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But when Elisa sent me a message (“what about apple cider donuts”), my resolve disappeared–here we are. Although I didn’t grow up in areas where apple cider donuts were “a thing” (California and then Texas), I’ve always had an interest with these cakey, fluffy, sugar-coated delights that the East Coast always seemed to fixate on in the fall. (And those who have been reading this blog for awhile know that anything cakey will always pique my interest.)
From making a from-scratch cider with 12 peeled and chopped apples to ultimately frying more than one hundred donuts in one day, here is the low-down on the best apple cider donut recipes that are worth busting out the fryer for.
- 25 total tasters
- All 9 recipes were fried the day of tasting (certain doughs were rested overnight per the recipe)
- All doughs were fried in canola oil in skillets within the temperature range specified in the recipe
- Tasters ranked each donut on a scale from 0-10 for overall flavor, texture, and as a whole
- Ingredients were measured by weight according to the King Arthur website
- Gold Medal bleached all-purpose flour
- Swan’s Down cake flour
- Kirkland saigon cinnamon
- Kirkland vanilla
- Trader Joe’s unsalted butter
- Trader Joe’s apple cider
- Eden Foods apple butter
- Bob’s Red Mill baking powder and soda
- Diamond kosher salt
- Imperial granulated and brown sugar
PARTNER NOTE: I’m delighted to be partnering with Imperial Sugar on this bake off as I’ve consistently used their consistent, high-quality pure cane sugar products throughout my bake offs. Imperial Sugar is non-GMO verified, allergen free and gluten-free!
For more sweet inspiration, you can visit Imperial Sugar to find more than 4,000 expert-tested recipes, free downloadable vintage cookbooks, sugar scrubs and bath products at the Sugar Spa, and lots of helpful guides on their blog. You can also check out their Pinterest, You Tube, Instagram for even more recipe inspiration!
What is an apple cider donut?
Apple cider donuts are reportedly buttermilk donuts with the addition of apple cider in the batter. This article outlines the history of donuts, which ultimately led to the “Doughnut Corporation of America” publishing a recipe for apple cider donuts in the New York Times. I think this along with the bountiful apple harvests on the East Coast explains why apple cider donuts are such an East Coast (to Midwest!) phenomenon.
Some make apple cider donuts with chopped apples in the dough, but without is more common. Apple cider donuts can be rolled in cinnamon sugar or covered in a cider glaze. There are actually quite a few recipes for baked apple cider donuts available, but for this bake off, I only tested fried recipes.
Fun fact–if you’re wondering: what is apple cider? It’s simply unfiltered, raw pressed apple juice (no sweeteners added)! Meanwhile, commercial apple juice is often made of fresh apples that have been pressed, filtered and sweetened.
As we see in the Binging with Babish recipe, it’s actually fairly easy (if labor-intensive) to make your own apple cider–you just peel, chop and food process many apples and press out the liquid. To make the more iconic mulled hot apple cider, you can then simmer this liquid with spices for a warming beverage.
I hope it goes without saying that there is pretty much no piece of fried dough rolled in sugar that I’d say no to. In this particular bake off, my favorites didn’t align with the crowd favorites–further proof that all of these recipes are amazing! As always, I encourage you to read through each description to find the recipe that’s right for you.
And I always feel the need to note that as an amateur donut maker, there is a high chance of baker/fryer error here (to no fault of the recipe itself), so please take these “scores” with a grain of salt.
Thank you! And a very big thank you to my parents for being willing to host another frying extravaganza in their yard along with a massive tasting party, and to Elisa and her talented army of donut rolling and frying friends. Big thanks to everyone involved!
- Dairy: As apple cider donuts are historically buttermilk donuts with cider added, most recipes called for buttermilk. But two called for sour cream and two didn’t call for any additional dairy at all (Preppy Kitchen and Brian Lagerstrom made up for the difference in moisture with additional cider liquid/simply had a drier dough.) Interestingly, the two that used sour cream (Tasty and Claire Saffitz) took top honors! While this could be coincidental, many tasters enjoyed the tang in these recipes and I think the unique flavor made these stand out.
