Recipe Review

Glazed Donuts, but Better: The Story of LA’s Beloved Buttermilk Bars

published Mar 21, 2020
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donuts cooling on a baking sheet and rack
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

I remember it clearly: About six years ago, I was having dinner with friends at my favorite pizzeria, Franny’s, when I first learned of buttermilk bars. The topic of donuts had come up, as it often does, and my friend from Los Angeles chimed in to say his favorite was the buttermilk bar. The word “bar” immediately grabbed my attention, implying that this donut was large, but it was also the notion of a buttermilk bar that intrigued me. I imagined it might taste like a classic, craggy, old-fashioned donut, but better — and I would later learn I was right. And so began my obsession.

My Search for Buttermilk Bar Answers

Question-peppering began in earnest, and I learned that Primo’s Donuts, an LA institution, sold my dinner companion’s buttermilk bar of choice. He’d had his first at Arlene’s Donuts in the early 70s, but Arlene’s had closed, and although he’d enjoyed subsequent, “fantastic” ones at Stan’s, Bob’s and Randy’s, Primo’s remained his favorite. I left the restaurant that night eager to get googling. I couldn’t wait to see what a buttermilk bar recipe entailed.

Much to my disappointment, however, I couldn’t find a single recipe for my newest fried obsession. I found some articles about where you might purchase one, and even a YouTube video demonstrating how to make them in a professional kitchen, but zero actual recipes. So, I did what any recipe developer would do: I created my own, riffing off a simple buttermilk donut and playing with size and shape to get the quintessential buttermilk bar look (rectangular, glazed, textured with a “split” or cut down the middle). I was pleased with the results, gave myself a pat on the back, and moved on to something else. That is, until about a month ago.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Six years after my buttermilk bar-illuminating dinner, I received an email from a woman who had worked at a “mom and pop” donut shop in the 1960s in Los Angeles. She had stumbled upon the buttermilk bar recipe on my website and wanted to share what she believed to be the bar’s origin story. Sunset Magazine, she said, had published a recipe for “Spiced Cake Doughnuts” in one of their early 1960s cookbooks, and that recipe served as the impetus for the buttermilk bar. She had changed the recipe at her own shop, substituting buttermilk for the milk and adding nutmeg, baking soda, and a bit more sugar. She wrote that most of the “mom and pop donut houses of the 1960s” made buttermilk bars in “quantity” — both glazed and unglazed — due to their popularity.

I was ecstatic, as it appeared my new penpal had unveiled some of the mystery surrounding my beloved bars. I immediately ordered a copy of the Sunset Cookbook and emailed her back. Sadly, however, there was no cake donut recipe in the book, and I never heard from my penpal again. But as luck would have it, within weeks of being ghosted, Primo’s reposted my bars on their Instagram feed.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

At Long Last, Buttermilk Bar Answers

Ralph Primo, Jr. was more than happy to chat buttermilk bar donuts with me. Ralph’s parents had bought Primo’s on a whim in 1956, and, knowing nothing about donut making, had enlisted the help of a Southern supplier, who worked at the Donut Company of America, to teach them. One of the first lessons involved developing a recipe for an “old-fashioned” by adding buttermilk to a recipe that typically called for water. It’s that recipe, created almost 65 years ago, that Primo’s still uses today for their bars.

As for how the donut evolved into a bar, Ralph Sr. believes it was the supplier who first suggested to him that they shape the donuts into rectangles and score the tops. But he doesn’t believe that Primo’s (or the supplier) was the first to create a buttermilk bar. It’s safe to say, however, that many believe they’ve created the best. In the 1970s, Primo’s buttermilk bars “really took off,” and it’s still their most popular donut. It comes in a variety of flavors, including cinnamon, chocolate, sea salt-caramel, and plain. Primo’s also makes “bites,” smaller buttermilk bars shaped into little squares.

Full disclosure — I’ve never eaten at an LA buttermilk bar, but I will be rectifying that situation on my next trip out West. But, as Primo’s isn’t interested in sharing their recipe, I hope you’ll take a stab at mine, which is just as Ralph Jr. describes his: crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. And, of course, they’re on the large side, as I really couldn’t have it any other way.