The tradition of serving fresh doughnuts with apple cider dates back more than a hundred years, but doughnuts made with apple cider? That's more of a mid-century marvel, popularized by the Doughnut Corporation of America. Founded by Adolph Levitt (there's a whole chapter on him in my cookbook), the DCA wasn't a doughnut shop, but a manufacturer of automated doughnut machines, proprietary fry-oil, and doughnut mixes, as well as marketing strategies—like the introduction of national doughnut month.
Which is to say, when they rolled out the "Sweet Cider Donut" concept in 1951, it was instantly adopted by most everyone who worked with DCA's product lines, including mom and pop shops, orchards, and doughnut chains alike. Nearly 70 years later, apple cider doughnuts are more popular than ever, if somewhat misunderstood.
The originals were characterized primarily by the use of the same spices found in apple pie—a cake doughnut meant to be served alongside apple cider—but over time, people have come to expect them to taste like cider as well. Which proves to be something of a quixotic task, as the character of apple cider is defined by its super fresh, just-pressed flavor, whereas most cider doughnut recipes involve a lengthy reduction process to "pack" more cider flavor into the doughnuts.
I don't find that approach works particularly well, as the lengthly cooking transforms the orchard-fresh flavor of cider into something earthy and dark. More flavorful on a technical level, but it's certainly not more of the flavor I want, which is that of fresh apple cider. Can you imagine how Max's watermelon sorbet would taste with a watermelon reduction, rather than fresh juice? Or how about lemonade made with a lemon juice reduction?
I prefer a simpler approach to cider doughnuts, with fresh apple cider and a host of subtle aromatics in the dough to lay a flavorful foundation, and a topcoat of freeze-dried apples ground up with toasted sugar for a big hit of fresh apple flavor the moment that doughnut hits my tongue (more on that technique here).
I also start with a yeast-raised dough, rather than a cake-style one. In large part, that's because yeast-raised doughs can accommodate a lot more liquid on the whole, allowing me to incorporate a higher proportion of fresh cider. But I also find that the lightly fermented flavor of a yeast-raised dough resonates more with the cider, playing up its natural funk. Yeast-raised doughnuts have a better structure for dunking as well, letting them soak up lots of hot cider without falling apart.
It's not an old-school approach by any means, but it takes me exactly where I want to go: to a crisp but tender doughnut that actually tastes like apples.
The dough itself is super simple, and comes together in under 2 minutes. Start by pulsing the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, instant dry yeast, salt, and spice) in a food processor, then add the cider and continue processing to form a soft but sturdy dough.
Finally, pulse in a little fat to form a sticky but pliable dough—I love using hazelnut oil as its flavor is such a good match with apples (I have a bottle leftover from my last batch of homemade Nutella and waffle cones), but brown butter works in a similar way, adding delicately nutty richness that adds to the complexity of the cider.
I proof the dough in a greased container until it's puffy and light, but resilient enough to bounce back from a gentle poke after a minute, a stage at which it will be roughly doubled in bulk.
At cool room temperature, say 70°F (21°C), this will take about two hours, but you can expect the dough to move faster or slower in warmer or cooler environments, respectively (or when using freshly browned butter that's still quite hot). As with literally any stage of any recipe, the physical cues take precedent over the estimated time, so pay close attention to the dough, not the clock.
When the dough has risen nicely, I turn it out onto a flour-dusted surface and roll it until it's just shy of 1/2 inch thick, about 12mm. This is pretty important, so grab a ruler; taking the dough all the way down to 1/4-inch will result in wimpy, wafer-thin doughnuts, and leaving it over 1/2 inch will give you doughnut behemoths that may refuse to cook through. These problems of too thin or too thick can also be exacerbated by under- and over-proofing later on, so take care to get the dough right while you can.
Of course, you can cut the dough however you like, but I find that 3-inch rounds will stretch and puff into nicely sized 3 1/2-inch rings, which feel just perfect in my hands. You can cut them larger or smaller, but do be aware this will affect how long they need to fry.
Transfer the rounds to a greased baking sheet; using oil or pan spray rather than flour will minimize the amount of debris that later hits the oil, so it stays clean and fresh for reuse. For classic doughnut rings, use a 1-inch cutter to form the hole; I've got a set of graduated, nested cookie cutters that's perfect for the task.
If you don't have a 1-inch cutter, don't worry; the rings can easily be formed by hand, giving them a little more rustic charm. Just poke a hole in the center of each round, and gently stretch into a ring with your fingers.
If you like, gather and knead the doughnut holes and scraps into a ball, then roll and cut as before.
Cover the doughnuts and proof as before, until the rings have risen to about 18mm or just shy of 3/4 inch. At this stage the dough will feel puffy and light to the touch, but a little resilient, not fragile. Again, the physical cues are vastly more important than the literal timing, but expect the second rise to take about an hour at cool room temperature.
When the dough is nearly risen, begin heating the oil so it can hit about 365°F by the time the doughnuts are ready. As with the cake and yeast-raised doughnuts from my book, my DIY Donettes, and homemade cannoli, my number one recommendation for deep frying is a solid fat like refined coconut oil.
Little jars of refined coconut oil can be pretty pricey in supermarkets, but when shopping in bulk at warehouse clubs or online, that price will drop to just a few cents an ounce. And I've got 18 recipes here on Serious Eats to help justify that purchase.
Like lard or shortening, refined coconut oil is solid at room temperature, which is a crucial detail for fried doughnuts. Imagine a piece of bread dunked in oil for a few minutes, and the way it would squish in your mouth.
That's nice if you're talking about a chunk of focaccia dipped in a fine olive oil, but that's exactly the textural quality that makes doughnuts feel greasy and gross. Solid fats change all that, as they revert to their solid state once cool, giving the doughnut a pleasant, lingering richness, like a piece of bread with a thin smear of butter.
Even better? Thanks to its high smoke point, refined coconut oil won't curse your kitchen with that awful, fried-food funk. After frying the doughnuts, my kitchen smells like doughnuts, not grease.
Rolled and cut as directed, I like to fry the doughnuts about 90 seconds per side in refined coconut oil heated to 365°F. But the timing will vary depending on the precise size and thickness of the doughnut, as well as the temperature of the oil, so be sure to fry a test doughnut that can be cracked open to check on the interior, so the timing of future batches can be adjusted accordingly.
While the doughnuts are fresh from the fryer, I dredge them in apple cinnamon sugar. This can be made well before the doughnuts (no need to clean the food processor in between chores) and stored in an airtight container, but because it comes together in about 30 seconds, it can also be made at the last minute.
Whenever you make it, be sure to dredge the doughnuts while they're still warm.
In the end, you'll be rewarded with a light but crisp doughnut with a gentle spice perfuming the dough, and an intense apple flavor in the sugar coating itself. They're best served alongside a mug of hot cider, or while standing outside on a crisp autumn day.