- Apple flavor: Apple factors included: straight apple cider (Brian Lagerstrom), apple juice concentrate (Cook’s Illustrated), reduced unfiltered apple juice and fresh apples (Thermo Blog) and reduced apple cider (every other recipe). Even though I was fairly sure the unfiltered apple juice was the same as apple cider, I specifically purchased an unfiltered apple juice to test for Thermo Blog’s recipe (spoiler: I don’t think it made a speck of difference). Here is my take:
- Apple juice concentrate: shockingly apple-y! Cook’s Illustrated is really onto something here and I would highly recommend using this if you can’t find apple cider. And honestly, even if you can–the apple flavor was one of the best in my opinion.
- Fresh apples + reduced cider: Yes, Thermo Blog had a fairly prominent apple flavor. No, I did not particularly enjoy the chunks of apple in the dough (but you very well might, especially if you’re an apple fritter person!). I do think this is a solid way to infuse more apple flavor into the donut.
- Straight apple cider/reduced cider: Unfortunately, it was hard to detect the apple flavor in most recipes. While I’m actually satisfied with a cinnamon sugar donut, if you want actual apple flavor, I’d make sure to look for a recipe that has a good amount of apple cider in it. Ultimately, while reducing apple cider SHOULD make a difference–I though Brian L’s recipe was another good apple contender, and his does not call for reducing cider. But I think perhaps the brown butter enhances the apple flavor.
- Cake flour: Jessie Sheehan’s recipe was the only recipe to stray from all-purpose flour. The lower gluten content of cake flour means less gluten formation in the dough, which led to a very soft and delicate dough that was a bit more difficult to fry. While I absolutely loved the result, I’d recommend sticking to recipes with all-purpose flour if you don’t feel quite as confident frying–the dough tends to be easier to handle.
- Egg yolks vs. whole eggs: Jessie’s recipe was also the only recipe to use egg yolks instead of whole eggs. More yolks add richness and tenderness to the dough (vs. the watery protein of the egg white), so if you’re looking for a richer, more tender end product, this is a great way to achieve that texture.
- Cinnamon sugar: I only tested recipe that used a cinnamon sugar coating (no glazes). This is my PSA that I think all coatings could benefit from a pinch of salt (a la Cook’s Illustrated and Brian Lagerstrom) to give that salty sweet flavor. I do not, however, think that any sugar coatings should try to elevate by using raw sugar (a la Brian L) as that did not stick to the donut very well.
Analysis of the Best Apple Cider Donut Recipes
Brian Lagerstrom: a chewy, not-too-sugary, apple-y yeast donut
Although I promised Elisa that we would stick to cake donuts for this bake off, I couldn’t resist throwing this contender in. Brian promises this is the best version of an apple cider donut that’s “both yeasted and made with a little baking soda too for what, to me, is the perfect combination of light and yeasty and a little cakey.” His recipe calls for browning butter that you deglaze with apple cider (no reducing!!) which gets streamed into a lightly spiced yeast-spiked bowl of dry ingredients. It calls for a 3 hours total in rising/proofing time before getting fried and coated in an unusual mixture of raw and regular sugar, cinnamon and a pinch of salt.
After all the cake doughnuts that simply melted in the mouth, I halted when I encountered the chewy resistance in this. This definitely has the chew of a yeast donut with its substantial, slightly dense texture that compresses in a springy way. It’s possible I overworked the dough because this donut wasn’t exactly “light.” I was pleasantly surprised by the more pronounced apple flavor that comes through (perhaps highlighted by the brown butter?) Although the larger granules of the turbinado sugar that I used didn’t stick very well, I loved the salty hit in the sugar coating. Overall, this was a nice donut if you want an apple-flavored, chewy yeast donut.
