Confessions from The Great Doughnut Debate
Hanging out with food bloggers can be pretty ridiculous. When a meal is served anywhere, no one takes a bite ‘til we’ve each shot 37 photos. Modeling your digits for that hands-in-the-food, aerial shot? Second nature. Requesting a table based on proximity to natural light? Totally normal. Organizing a marathon tasting of 13 Houston doughnut shops to determine which reigns supreme with 10 of your blogger gal pals? Next level.
Yep, that happened, this past weekend in fact, but the real absurdity of it: I’m not even a doughnut person.
I know. That’s weird. All I can tell you is, except during a stint in the early '90s in which I was all about the Eggo (slathered with margarine, quartered and dunked in Aunt Jemima), I’ve always been on Team Savory Breakfast.
So why spend my precious Sunday sampling 13 glazed and 13 specialty doughnuts? I could say that it’s all for you, dear reader. That I accepted this undertaking in the pursuit of food truths, to spare you the woes of subpar pastries. While a nice sentiment, it’s remiss. In fact, I am just a complete pushover when it comes to gustatory peer pressure. Invite me to anything involving cooking, consuming, learning and/or talking about food, and I’m hard-pressed to think of why not to join you. Of course there’s also the potential that I, the non-doughnut eater, might make some kind of breakthrough into full-on appreciation for sugary, O-shaped fried dough…
…So this happened.
The Great Doughnut Debate
Since this was actually our third sugar-drenched tasting (see Round 1 and Round 2), we’ve streamlined our methods. Bakery considerations were submitted, debaters signed up to purchase and pick up the freshly baked goods the day of, each variety was plated and assigned a number to create a blind test, and then we got to work. Scores were based on appearance (5 points), flavor and texture (10 points each) and meticulously logged in spreadsheets.
At first glance, the glazed contenders appear uniform, but upon closer inspection, each has subtle character: smooth, uniform shells of glaze, crackly exteriors, bare undersides, hues ranging from fair blonde to deeply golden, interiors with varying bubble structure.
Texture proved to be a major factor, signaling freshness and proper technique, and the lightest, airiest doughnuts won me over, followed by slightly denser samples that provided a pleasant chew. Contenders deemed dry, tough, greasy or “too bready” earned point deductions.
Mouth feel aside, if it doesn’t taste good, you’re not taking another bite. In this case, achieving that sugary blitz on the tongue is key, and surprisingly, some of the glazed doughnuts were decidedly lacking in sweetness. The best struck a balance, allowing the fried, yeasty profile of the doughnut itself to shine through.
The consensus: According to overall points from each debater, Christy’s, The Grove Do-Nutz & Deli and Shipley Do-nuts were the champs, which was surprising, as I found the first to be overly bready and the last to have an unpleasant, artificial aftertaste (sorry, Houston). My top three, however: 1) The Grove, the airiest of them all, with an alluring birthday cake aroma and happily crunchy bits of glaze, 2) Queen Donut Shop, with that perfect glaze distribution and fluffy, slight chewiness, the 18th Street shop also earned fourth overall, and 3) Le Donut, in the Medical Center, boasts balanced vanilla sweetness with a light, velvety crumb.
Special in Your Own Way
The specialty doughnuts, suggested by each bakery as one of its most popular offerings, proved more challenging to compare due to the variety, but here’s a general breakdown:
Iced Yeast Doughnuts: Of the three classic chocolate-iced yeast doughnuts, Queen’s had the best chocolate flavor but was nothing special, Christy’s had a fake finish and Shipley’s with sprinkles reminded me of a Tootsie Roll. I had hopes for the caramel, vanilla, chocolate drizzled “Dirty Zebra” by Glazed, as well as Fresh & Best Donuts’ maple flavor, but neither wowed. The icing on River Oaks Donuts’ specialty vanilla with sprinkles is a classic powdered sugar frosting with milk and vanilla, but the thick layer was like main-lining glucose.
Tied for second for me was the Mexican Chocolate by Lee’s Fried Chicken & Donuts, whose deep chocolaty, cinnamon-infused coating put it in my top despite a heavier crumb and more fried exterior.
Cake Doughnuts: Why B&B Donuts and Bakery Donuts would would offer up naked cake doughnuts as their specialty is beyond me, but compared to their sweeter brethren, these fell flat, despite B&B’s pleasantly moist and yeasty interior.
In third place overall, however, was Hugs & Donuts’ blueberry cake donut with lemon glaze, a citrusy zing that shone a ray of sunshine, cutting through all the sweet, sweet, sweet. Le Donut’s blueberry cake scored second overall with a moist crumb, heavy with blueberries.
As a surprise to no one, the darling of The Great Doughnut Debate was…a cronut. The Grove Do-Nutz & Deli knows how to go big. Their Strawberry Cheesecake Cronut stole the show, with buttery, flaky layers of laminated pastry topped with cream cheese frosting, a drizzle of strawberry icing, Graham cracker crumble and a fresh sliced strawberry. This is the stuff that sugar comas are made of.
Get over to The Grove and try some of their over-the-top creations, from our cronut winner to the Banana Cream Pie and Maple Bacon.
Ultimately, doughnuts are one of those things that if offered one, you’ll probably high-five the giver without questioning treat’s origin. Furthermore, since freshness is key to maintaining that ideal airiness, the best doughnut shop may be the one that’s closest to your front door. As for me, I probably wouldn’t shrug off a free doughnut, either, but the next time I walk into a doughnut shop, it’s still likely to order good ol’ savory klobasneki.
Disclaimer: Before you riot, please note that this was not intended to be an end-all ranking of the greater Houston area’s doughnuts. Various limiting factors, including that most participants live near or inside The Loop, meant shops with great reputations like Peña’s Donut Heaven & Grill in Pearland and Doughmaker, who was facing mechanical issues, as well as a couple well-known chains, missed out. Still, hopefully our insanity leads to fewer duds as you hunt for your own favorite doughnuts. Be sure to come back and weigh in below!