Donuts are one of the great pleasures of life. Whether filled with jam or perfectly circular and covered in sugar, the humble donut is one of the most satisfying sweet treats out there. So important to our culture is the donut, that it is famously one of the most popular foods to recreate in animated form. And let’s be honest, cartoon food looks super tempting.
Anyway, back in the real world, we do, unfortunately, have to worry about the shelf life of our foods. So, can donuts go bad? And what do you do to stop them from spoiling?
Let’s find out.
Can Donuts Go Bad?
Like almost all baked goods, donuts are not the most long-lasting of foods, susceptible both to mold and going stale.
The process of going stale is actually not understood as well as you might think, but what we do know is that it starts to happen as soon as baked goods come out of the oven. All bread/dough-based foodstuffs are largely made up of starch, which helps to hold the shape of the product. Starch, in its natural state, forms a rigid crystalline structure which is undone in baked products by the addition of water. Water added during the baking process softens these crystalline structures and creates the fluffy, bouncy texture that we are so familiar with. However, this is not a permanent fix, and over time the water in the starch will begin to move away to other parts of the bread, allowing the starch to return to its natural, rigid structure.
That, in a nutshell, is what happens when your favourite baked treats go stale. Disappointingly, this process also applies to donuts.
It is worth pointing out that stale bread-products are not actually unsafe for consumption. Technically, they haven’t ‘gone bad’ in the traditional sense of the phrase. However, though you can eat a stale donut without fear of falling ill, it is strongly recommended that you don’t bother – it will not be a pleasant experience.
However, that is not to say that going stale is the ONLY way donuts can spoil. Just like most other foods, the longer donuts are exposed to the outside world and, specifically, the air, the higher the risk of a bacterial or fungal colony developing on the product. Naturally, if any item in your pantry develops mold, it’s time to throw it out. Consuming products which have spoiled in this way is manifestly unsafe and deeply unadvisable.
So that’s the donut itself dealt with, but what if there’s a filling?
How to Store Donuts
The dairy problem
Not all donuts are created equal, and there may be times where your favourite sweet treat is not just cooked dough and sugar. If your donut has a filling, especially a dairy one, then the matter of if and when it goes bad becomes a little more complicated.
Dairy foods are notorious for both going bad quickly and going bad fairy unpleasantly. Cream and dairy based donut fillings/toppings are at risk of curdling, going rancid or developing mold, all of which will make your tasty treat decidedly less tasty, and possibly even dangerous. As such, donuts containing any kind of dairy element (other than in the already cooked dough) should be eaten within a day if unrefrigerated, and 2-3 days if kept cool in the fridge.
A word on toppings
Another thing to bear in mind when storing donuts is the glaze. If you’ve splashed out on some nicely decorated treats, storage may be slightly more complicated. The issue here is that many types of donut glaze will melt over time at room temperature, soaking into the donut and leaving you with a mess of soggy, super sweet dough. This can even happen at refrigerator temperature, depending on the type of glaze and how cold your fridge is.
Seal them away
If you are going to keep donuts for longer than a day, you’ll want to think about keeping the air away from them. Sealing donuts, and indeed any baked good, into airtight bags or containers may add a day or two onto their shelf life by slowing the staling process and protecting the food from unwelcome microbes in the air.
Plain donuts will be fine at room temperature for a few days if sealed, whereas dairy filled donuts really should be refrigerated as soon as possible, whether they are sealed or not. However, the general rule is that donuts should be kept in airtight containers regardless of where you are storing them.
Can You Freeze Donuts?
Ah, the big question.
The answer to this is… well, not as simple as you might think. Each kind of donut will respond differently to freezing, and some come out of it better than others.
Starting with the easiest group, plain and sugared donuts will freeze just fine. Pack them up in a sealed bag and they should last in your freezer for up to 2-3 months. Just be aware that while baked goods like this can be frozen, the longer they remain on ice, the more their texture and taste will change, and not for the better. If you actually leave your donuts in the freezer for months, they might be safe to eat when you take them out, but you might not actually want them by the time they’ve defrosted.
Glazed donuts are a slightly different case. The donut itself will freeze well, taking into account the caveats mentioned above. However, the glaze might not be so lucky. The problem here is actually less about the freezing and more to do with what happens when you warm your donuts back up again after their hibernation. As you defrost your sweet treats, the glaze may begin to melt and soak into the donut, which will make for some less that optimum donut eating. Your best bet here is to defrost donuts at room temperature (not in the fridge) and leave them uncovered to ensure as much moisture as possible evaporates during the thawing process. Then, make sure you eat your donuts quickly, so the glaze doesn’t have time to melt. It’s a fine balancing act but, let’s face it, donuts are probably worth it.
Filled donuts are the real problem here. Non-dairy fillings should be ok in the freezer, though it really does depend what they are. Dairy fillings, however, are another story. In general, cream and cream derivatives have a difficult time in sub-zero temperatures. The issue here is that things like milk and cream are not exactly single substances, but rather mixtures of fats suspended in liquid. When mixtures like this are frozen, they have a tendency to split, with the fats separating from the liquid. In terms of donut fillings, this can result in a grainy, unpleasant texture that won’t make the donut very appetizing. So, whilst it is technically possible to freeze these kinds of donut, the best advice would probably be to avoid it if possible.
Donuts are not the most long lasting of foods which, while disappointing, is also a very good excuse to eat more of them in a single sitting.
As a general rule, donuts without dairy toppings or fillings will last a day or two at room temperature and up to 4 days in the fridge. Sealing your baked goods in airtight containers will add another day or two onto their shelf life, both on the counter and in the fridge. When frozen, non-dairy donuts could last up to 3 months, but their quality in terms of texture and taste may well suffer the longer they remain on ice.
Donuts that do have diary-based toppings or fillings may be ok if left at room temperature for a few hours, but should ideally be put into the fridge as soon as possible. There, they will last for a day or two, with an extra day added if they are sealed in an airtight container. Whilst they can be frozen, due to the risk of cream fillings splitting it is best avoided where possible.
Signs They Have Gone Bad
As with all foodstuffs, if you notice any discolouration, changes in texture or unpleasant odours you should refrain from consuming the product and throw it away immediately. This is especially true for foods involving dairy products. If there is any doubt as to the freshness of a food item, it’s really best not to risk it, even if the offending item is a donut.