- The most apple flavor so far! I really like this. Also kind of warm after taste like an apple hug.
- Very strong apple flavor that hits you right away. Not overly sweet compared to the others, which I think helps the apple flavor shine through. The texture is very cake-donut like, just dense enough.
- Is this yeasted?! Possibly influenced by expecting/wanting cake style… needs some more spice too, eats a little like a plain yeasted donut
- This reminded me of an Auntie Anne’s cinnamon pretzel! Much chewier and doughier than the other donuts. Not as sweet either – which quite nice actually. A solid donut for sure.
- The favor was a little mild but the yeasty and apple cider flavors blended well. Would have like more spices. Least oily of all samples. I little dense for a raised donut but still a decent one.
- Tastes healthy. Apple flavor is stronger. Not my favorite
Jessie Sheehan: a magically airy, rich and melt-in-your-mouth donut with a crisp crust
With cake flour, 4 egg yolks instead of whole eggs, a mixture of butter and shortening, Jessie’s donut was one of the standout recipes. Jessie says she adapted this recipe from her buttermilk bar recipe but added a reduced apple cider and I was so excited to try this one!
These donuts had a very sticky dough and remained very soft even after refrigerating. They nearly started to disintegrate when they touched oil, frying up VERY golden and craggy on the outside with a creamy, light interior. I know I use “melt-in-your-mouth” to describe other doughnuts, but this is like the platonic ideal of that phrase!! These are SO crusty on the outside and so light on the inside. They’re an absolute dream, though I must say that these donuts were a bit greasier than the others (which again could be due to the frying, not the recipe). I guess I should technically dock them for being a bit light on the apple flavor, but I’d eat these forever. One of my favorites.
- Okay actually this one’s the best! So smushy and lovely
- I like the texture of this donut the best because of the ratio of crunch to fluffy inside. I still don’t taste Apple cider flavor.
- Super fried and delicious. More fried surface area. Almost funnel cake vibes
- Really good outer sugar coating, with good flavor inside and an airier texture and almost-crispy outside. I can really taste the oil from frying in this one, but it isn’t off-putting; it evokes carnival vibes.
- This one was very interesting. It was very oily and the texture was very crumbly. It seemed like a really light crumb which is probably why it took in so much oil. I think it was also saltier than the others?
- Another very churro-like donut. Tastes mostly like sugar. Kind of crumbly, feels like it has too much crust. Not quite the right texture and feels heavy/greasy.
Thermo Blog: a slightly chewier donut with chunks of real apple
Adapted from an Eat The Love recipe, this recipe was different enough that I decided to test it. It calls for a whole apple, diced and reduced in two cups of unfiltered apple juice until syrupy. It also calls for apple butter, buttermilk and mace (which I omitted as I couldn’t find it).
There was definitely baker’s error here in that I reduced the juice until it was far too thick and had to add some additional cider to make up the difference. This could be one of the reasons why these had such misfortune in the fryer–most of them came out with semi-raw tunnels in the center. However, the fully cooked doughnuts were delicious with a slightly more toothsome texture that reminded me of Brian’s recipe. The actual pieces of apples provided bursts of apple flavor, but the texture was a little too chewy for my ideal–but a great pick if you like apple fritter vibes!
- Crispy exterior, nice amount of sugar and cinnamon, A bit chewy/doughy but makes it moist!
- I love the texture. Very pillowy, fluffy and cakey–almost too doughy. The flavor feels mostly cinnamon
- This donut had the most “apple” taste out of all of them. Good crumb texture, just the right amount of “doughiness”, and there was a little bit of sourness to contrast the sugar.
- Liked the aftertaste of apple flavor. It lingers.
