Doughnuts and bagels are two of the most beloved on-the-go breakfasts around. But while nobody really talks about bagel holes, doughnut holes are a popular treat in their own right. So, who was the first person to decide that doughnuts shouldn’t have a middle? Here’s a brief history on everyone’s favorite holey pastry.
The first doughnuts
Nobody is quite sure where the first doughnuts were invented, but people have been frying dough for centuries. Archaeologists have found evidence of ancient Native Americans making a fried pastry similar to modern doughnuts, although we probably wouldn’t recognize them today.
The first modern doughnuts were made by Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam (a.k.a. New York City). Back in the 17th century, doughnuts were called olykoeks, literally translated as “oily cakes.” These early olykoeks didn’t have holes and looked like small pancakes flavored with nuts and fruits.
There are a lot of theories surrounding the creation of the holey doughnut, but the most popular is from a ship captain in the 1800s named Hanson Gregory. Gregory’s mother, Elizabeth, made the best deep-fried dough. For one of her son's voyages, she made a huge batch of fried dough with spices from her son’s expeditions like nutmeg and cinnamon, and she put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center where the dough might not cook evenly. As they were literally dough with nuts inside, she called them dough-nuts.
While his mom might have created the initial recipe, Gregory himself is credited with the signature look. Although there are many theories regarding the invention of the holey doughnut, one of the more entertaining theories suggests that Hanson added the hole so that he could skewer the treat on the wheel of his ship when he needed both hands to steer. Either way, it’s believed that the first time anyone had seen a doughnut hole was when Gregory punched it out with the top of a round tin.
While the theory about keeping both hands on the ship’s wheel makes for a good visual, it’s more likely that Gregory added a hole to his doughnuts to allow them to cook evenly. When a pastry is thick like a doughnut, the middle doesn’t cook as evenly as the outsides. Many of the early Dutch immigrants making olykoeks would put fillings in the middle to prevent the center from getting too doughy. Perhaps because he would have had few filling options while at sea, Gregory simply decided to eliminate the center altogether. Adding a hole increased the surface area of the doughnut and allowed it to cook evenly all the way through. No more extra doughy pockets!
Just the holes
After the world learned about how great holed doughnuts were, that style became standard. Before the process was automated, punching the holes out of doughnuts created a lot of extra dough that nobody knew what to do with (imagine all the leftover dough when you've cut out a tray full of sugar cookies). Most of the time, they’d just put it back into the bowl and use it to make more holey donuts.
In 1972, an executive at Dunkin’ Donuts had an idea. Why not use punched-out dough to make a separate treat? Of course, these became known as doughnut holes and were advertised as “Munchkins” to appeal to kids. (And yes, they were named after the “Wizard of Oz” characters.) Adults were supposed to eat the regular doughnuts while kids were meant to enjoy the smaller doughnut holes.
Ironically, the machines that make modern doughnuts craft the dough into a ring shape instead of punching out the hole later, so there’s no extra dough for the doughnut holes. All doughnut holes you see today are made separately and aren’t really doughnut holes at all!