Drawn together: the doughnut fryer

Categories: Behind the stalls

Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the doughnut fryer

Justin Gellatly at Bread Ahead

The Bread Ahead doughnut. Wow, what a journey that’s been! We started making doughnuts at our Borough Market bakery pretty much from the beginning, about three years ago. Now we make at least 500 doughnuts a day, and up to 2,000 for a Saturday… it’s quite an effort.

What makes our doughnuts unique is that we do a really long fermentation—a 24 hour bulk fermentation process, like a sourdough, though the dough in this instance is yeasted. One of the results of this is that there’s more flavour to it. It also means that there’s a lot of planning involved, with no room for late orders. When we sell out, that’s it (which happens every day).

The process begins with the dough being made the night before the doughnuts will be fried. On the afternoon shift the next day, we start by cutting the proving dough in 50g measurements and then rolling them by hand. In fact, all the steps are by hand, and there’ll be four or five of our bakers involved at this stage of the process. The doughnuts are placed on proving racks and put in the fridge for another six hours or so, then they come out to rise a little bit more before being fried late at night through to the early morning.

Doughnut fryer

A clunk, clunk machine
The fryer is an incredibly helpful tool for us—a good old British invention, a real clunk, clunk machine with no digital display or fancy timer. It’s a specific doughnut fryer, with five dividers in the hot fat area so that the doughnuts can be easily managed and don’t stick together, and special perforated proving racks, which are lowered into the hot fat, and then raised again four minutes later.

What this means is that one person can fry 20 doughnuts at once—and as we have two machines, we actually do 40 doughnuts every five minutes.

We also have an amazing machine for turning doughnuts when they’re in the fryer—I think the technical term is a ‘spoon’. It took a long time to find the right one. More seriously, you can actually get kit to turn the 20 doughnuts mechanically in one go. But our doughnuts really are pillows of joy; they’re so light and delicate that the machine would knock the air and life out of them. A human using a spoon is much more gentle and gets a better result.

Once the doughnuts are nicely browned, the perforated proving tray is raised, and we take the doughnuts over to a tray lined with blue paper and tip them in. We don’t remove all of the oil, as it needs to be a little sticky to hold the sugar that we carpet bomb them with.

And then the doughnuts are piped full with jam or custard. When I say full, I mean we pipe them to bursting—as well as being known as ‘pillows of joy’, I’ve heard quite a few people call them ‘custard grenades’.

One at a time
I first started making doughnuts when I headed up the pastry section and bakery at St John and St John Bread and Wine. Initially, and for quite some time actually, I just used a couple of pans with hot fat in, cooking one doughnut at a time, so I can say from experience that a machine that can fry 20 doughnuts at once is totally invaluable to us now. I don’t have a particular sentimental attachment to the machines we’ve got—if one broke, we’d just get another one—but they’re definitely essential.

Our biggest seller is the caramel custard filled doughnut with the shard of honeycomb on top. Controversially, my favourite way to eat a doughnut is without filling, when it’s still warm, ideally with a mug of tea on the side. Admittedly it’s a bit of a baker’s treat—though sometimes, if you follow us on social media and are nearby, you might be able to time a visit when we manage to get a tray of doughnuts to the stall that are still hot from the fryer.