plus a great soft texture. With so many favoring this doughnut, it makes me wonder if their teriyaki is as good.|
As a way to showcase the best of each bakery, everyone brought in a specialty doughnut to taste. The red velvet from Frost was beautiful and with cream cheese frosting to boot. Mighty-O’s raspberry lemon poppy seed was soft and tangy. Lara supplied cute sugared twists and doughnut holes that were the perfect small bites. And we could see why the bismark from Original Bakery has a loyal following.
I even tried my own hand at doughnuts, using Lara’s German chocolate recipe, and for my first homemade doughnuts ever, I was pretty pleased with the results. Since they were easy to make, and I saved the used fry oil in my fridge, I’d like to try her banana doughnuts next. Or maybe the ricotta fritters.
Then there were the apple fritters. Nobody knew who was bringing which specialty doughnuts, so we didn’t plan to have four different apple fritters. But perhaps it shouldn’t be much of a surprise, with this being a classic favorite. So we set up the plates for a spontaneous third taste-off.
One of our judges almost defected from her job when she heard that she would need to judge another round, but she rallied for the last four doughnuts.
There seemed to be two camps to the apple fritter lovers: some like the crunchy edges and others prefer the soft inside. Since the fritters were each very different from one another, this resulted in voting being pretty scattered among the fritters, with one clear favorite.
|4th place: The fritter from Top Pot Doughnuts was very traditional-looking in shape, with quite a bit of soft interior and a thick coating of glaze. The edges were somewhat crunchy, and several thought the whole thing was too sweet. As with every doughnut in this category, the votes spanned the whole range, although the Top Pot fritter was last on half our rankings. The overall score was 34.|
|Tie for 2nd place: The two fritters taking second could not have looked and tasted more different from one another. The one from King Donuts was a regular-shaped soft puffy square, with lots of apple bits, while the one from Frost Doughnuts was a crunchy maze of crazy-shaped dough drizzled with caramel. Nearly everyone gave these two fritters a 2nd or 3rd place ranking, leaving them with a tied score of 31.|
|1st place: The flattest fritter with the crunchiest edges was from Family Donut Shop. This one was a deep caramel-colored brown, and preferred by a majority of our judges, coming in with a score of 24.|
Our conclusion was that doughnut judging is a lot more difficult than croissants. With so many variations on even the standard recipe, not to mention the toppings and flavors that we didn’t even touch, the type of doughnut you like and consider the “best” may very well be quite different from mine, or our judging here.
But we did discover two things. One: there are a lot of good doughnuts hiding in nooks and crannies of this city, certainly more than we tasted on this morning. Any suggestions for other favorites we should try? And two: we will never again try to taste 22 different doughnuts in a single morning.
What should we taste-test next? Cupcakes? Baguettes?