"The first time I read about Spalding's Doughnuts, all I could think was these sound remarkably like Georgie's," Ed told me. Georgie's was a personal favorite of Ed's—a Harlem doughnut shop that's been closed for about a decade now. Irregularly shaped, airy, full of stretchy nooks and crannies and an unusually thick, crisp crust, these are the kind of doughnuts that are the aesthetic opposite of the perfectly round factory-stamped shape of the major chains.
Since reading about Spalding's, Ed's had the opportunity to try them twice. First, a few years ago, a college friend of his son Will had the current owner overnight a box to the Serious Eats office. They send the doughnuts and glaze separately so that you can reheat and assemble them just before eating. It prompted Ed to proclaim in the Serious Eats book that "The best doughnuts are the freshest doughnuts—but a Spalding's doughnut eaten a thousand miles away is still better than most out there."
Ed, I have a couple of things to tell you: a) you are a lucky man for having gotten the chance to taste them at all, and b) if you really are the serious Serious Eater you claim to be, you'll book yourself on the next flight to Kentucky, because I can tell you: what you tasted is nothing compared to how great they are direct from the source.
Opened by Bowman J. Spalding in 1929, the yeast doughnuts at Spalding's are made the same way they've always been made: cut by hand and allowed to rise on birch wood boards before being deep fried. These days it's his granddaughter Martha who keeps the well-greased operation running smoothly. They've closed twice during their 80 year history, both times to relocate to larger digs, most recently to their current Winchester Road location in 2006.
Check online and you'll see rumors abound that the doughnuts are fried in lard, but we're assured by current management that this is nothing but a myth. "We think there was a brief period in the 1950's when we used lard, but we can't be sure," we were told. I guess you can be excused for not knowing what frying medium your grandfather was using 60 years ago. What we do know is that these days the doughnuts are fried in 100% soybean oil, which doesn't explain how they manage to become so crisp and tasty. Nevertheless, they do.
Cake doughnuts are also on the menu in powdered sugar and a few berry varieties. According to Spalding's, they're relative newcomers on the menu, having only been available for the past 60 years, give or take. They're a fine example of the form, but really, why order cake doughnuts when there are true yeast doughnuts available?
If there's one thing they don't have at Spalding's, it's selection. This is not a bad thing. Rather than offering dozens and dozens of flavors, they know their game: make just a few products, and make them all perfectly. So far, it seems to be working.
Check out the slideshow at the top of the post for a rundown on the options.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.