When I Learned A Lot About Doughnuts


As long-time readers know, on Fridays — like, you know, today — I do a week-in-review type of thing.  Today, I want to talk a bit about doughnuts. 

Or, rather, about learning about doughnuts. 

(If you didn’t read Wednesday’s email yet about the color of police uniforms, do that first — just click here — because I’m about to spoil it for you.)

Two years ago this October, my third book hit bookstores. The process to write a book is long and often tedious, and when you’re writing what is basically a collection of 100 stories (as opposed to one cohesive story), it comes in fits and spurts. But on the individual story level, the writing process for a book chapter isn’t all that different than writing the Monday through Thursday newsletters. I find an interesting fact, dig a bit deeper, and start writing the story. Wednesday’s email cites one of the chapters in that third book, something went wrong. Here’s the story behind that story.

Being well-read, insatiably curious, and a person with a good eye for trivia, I typically have a decent, albeit glib understanding of most concepts I write about. Doughnuts are a great example. I know what they are. I know where you buy them. I know what they taste like. Etc. So when I found out that the reason police officers stereotypically are believed to like doughnuts more than most people do, I was able to start writing pretty quickly. It’s really a simple story, as I summarized on Wednesday, “in order to make good, fresh doughnuts for the morning rush, doughnut makers needed to work overnight.” And if they’re open overnight, when it’s less safe to be around a lot of cash, it only makes sense that they’ll want the police to stop by. So what do the doughnut makers do? They offer the police some free (or discounted) doughnuts. It’s a win-win, symbiotic relationship.

But while writing the story, something kept bothering me. Again, I know what doughnuts are — they’re basically little cakes, shaped kind of like a bagel. Other cakey-like products don’t need to be made overnight; if you open at, say, 5 AM, you don’t need to be there, cooking, at 3 AM. Why do doughnuts take so long to make? 

That insatiable sense of curiosity took over and I kept searching. Finally, I found the answer. Here’s what I wrote in the book (or in a draft of it; I don’t have a digital copy of the final and don’t want to re-key it!):

Most doughnuts—the light, airy, often glazed ones that you’ll find at companies such as Krispy Kreme—are called “yeast doughnuts” because yeast causes them to rise. The rising process alone takes up to three hours. When you factor in the shaping, frying, glazing, optional jelly filling, and everything else involved in that delicious doughnut, the math paints a painstaking picture. Want to have fresh doughnuts ready for the first wave of office workers at about 6 a.m.? You’ll basically need to work through the night. “Cake doughnuts,” like apple cider doughnuts or the all-chocolate doughnuts you can get at most shops, take less time because they use baking powder and/or baking soda to raise the batter instantly as it cooks. However, most good doughnut shops will have both types, so regardless of the wonders of baking powder and baking soda, you’ll still be up late.

I don’t really know why I didn’t realize this beforehand. I’m not much of a baker and never have been, so that’s probably why. Even now, I’m not sure which doughnuts are “cake” ones versus “raised” ones, except in obvious cases.

But now, I know that there are two different types of doughnuts and that one of the two types is the reason why we associate police officers with doughnuts.

Funnily enough, the difference is critically important to Wednesday’s fact. In order to fill a doughnut with, e.g., jelly, it needs to be light and airy — basically, you need some space for the jelly to go. If doughnut shops only made cake doughnuts, they’d never have needed police assistance overnight, and the police-doughnut link wouldn’t have happened. To make jelly doughnuts, though, they needed that extra security. Police officers helped make jelly doughnuts, in some roundabout way, and that jelly impacted the color of their uniforms.

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: The Best Story You’ll Hear About Someone’s Morning Commute: Mind the gap.

Tuesday: Winnie the Pooh-Poohed: The problems with a bear with no pants. 

Wednesday: Why The NYC Police Darkened Their Blues: As above, it’s about doughnuts.

Thursday: When Multiple Streams Can Be Taxing. My math skills here weren’t great — I said that the treaty signed in 1842 was a century after the one signed in 1783, and that’s not even close to right. I updated the article on the archives to say “half-century.”

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “The man who stole a hotel” (Capital Daily, 47 minutes, April 2021). Thanks to reader John G. for the tip. 

2) “One Man’s Amazing Journey to the Center of the Bowling Ball” (Wired, 23 minutes, May 2021). The subhead: “Mo Pinel spent a career reshaping the ball’s inner core to harness the power of physics. He revolutionized the sport—and spared no critics along the way.” Thanks to reader Luis D. for the tip.

3) “Meet the mystery woman who mastered IBM’s 5,400-character Chinese typewriter” (Fast Company, 16 minutes, May 2021). The typewriter, from the 1940s, was a marvel: “With just these 36 keys, the machine was capable of producing up to 5,400 Chinese characters in all, wielding a language that was infinitely more difficult to mechanize than English or other Western writing systems.” And this one typist seemed to be able to type all 5,400 from memory. Here’s her story.

Have a great weekend!