What Making Doughnuts Reminded me About Marketing

Or How to Learn Two Things at Once in One Article

I’ve taken up any number of unexpected new interests in this year of pandemic-related lockdown, but deciding to make doughnuts has proven among the more challenging to master. I’ll get into why shortly, but the important part here is that my mind wandered. I’ve been on a “re-examine accepted best practices to see if they still work” kick lately so that’s where my thinking went. And that’s what this article touches upon.

By the way, if you’d like to give this a try yourself, I used this recipe from The New York Times. You’ll have to supply the think-work yourself, though.

First, Some Cooking Tips

Yeah, I’ll get to the marketing-related stuff shortly, but please pay attention to these points. They’re important:

  1. You’re going to be dealing with a lot of hot oil. If for some reason you have a fire, do not pour water onto it. Smother the fire if you can, remove it from its heat source, and pour a lot of baking soda or salt on it to smother it. Or use a Class B fire extinguisher.
  2. The recipe I linked above makes a whole mess of doughnuts. That’s good, because you’re going to ruin a lot of them before you get the formula right. Don’t get frustrated.
  3. Last point, the recipe above makes plain doughnuts. So if you want to dress them up somehow, like with a chocolate topping or glaze or cream filling, plan ahead.

Now for the good stuff.

Time and Temperature are Everything

Cooking can be a violent enterprise. It is common for cooks to crank the gas way up on their stove tops and really sear or caramelize whatever they’re cooking. But don’t be fooled: a good cook is always in complete control of temperature. And when you’re making doughnuts this is doubly important because of how fragile the dough is.

So when you go to heat your oil you may be inclined to crank the heat as though you’re making french fries. Resist this urge. Instead, set the heat to low. If you have numbers on your dial, the 1–2 range (maybe more 2 than 1) are where you want to be. When you drop the dough into the oil, you’re looking for the color on the underside to change to a golden-brown. Then you flip the doughnut. This should take at least 20–30 seconds, per side. If it happens faster then your oil is too hot. If your oil is too hot, the outside of the doughnut will cook but the inside will still be raw. That’s nasty.

A good cook is always in complete control of temperature

Another thing to be mindful of is the concept of carryover cooking, which is that things continue to cook for a little while after you remove them from their heat source. If you were to bite into one of these doughnuts after taking them out of the oil you would be in for an unpleasant surprise, as I found out. But this is important because that minute your dough spent in the oil may not have been enough to fully cook the dough inside. That’s why you want to let the doughnuts sit for a few minutes before cutting into them.

And now, the marketing tie in: Your education and your experiences instill in your some assumptions, they build up your instincts. These will serve you well. But there are times when the tried-and-true and the “never fails” will fail. Don’t just assume that what worked in the past will work again. Don’t spend your life on autopilot.

Mixing Milk and Yeast is Tricky…or is it?

The recipe linked above calls for mixing warm milk and yeast and stirring it until you get a little foam. If you’ve made bread in the past year like so very many other people trying to avoid catching a life-threatening virus, you’ll know that you want to see your yeast get foamy to know it is alive (did you know yeast is a living organism?) and working.

When I mixed the milk and yeast as directed, I didn’t get any foam. I let it sit a good ten minutes, too. Fearing that perhaps the milk had been too warm and killed the yeast, I added another serving of yeast. I didn’t stir this time and just let it sit. Again, nothing happened. Odd! I tossed the mix and started from scratch, being very deliberate about everything I was doing this time. And, again, I got the same result.

At this point I said to hell with it and proceeded to make the dough. It did, indeed, rise admirably, so despite the lack of foam the yeast did its job.

And now, the marketing tie in: Sometimes your instructions are wrong or just not detailed enough. Perhaps your stakeholder doesn’t give you enough guidance to do your job, or your metrics are incomplete. It’s at this point where you need to take stock of your options. Do you ask questions? You should. Do you go digging for more data?

In my case I decided to be much more careful in how I mixed the milk and yeast, but had I reviewed the comments on the recipe I would have seen that some people added sugar to the mix (yeast loves sugar) and they get their foam. I can only imagine how light and fluffy their doughnuts turned out!

My Last Doughnuts Were Better Than my First Doughnuts

My first, ooohhh, dozen doughnuts were all failures. The heat was too high and I left them in too long so they burned, or turned out crunchy, man, or were just plain uncooked inside. With each one, though, I slowly learned more. I learned to keep count for how long the doughnut cooked on each side, and how long I would let it sit before cutting it open to see if it was done. When I had finally found the right mix of time and temperature the cooking could begin in earnest. It took about an hour to learn to make the doughnuts and another hour to make the rest properly.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because in marketing we know the process of testing and elimination as A/B testing.

And now, the marketing tie in: A/B testing works. We know it works because it’s how life on Earth functions: You test variables and select the most successful outcome. You’ve gotta be methodical about it or your results will be garbage. And your earlier results will pale in comparison to the later ones.

And yeah, A/B testing is time and sometimes budget intensive. Just like those dozen failed doughnuts I made were. But the long-term benefit is real: In the future I won’t have a dozen edible doughnuts from this recipe, I’ll have two-dozen. And the cook time will be considerably lower.

Okay, go Make Doughnuts

Tell me how they turn out. And please, be careful around that oil.

A digital marketer

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store