The term “doughnut” was first used in print in 1809 by American author Washington Irving in his satirical “Knickerbocker’s History Of New York.” Irving wrote of:
“…balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks*.”
These balls, or nuts of fried dough, are what we now call (in a smaller size) doughnut holes.
Because the center of the cake did not cook as quickly as the outside, the softer centers were sometimes stuffed with fruit, nuts, or other fillings that did not require cooking (think of the chopped onions in the center of a bialy).
What about the hole?
Per Smithsonian, a New England ship captain’s mother made a notably delicious, deep-fried doughut that used her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. She filled the center with hazelnuts or walnuts.
As the story goes, in 1847, 16-year-old sailor Hanson Crockett Gregory created the hole in the center of the doughnut. He used the top of a round tin pepper container to punch the holes, so the dough would cook evenly.
He recounted the story in an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, 50 years later.
He effectively eliminated the need to fill the less-cooked center, and provided an inner cut-out that enabled the dough to be evenly cooked.
Who changed the spelling to donut?
The first known printed record of the shortened word “donut” appears (likely an inadvertent misspelling) in “Peck’s Bad Boy And His Pa,” a story by George W. Peck published in 1900.
The spelling did not immediately catch on. That impetus goes to Dunkin’ Donuts, founded in 1950.
Donut is a easier to write, but we prefer the old-fashioned elegance of doughnut. Take your choice.
Doughnuts didn’t become a mainstream American food until after World War I. American doughboys at the front were served doughnuts by Salvation Army volunteers. When the doughboys returned, they brought their taste for doughnuts with them [source].
The name doughboy wasn’t related to the doughnuts, by the way. It dates to the Civil War, when the cavalry unchivalrously derided foot soldiers as doughboys. Two theories are offered:
Their globular brass buttons resembled flour dumplings.
They used flour to polish their white belts.
*Olykoek is Dutch for oil cake, i.e., batter fried in oil. While dough was fried the world over, we can thank the Dutch for the sweet balls fried in hog fat that became modern doughnuts.