The last weekend in August, Doug, Alex, and I met in New York for an event that had been in the works for more than a year: Doughnut Quest 2010. Our aim was to settle the question of where to find the best doughnut in New York, both for ourselves and for the benefit of society at large.
All three of us are big doughnut fans. Back when we all lived in Minneapolis, we spent a couple months going to one neighborhood bakery each weekend to try their doughnuts. We debated the merits of the various shops, trying to tease out the characteristics that allowed a simple glazed doughnut to make the leap from tasty to sublime. We developed some clear favorites, though we didn't always completely agree. (Doug and I also had a sharp difference of opinion on chocolate croissants that resulted in raised voices on several occasions, but that's neither here nor there.)
In bringing our doughnut search to New York, we felt it was important that our evaluation be rigorous, so that we could stake future calories on its results. Both Alex and I had places in NYC that we already knew for their great doughnuts, but we also conducted a search of the literature, identifying almost 20 establishments that had been cited as having the "best" doughnuts in New York. We winnowed our sample by eliminating places that were not corroborated in multiple sources, as well as those that had closed. The end result was a list of 10 shops [map], a mix of traditional doughnut shops and places with gourmet ambitions:
- Alpha Donuts
- Cafe Falai
- Cupcake Cafe
- Donut Pub
- Doughnut Plant
- Mike's Donuts
- Peter Pan Bakery
- Sullivan Street Bakery
- Trois Pommes
At each of these bakeries, all three of us ate a glazed doughnut (when available) as a baseline. Cleansing our palates with iced tea or other beverages in between, we also shared samples of up to three other varieties, for a total sample of 25 different doughnuts. Crucial to ensuring the rigor of our taste test was a uniform scoring sheet with eight criteria, which we each filled out for each doughnut prior to discussing our impressions. Each criteria has relative weight according to its importance, and was judged on a 1 to 10 scale for each doughnut:
- Dough (taste) - yeastiness, richness, degree of sweetness (Scoring weight: 5)
- Dough (texture) - body of the doughnut, chewiness, density, mouth feel (3)
- Fried-ness - extent of frying, texture, flavor (2)
- Glaze/Topping/Filling - taste, texture (5)
- Balance of flavors - interplay and balance between dough, glaze/filling, and fried-ness (4)
- Appearance - physical attractiveness (2)
- Ambiance of setting - appeal and doughnut-appropriateness of bakery setting (1)
- Overall doughnut rating - taster's overall rating (10)
Once the data were collected, they were analyzed to determine the score for each doughnut we sampled. This score, the Doughnut Index, represents the percentage of possible points earned by the doughnut. The results listed below are averages across all three tasters; follow the links at the bottom if you're interested in individual ratings.
Sampling 25 different doughnuts over the course of three days was hard work. We trekked around three different boroughs, eating only small meals at breakfast and lunch to keep our hunger up. After each of us had filled out scorecards for each of the doughnuts, we had 600 data points to crunch. (In the interest of transparency, the full data set and some additional charts can be seen in the results spreadsheet on Google Docs. ) Let's take a look at what we found, starting with the five doughnuts scoring the highest Doughnut Index.
1) Blackberry Jelly with Vanilla Bean Glaze
This absolutely delicious blackberry jelly doughnut took top honors of all the Doughnut Quest 2010 entrants. It earned high marks from all tasters for dough, filling, and flavor. "Best filling I've ever had," noted Alex on his scoring sheet. "Tartness of blackberries balances well with vanilla bean glaze," wrote Doug, "a nice foil to the fried-ness." I sounded the only note of reservation in the glowing reviews, saying that the filling was "a little too sweet." Completing the package was the fact that, unlike every other bakery in America, Doughnut Plant makes their jelly doughnuts with a hole in the middle. Where does the jelly go? Instead of an ill-distributed glop in the center, this doughnut had jam distributed evenly throughout the interior of its entire circumference, ensuring perfectly-calibrated quantities of doughnut and jam in every bite.
2) Blueberry Glazed
Doughnut Plant's flavors change with the seasons, and we were fortunate to visit during blueberry season. The fresh, light flavor of the blueberry glaze was a surprising but excellent compliment to the substantial, chewy body of the doughnut. "Blueberries + fried taste = SUMMER," wrote Doug, putting his high school algebra to good use. Alex was slightly more reserved, saying that the "flavor is a touch too subtle". I was unreserved in my enthusiasm, but not in the mood for overanalyzing, simply noting on my scorecard that it was "a beautiful union of antioxidants and saturated fat." (Apologies for the out-of-focus picture -- I was clearly more focused on eating than photography.)