- Very delicious donut. Perfect middle ground between light and gummy cake texture. There wasn’t a strong apple flavor which seems to be case across all the donuts though so I wouldn’t dock it for that. There were a couple bites that had actual apple pieces though which were really nice! I wish there were more bits of apple in there. There also wasn’t a strong spice flavor either
Smitten Kitchen: a cakey, incredibly light donut with a very crisp, almost crunchy exterior
Deb’s recipe, adapted from Hearth Restaurant, is quite straightforward. Reduced apple cider goes into a creamed butter and sugar cake batter-type batter enriched with buttermilk and whole eggs. It uses just a little cinnamon and nutmeg for spices, rolled in an optional cinnamon sugar or glaze.
This was far and away my favorite donut. These fried up fairly dark and crispy on the outside with an ethereally light, cakey interior. They’re so pillowy that I think I ate a whole doughnut just standing next to the platter picking on pieces of doughnuts. While some people didn’t like how almost crunchy the exterior was, I thought it was a beautiful foil to the fluffy interior–overall, it was exactly what I picture when I think of an apple cider donut. Yes, it technically felt like more of a cinnamon sugar doughnut with a whisper of apple, but when you’re this close to perfection, who cares? (Some people ranked this donut lower for its “oiliness” which could be due to the frying job–not the recipe!) Another favorite!
- Perfect texture. Beautifully fried without being overly oily.
- Nice and moist and fluffy with a crunchy crust, but mostly tastes like a sugar donut.
- Texture is light and fluffy. Crust is thicker than the others but not a bad quality. Love this one.
- Again, flavor was very light. There was more sugar on this donut compared to number 1. Maybe too much sugar? Texture was very good. Nice and crunchy.
- Slightly crisp outside, soft fluffy inside. Tastes like a churro, slightly greasy. Not a super strong apple flavor. Overall enjoyable.
- Mostly just tastes like a fried thing, I’m not getting much apple or spice. The smaller size means it’s very crunchy, which I don’t like as much.
- This was my least favorite of the bunch. The donut had a crumblier texture with a crispier crust which didn’t feel like a cake donut. It was also very oily and the oily taste dominated the donut. I didn’t get any flavors of apples or spices.
Cook’s Illustrated: perky, soft, slightly springy donuts with bright undertones of apple
In what feels like a rare move, Cook’s Illustrated cuts down on the typical effort of reducing apple cider by using a shortcut–using apple juice concentrate instead. They note that a higher ratio of flour to liquid ingredients helps control the moisture without needing refrigeration while buttermilk helps give the donuts extra lightness. Like Brian Lagerstrom, CI also calls for a pinch of salt in the cinnamon sugar coating.
“These actually taste like apple!” I burst out after trying one. I was truly shocked to find that CI was right–apple juice concentrate does seem like the way to infuse maximum apple flavor into the donut! Texture-wise, these were perky and perfectly round but slightly springier than I prefer and not quite as melt-in-your-mouth. These were also a touch dry compared to some other donuts (which could have been the frying rather than the recipe). However, I LOVED the pinch of salt that went into the cinnamon sugar coating–highly recommend trying for any cinnamon sugar applications you try! I also highly endorse using apple juice concentrate if you can’t find apple cider because I think the payoff is very decent.
- Favorite so far, ideal combo of cakiness and crunch. Strong apple flavor is good
- Second favorite donut after [Thermo Blog]. The only reason why it is second place is because I couldn’t really taste apple, but the spices came through and made this the best spice cake donut! Amazing texture and just all around the best spice donut I’ve had.
- Buttery, moist and a teeny bit salty. Overall just okaaay
- Flavor was really good! Overall I think it’s very similar to [Thermo Blog] with slightly better flavor and slightly more gummy, moist texture.
- Decent flavor but a little too dry in comparison with current front runners [Preppy Kitchen] and [Binging with Babish]
- Apple flavor is relatively prominent. This one has a harder texture, and seems to crumble somewhat easily.
