In the pantheon of America’s favorite confections, the doughnut sits on the top shelf of the display case. Available anywhere you need one, from the corner bakery to the big chain coffee shop, doughnuts are there for you. Whether rescuing your soul as rings of fried salvation after a night of indulgence or as a vehicle for early morning courage when facing the motivation crushing emptiness of a cube farm, the doughnut has you covered.
In case you didn’t know, the history of doughnuts in the states traces back to Dutch settlers in New York who fried balls of dough called olykoeks or “oily cakes.” The Online Etymology Dictionary describes them: “… probably on the notion of being a small round lump.” First recorded by Washington Irving, who described them as “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks.”
Mmm, hog’s fat.
The doughnut is rumored to have gotten its hole from one Captain Gregory. Gregory’s mother made nutmeg spiced olykoeks, but the thick middles never cooked through. Tired of the doughy uncooked centers of his mother’s olykoeks, Gregory punched a hole in the dough balls so they would cook more evenly and the ring doughnut was born. During World War One, American Soldiers were served doughnuts by women volunteers called “doughnut girls.” When the doughboys (a nickname unrelated to doughnuts) returned home, the cravings for fried dough followed them. Industrial production, affordable price, and availability cemented the doughnut as an icon of American culture.
In 1937 a young Vernon Rudolph cooked the first batch of Krispy Kreme doughnuts in Winston-Salem, N.C. By the late ’50s, Krispy Kreme had trademarked its red, green, and white bowtie logo, expanded to 12 states, and faced off against upstart Dunkin’ Donuts. Today Krispy Kreme has over a thousand stores and Dunkin’ Donuts boasts over 10,000. That’s a lot of damn doughnuts.
Like many previously pedestrian food stuffs in the current environment of who can out bespoke or artisan everyone, the doughnut has been elevated to a hip craft product. Small but inventive doughnut shops like Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts and New York City’s Dough are making their name with Bacon Maple bars and Hibiscus doughnuts. Yet historic shops like Randy’s Doughnuts in Inglewood, Calif., founded in 1953 and inspiration for The Simpsons’ doughnut shop with the Giant Doughnut on the roof, are still cranking out the same classics. If you ask for suggestions in New Orleans, you are invariably told to get beignets (the official state doughnut of Louisiana) with a cup of chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde on Jackson Square. Cafe du Monde has been in business since 1862 and only closes on Christmas Day and during the occasional hurricane. The classics remain relevant. Whether you crave a lighter yeast risen doughnut or a cake-y batter based doughnut, a classic vanilla glazed or the four hour line causing cronut, there’s a doughnut for everyone.
And as one would expect from Charleston’s culinary scene, we have a number of options for classic or boundary breaking doughnuts. Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts have locations in the Lowcountry but there are plenty of specialty shops and bakeries here to feed your non-corporate fried dough cravings.
Nana’s co-owner Leslie Armstrong so loved Diggity Doughnuts’ Nutty Rooster that when the opportunity came to buy the brick and mortar location at 616 Meeting St., she and her partner Alan Berger jumped on it. With their experience as part owners of the Asheville vegan restaurant Plant, Diggity’s recipes were a perfect fit. They’ve since updated and added to the recipes priding themselves on being 95 percent organic and vegan. When possible they try to use conflict free and ethically harvested ingredients. All of their doughnuts are batter- or cake-based. Soft and spongy, they’re not as dense as other cake doughnuts. Nana’s lists almost 20 options on its website and they vary what is made day to day so you’ll need to make a few visits to try them all. For science of course. If you’re dragging ass, the double shot is a blast of espresso from Charleston Coffee Roasters beans. The Caramel by the Sea is topped with crunchy sea salt. If you still get that sriracha and peanut butter jones, Nana’s puts the Nutty Rooster on the menu once or twice a month.
Joey Bag a Donuts
Nestled in a strip mall near the entrance of Park West, Joey Bag a Donuts fries up doughnuts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings. Joey’s is a classic doughnut shop serving cake and yeast styles with a number of different icing and topping choices. Touting over 50 styles of doughnuts, there are plenty of options from standard glazed or chocolate to peanut butter fluff. They also have a variety of coffee options, bagels, muffins, and, strangely enough, strombolis. All the doughnuts are solid but the Maple Bacon Bar has enough bacon to concern your cardiologist and enough maple icing to concern your belt.
King Street’s Glazed prides itself on making all in-house from scratch doughnuts. Opened in 2011, Glazed was started by Allison Smith and Mark Remi who thought a doughnut shop is just what Charleston needed. Judging from the crowds at Glazed they were right. With over 200 different flavors and styles it’s hard not to find one or seven doughnuts that fill the doughnut shaped hole in your life. Primarily yeast doughnuts with a few cakes thrown in, Glazed makes some of the best tasting and looking doughnuts in Charleston. If daily standards such as the black and white, cinnamon twist, apple bacon fritter, and, of course, glazed don’t grab you, Glazed has some more interesting choices. The Purple Goat is a monument to mixing sweet and savory with its goat cheese filling and lavender glaze. Read any press on Glazed and more often than not you’re likely to find it mentioned. If goat cheese in your doughnut got your attention but isn’t quite wild enough, the Beet Salad doughnut featuring beet custard filling, orange and goat cheese glaze, and candied fennel seed on top, should please your adventurous spirit. Seeing an opportunity, Glazed is now opened late on weekends to feed the stumbling King Street hordes.
