If you've visited Portland, Oregon of late, chances are you've spotted your fair share of people triumphantly toting around a prized pink box of Voodoo doughnuts. Maybe you've even been one such person, which makes what I'm about to say all the more pressing: Voodoo is for tourists, and if you think they're the city's best, you're missing out. Sure, the novelty factor of a schlong-shaped doughnut might be intriguing, but ultimately, it's just not worth the wait.
For quality doughnuts that are infinitely more delicious, Blue Star Donuts is where you want to be. And now that there are two locations, there's really no excuse to miss out.
What sets these doughnuts apart from the competition is as much the unique and exactingly processed brioche dough—think resplendently rich, springy, greaseless doughnuts that still manage to taste light and well-balanced—as it is the inventive glazes and fillings that do them such remarkable justice.
We figured it was high time to pay Blue Star a visit and catch the team in action.
Most doughnut shops have a fairly simple dough production process, but Blue Star's brioche dough demands a lot more time and attention. Brioche doughnuts are akin to your typical yeast doughnut (as opposed to their cake-based brethren), only enriched to the nth degree—we're talking more eggs, less water, and a whole lot more butter. In Blue Star's case, that's European-style butter from Larsen's Creamery, which has a higher fat content than the regular, American-style stuff. "If you are making French brioche, you want to use the right butter," pastry chef Stephanie Donlan explains. The result is a denser, richer doughnut that stands up to Donlan's carefully curated menu of fruity glazes and creamy fillings.
Using one dough recipe simplifies the process somewhat, but even so, the production is much more involved than your standard doughnut shop—from start to finish, the process takes two days, including a 15-hour stint in the fridge.
The dough is made with the same technique that bakeries use to make brioche dough; the main difference is that a bakery will, you know, bake it, while Donlan drops those babies in the fryer. The order in which the ingredients are combined is crucial to getting the right result. Dry ingredients—Shepherd's Grain High Gluten flour, sugar, salt, and yeast—go into the mixer first, where they take spin with the dough hook.
Donlan explains that she doesn't put much sugar into her mixture, so that when the doughnuts are ultimately dipped and/or filled, they don't veer into sickeningly sweet territory. Next, she adds a pour of whole milk from Sunshine Dairy, flavored with a touch of orange extract, along with beaten and strained cage-free eggs from Stiebrs Farms, a bit of mace, and some Nielsen-Massey vanilla paste. Thanks to those flavoring agents, Blue Star's doughnuts have a robust complexity that's virtually unrivaled in the Portland area, with or without a glaze to top.
The next step is butter. Heaps of it. Because of the sheer volume, this is the most time-consuming step: butter is sliced into several thin squares so it can be slipped through the bowl guard without disrupting the dough hook, which runs at a low speed. Butter is added gradually, a bit at a time, to it's evenly mixed and distributed. Once it's all in the bowl, the speed is cranked up for the final spin cycle.
After the dough has achieved a nice, homogenous consistency, it's balled up, wrapped in plastic, and left to sit on the counter for about three hours. During this time, the yeast is actively feeding on the carbohydrates in the dough, releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide in the process. Those bubbles are what gives the dough its light, airy structure. Aging the dough also helps to develop its flavor. "While the yeast is feeding, the dough is developing a 'yeasty' flavor, just as a sourdough loaf would," Donlan explains.
But the three hours the dough spends counter-side is merely the first step in the fermentation process. Next, it's transferred to the fridge for another 15 hours, where it continues its aging process. The cool temperatures slow the yeast's activity, but it's still working away. Stephanie says the dough could be technically be removed before the allotted time is up, but she's found that 15 hours is the sweet spot for both flavor- and texture-development.
The next morning, the giant balls of dough are rolled out into sheets and cut into rounds with a standard pastry cutter—the same method you'd use at home. The shop doesn't sell doughnut holes, but the punched out circles and other scraps are used to make the shop's Hard Apple Cider Fritters.
After the dough has been cut and put onto trays, it hangs out to proof, or rise, for a few hours in a traditional dough proofer. The warm, humid conditions of the proofer accelerate the activity of the yeast, causing the rings of dough to puff up considerably, virtually doubling in size.
Donlan fries her doughnuts in rice oil at a nice, low temperature (240-260°F, depending on the type of doughnut). She opts for rice oil because it has a neutral flavor and high smoke point, which makes it ideal for large-batch frying and is easy to reuse. Frying at a low temperature, contrary to common belief, actually minimizes oil absorption into the dough. Bakers overseeing the frying process use long wooden sticks to flip the doughnuts over—a preferred tool of the trade, which gently manipulates the rounds without squashing or damaging them in the process. Unsurprisingly, it smells extra delicious in this area of the shop.
After the doughnuts emerge from the fryer, they're ready to be dipped right into big tubs of glaze like passion fruit, maple, or lemon, and filled with creamy custards or mousse. Blue Star's fruit glazes are made with fresh fruit and powdered sugar—no purées or processed syrups. The Blueberry, Basil & Bourbon glaze, for instance, is made with just that: fresh blueberries, fresh basil, powdered sugar, and a splash of Bulleit bourbon (though not too much, because kids order it, too!). The balance between blueberry and basil is about 50/50, which gives the doughnuts a refreshing, herbaceous kick. Fillings, like the pistachio cheesecake and vanilla custard, are cooked on the stovetop, (as is the bacon for the maple bacon doughnuts), in a giant stock pot, several pounds at a time.
When the doors finally swing open at 8 a.m., mobs form at the front counter, doughnuts fly out of their trays into eager hands, and the feeding frenzy begins. Stephanie says finished doughnuts stay fresh for up to two days, but their lifespan in the shop is often much shorter. During my visit, the crew had just finished cranking out a massive order of 50 dozen doughnuts, which went directly from being dipped into boxes so they could be sent out for delivery. A second, afternoon, round of production keeps most flavors in stock until the evening.
Each day, 15 to 20 different flavors are available. If you're not sure what to choose, look no further than Stephanie's current favorites. Love a creamy filling? She recommends the Cointreau Crème Brûlée. It's one of the shop's signature doughnuts, with a crunchy, torched-sugar top, a filling of rich, house-made vanilla custard, and a pipette of Cointreau syrup that's sweetened with Madagascar vanilla beans. More one for refreshing, fruity flavors? Try the Pistachio Cheesecake. The nutty, tangy filling is complemented by sweet-tart hibiscus glaze on top. The Passion Fruit Cocoa Nib is also an excellent choice for the fruit-inclined, offering some bitterness to counter the bold glaze, with a pinch of cayenne pepper for some tingly heat.
But really, the most pressing question isn't what to order, but how many different flavors to try. Our advice? At least three different doughnuts, even if you have to tell yourself you'll save the extras "for later" (i.e.: 20 minutes in the future).