- Not a bad donut but lacked flavor
Binging with Babish: a structured, mildly flavored donut made with homemade apple cider
Babish’s recipe looks so intimidating, I immediately wrote it off…only to come crawling back because I just COULDN’T imagine a bake off without this crazed recipe. It calls for 10-12 whole apples that you peel, chop, puree and strain into homemade pressed apple cider. Thankfully, I realized you can skip the spiced apple cider instructions and skip straight to the donuts–which are fairly straightforward once you reduce your homemade cider. Babish also uses a creamed butter dough like Smitten Kitchen that requires refrigeration before rolling out.
Okay so was reducing my own cider worth it? I’m going to say…no. There definitely was not a big enough flavor difference in this donut for me to ever suggest that. It is a fun project if you have a ton of apples on hand (we used the leftover apple puree in mulled cider and in cinnamon roll filling). Some tasters noted a nice apple flavor in this, but I personally didn’t pick up on a strong apple flavor. The texture felt ever so slightly breadier than some of the other recipes with a subtly firmer, springier texture. I preferred the cakier textured donuts, but this one was a fun project and still very tasty!
- Liked the texture, liked that body of doughnut was not as sweet
- Nice soft center. Middle of the road pleasant spiced apple flavor.
- Tasted like a Cinnamon Toast Crunch donut more than an apple cider donut (which isn’t a bad thing at all), good crunch outside but a bit more of a delicate crumb inside. Overall, a solid donut.
- Also delicious!! A little heavier texture than [Preppy Kitchen] which we think is a little better, but both great
- This donut had a nice spice forward flavor even if it didn’t have much apple flavor (which none of the donuts really did so not knocking on this recipe in particular). The texture was good too – very much how I’d imagine a cake donut to be like.
- Fave texture so far, crunchy exterior chewy interior. Not as strong as a flavor as I’d like. It held on to the oil a bit more.
Preppy Kitchen: a cakey, slightly doughy donut with mild apple flavor
John’s recipe is quite straightforward–it uses almost the exact same proportions as Smitten Kitchen but a tiny bit more butter and NO additional dairy. Most other recipes use buttermilk or sour cream, so I was curious to see what this would do in this recipe. To make up for the moisture difference, John uses quite a bit more apple cider, reducing 2.5 cups down to 1 cup that gets added to the batter (in contrast, Smitten Kitchen reduces 1 cup down to 1/4 cup that gets added to the batter). This was also the only recipe to use cardamom in the spice mix.
I tasted this doughnut right after Smitten Kitchen and it was significantly doughier in comparison, though still delightfully cakey and melt-in-your-mouth. The tiny bit of cardamom adds more dimension and highlights more of an apple flavor–despite the small amount, it really set this donut apart from the rest flavor-wise! This recipe definitely shared a sliiiightly more crumbly texture with Smitten Kitchen, but I found this recipe to have less contrast between the exterior (a little softer/less crunchy) and the doughy/cakey interior. Overall, a great crowd-pleaser to try for a more spiced donut!
- More apple flavor than [Thermo Blog] and [Smitten Kitchen]. The texture is so approachable and it would be easy to eat multiple.
- Stronger apple flavor was lovely, love the heavier spice flavor
- This donut has a great texture (dense but with a looser crumb, so it preserves the classic fried donut feel), with good flavor in both the dough and the sugar coating. It seems to have a richer, more spiced flavor than most of the others.
- Crisp outside but on the crumbly side, crust feels a little thick. Kind of has an apple flavor but there also seems to be something else there too. Looks like a legit apple cider donut though, rustic looking.
- This one has a stronger cinnamon taste. The inside was more cake-like and the outside was crispy. Unfortunately it seems like the crispier donuts also tend to be oilier both in texture and flavor which I didn’t like.