Brown’s Court Bakery
Brown’s Court Bakery has been supplying baked goods to Charleston restaurants and walk in customers for nearly five years. The brioche based daily doughnuts are at the whim of Pastry Chef Carrie Ann Bach and “doughnut queen” Jenna Steingress. Blackberry, glazed with sprinkles, pistachio and local strawberry, Nutella, peanut butter and chocolate, and classic Boston Cream are some of the recent diet-busting choices.
Bad Wolf Coffee
Seeing more opportunity in Charleston, Jonathan Ory packed up his Bad Wolf Coffee in Chicago and headed South, landing in the newly established Workshop on upper King. Ory currently offers baked goods and coffee with plans for dinner and cocktails on the horizon. Like a bowlegged woman and a knock-kneed man, doughnuts and coffee go hand in hand. Eclair like puff pastry sandwiching labor intensive brown butter, hazelnut, and praline paste folded into a butter cream forms the Paris-Brest, a creation Ory brought from his Chicago location and a mouthful in any interpretation of that phrase. Crumbly crullers graced with a vanilla orange glaze derived from housemade vanilla extract made by soaking vanilla beans in Barbancourt rum conjures Creamsicle memories. Ory also fries classic powder sugar dusted beignets. A portion of all proceeds goes to The Heirloom Foundation, a nonprofit Ory’s wife Sarah started whose goal is “Partnering chefs with their communities to improve the quality of life for our culinary professionals in this, and future generations.”
The Merc in Mercantile and Mash has been doing a weekly Wednesday doughnut since they opened two years ago. Always trying to one up their previous creations, executive pastry chef Lindsey Branham thrives on themed works of art. The banana custard filled doughnut is topped with an icing monkey. The “cookie monster” doughnut transforms the hole into a cookie stuffed mouth. Unicorns and mermaids have also made appearances. The doissant (similar to a cronut but lacking the trademarked name) is a fan favorite. Lindsey prefers yeast doughnuts but her staff likes cake, so expect cake as the weekly offering when she isn’t there.
Bked owners Christopher and Kayla Garate moved from Brooklyn to Charleston two years ago and opened their food truck. They added doughnuts to the repertoire after experimenting with frying their pretzel dough. They focus on using all local ingredients like milk from Lowcountry Creamery and eggs from Fili-West Farm. Cut square to reduce waste, their massive yeast doughnuts sell fast — from the ultra-popular toffee crunch to those filled with seasonal jams. Fermented for 24 to 30 hours and fried, the doughnuts are airy and soft with a chewy bite. Bked can be found every Saturday at the downtown farmers market, Wednesdays at the West Ashley farmers market, and Thursdays at the North Charleston market.
The Daily and Butcher & Bee
From their newish bakery on Morrison Drive, Pastry Chef Cynthia Wong churns out daily doughnuts for Butcher & Bee and The Daily. Wong focuses on cake doughnuts saying “Our cake doughnuts are really fantastic. I feel like they can be people’s second choice doughnut, but ours are rich, light, cakey, and crumbly. The blueberry one and the sweet potato one we do in the fall are really outstanding.”
Pigeonhole Pop Up
Spawned from conversations on how chefs get pigeon-holed into food concepts or styles, Pigeonhole is the creation of dual chef de cuisines Ray England from Juan Luis and Phillip Powers of Lewis Barbecue. As Ray explains, “Chefs are extremely creative people. Although we may excel at a particular style we still want to get back to the roots of having fun with food while learning from other chefs, cultures and cuisines.” Pigeonhole is England, Powers, and McCrady’s pastry chef Katy Keefe’s way to have a little fun. They will be taking over the Juan Luis spot Sundays at the “food court” concept Workshop. At their first pop-up, Pigeonhole served up their take on an Israeli doughnut called a Sufguyino. It’s traditionally served during Hannukah and filled with jelly or custard. The collaboration between England and Keefe was made from a recipe from England’s wife’s Armenian family for choereg, an Easter sweet bread. It had light but sturdy dough similar to brioche in texture and was pumped full of a not too sweet strawberry or raspberry jam. This doughnut stood up to any of the doughnuts in this article and was this writer’s wife’s favorite. Pigeonhole plans on serving up this Sufguyino at future Jewish Deli pop-ups but plans on switching up the doughnuts to match future theme ideas. There’s rumor of a white trash theme. Does possum go well with doughnuts?
Rutledge Cab Company
If you ever feel like you’ve not done enough to add fuel to late night, life-questioning insomnia sessions, there’s always the Glazed and Confused Burger at Rutledge Cab Company. Aptly named after a movie about high schoolers who spend their life stoned, the Glazed and Confused Burger is a stoner’s dream (or nightmare). A burger patty with “caramel”-ized onions, cheddar, and bacon is sandwiched between two Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts. Though it was not consumed as part of this article’s research it is included for the novelty aspect and… it does contain doughnuts.
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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.