3) Vanilla Bean Glazed
This is Doughnut Plant's take on the basic glazed doughnut, and it rounds out their sweep of the top three positions. For me, the texture and taste of the dough make this doughnut -- it's a tad less sweet than you expect it to be, a little bit chewy, and has a nice, subtle, yeasty flavor. Add in the lovely vanilla flavor of the glaze, and you've got something that goes far, far beyond the typical glazed ring.
4) Raspberry-Filled Bomboloni
Sullivan Street Bakery
This is one of two varieties of bomboloni we tried at Sullivan Street Bakery. (Bomboloni are an Italian style of doughnut that are typically small spheres filled with jam or cream.) Their take was more intensely fried than bomboloni or other doughnuts elsewhere, with only a touch of powdered sugar. Inside was a tart, intensely flavorful spoonful of raspberry jam. "Delicious," said Alex. "The texture [of the filling] and the fact that it was so tart worked really well with the crispier-than-average outside," I wrote. "Perfect marks for fried-ness," Doug concurred. "Dough texture, taste, firmness, etc. just about perfect." One of the few caveats was that Doug noted he "would have liked more powdered sugar." Alex concluded by saying that it was "very, very good," but without "the extra, ineffable sparkle" to make it a perfect 10.
5) Chantilly Cream Bomboloni
We tried several different varieties of bomboloni at Cafe Falai, but this was the one that stood out. Presented on a plate at a white-tableclothed Soho cafe, the experience of eating it was also quite different than most of the other doughnuts we ate. (It didn't hurt that our server brought out another doughnut on the house when she saw our scoring sheets.) A cut of the doughnut revealed a filling much less dense than other cream centers. "Surprising -- eggy, light filling," I wrote. "Really nice balance of flavors." The flavor had "nice depth," according to Doug. Alex did have some reservations about the lightness of the filling, however, saying that it wasn't quite substantial enough to match up with the dough. Quibbles aside, this was a delicious, well-executed doughnut.
Overall Bakery Ratings
Averaging the Doughnut Index scores of the ten bakeries we visited, the traditional doughnut shops -- Alpha Donuts, Donut Pub, Mike's Donuts, and Peter Pan Bakery tended to underperform.
Doughnut Plant was the clear winner, with an average Doughnut Index of 81.2. Donut Pub, with a score of 44.7, was the only bakery under 50.
Performance of Classic Doughnut Varieties
At the four traditional doughnut shops, trends were apparent in the scores of the basic doughnut varieties -- glazed, jelly, and French cruller. The jelly doughnuts performed poorly, while the French crullers scored well on the Doughnut index, with those from Peter Pan Bakery and Alpha Donuts appearing in the top half of the ratings.
For the most part, we liked the doughnuts we tasted, it's just that some were better than others. So it's not surprising that almost all doughnuts scored above a 50, meaning they received more than half the points available. Four doughnuts, however, did not pass this threshold:
22) Red Bean-Filled
This Koreatown shop sells many other baked goods alongside a couple types of doughnuts. The Red Bean-Filled doughnut wasn't exactly bad, but it didn't quite win us over. As Alex put it, "It's a doughnut filled with red beans. Hard to judge, as the red bean flavor is so unusual to my palate."
23) French Cruller
Despite the solid performance of French crullers overall, this one did not go over well. "Blah," declared Doug. "Tasted distressingly like the Glazed," added Alex.
Mike's is a very typical doughnut shop in outer Brooklyn, and turned in a good performance on the only cake doughnut we tried (Coconut). But the Jelly had "boring, over-sweet filling and little texture in the dough," I wrote. Alex termed it a "crappy jelly doughnut." Doug gave a backhanded compliment, saying that the filling was good "in an artificial, diner-pie sort of way."
25) Jelly Sugar
Bringing up the rear as the lowest-scorer by more than ten points was the Jelly Sugar at Donut Pub. Unlike the other jelly doughnuts sampled, it was covered with granulated sugar instead of powdered. All three tasters mentioned the "poor distribution of jelly," which Alex remarked "tastes like cough syrup." "If I didn't really like doughnuts," added Doug, "I wouldn't like this."
We said we were going to be rigorous in our approach to this project. If you do not yet have enough doughnut information to satisfy your appetite, you can also read top rankings and concluding thoughts from Alex, Doug, and me.
In addition, pictures of Doughnut Quest 2010 (including one of every doughnut sampled) are posted on Flickr.