- Too crunchy. And there’s a stronger spice that I’m not crazy about
Claire Saffitz: a crisp-edged, light and fluffy, vanilla-forward donut
Claire was the third recipe with very similar proportions to Smitten Kitchen and Preppy Kitchen, but with several notable changes. She adds 1/3 cup of apple butter (the only other recipe besides Thermo Blog to use apple butter) and uses sour cream instead of the buttermilk in Smitten Kitchen. She also adds a moderate amount of apple cider–2 cups of cider reduced to half a cup.
You can tell by the picture that this donut had a lighter fry than, say, Smitten Kitchen–so I’m not positive whether my commentary is due to the fry job or the recipe itself, but I found these donuts much softer and more tender than others. There was less of a contrast between a crisp exterior (it was delicately crisp but not *crunchy*) and a fluffy, cakey interior. I found this donut a bit bland and not as heavily spiced as others, but many enjoyed the moist, cakey texture and apple flavor!
- Clearly the best one! Perfect tender texture and nice flavor balance
- This one was by far my favorite!!! Great apple taste and texture. It stood out the most while doing the tasting
- This recipe was also very similar to [Thermo Blog] and [Cook’s Illustrated] but slightly gummier than [CI] and slightly less spice-y (so more similar to the taste of [Thermo]). Overall I’d say I liked this less than either [Thermo] or [CI] because both texture and flavor are slightly less ideal but overall still a really good donut!
- Delightfully crisp and lighter than the others. I taste the apple flavor but overpowered by the sweetness
- Tastes like a doughnut you would get at the fair. Lots of vanilla, overpowers any other flavor present.
- The texture is dense, with a pretty tight crumb, so it borders on too cakey for me. The flavor has some hints of apple flavor, but the dense and slightly-chewy texture of the dough was distracting from the flavor.
Tasty: a soft, cakey and light donut with a satisfying tang to offset the sweetness
Tasty’s recipe mainly stood out for its higher ratio of sour cream in the dough. It uses a slightly different ratio of flour/sugar/butter compared to most of the other recipes and results in a dough that’s quite soft but workable after being refrigerated. Like many, its apple flavor relies on reduced apple cider.
This donut felt more substantial and very much like a classic cake donut to me–it’s quite cakey and had a nice heft/density to the dough. There was a strong tang to this doughnut that’s very reminiscent of a sour cream donut. Texturally, this had more “body” than my lighter favorites like Smitten Kitchen/Jessie Sheehan with a slight chew–but still retains a melt-in-your-mouth texture. The heavier spices provided great flavor for a very crowd-pleasing donut!
- Tastes like the Dunkin Donuts cinnamon doughnut which is my favorite they offer so this one just felt very familiar!
- This was our favorite donut! Nice Apple cider flavor. Texture was a little chewy. With a longer fry time, this would be the perfect donut for me!
- Great flavor! In my opinion, this one has the best flavor of them all – it has the hearty flavors of cinnamon and other spices, as well as a strong, bright apple flavor. I’m enjoying the texture as well – it was a toss-up between [Tasty] and [Preppy Kitchen], but this has a more quintessential cake donut texture while [Preppy] has a lighter, more fried flavor. I’d say this one is my favorite all around.
- Humble looking donut. Very nice apple flavor overall, aftertaste is also very apple-y, kind of tastes like an apple pie which is nice! Texture is very nice.
- Love the flavor, not quite as applely as [Brian Lagerstrom], but delish fall like flavor
- Good cake donut, good crumb – but not a lot of spice or apple flavors. This was more plain than [Thermo Blog] and [Babish]. Kind of a generic cake donut with a sprinkling of spices. But I still quite enjoyed it.
Erika’s picks: Smitten Kitchen, Jessie Sheehan
Best apple flavor: Thermo Blog, Cook’s Illustrated, Brian Lagerstrom
Most overall flavor: Tasty, Thermo Blog
Best cakey donut: Smitten Kitchen, Jessie Sheehan, Preppy Kitchen
Best fluffy donut: Claire Saffitz
Best chewy donut: Brian Lagerstrom, Thermo Blog