One of Milwaukee's favorite treats is the cruller doughnut — or you may know it as a kruller or crawler, but we'll get into that in a bit. After getting a couple of questions from community members about the Milwaukee doughnut staple, we decided to dig into the history of crullers and explore a bakery known for them.
First, a bit of history on doughnuts in general. Food historian Kyle Cherek says doughnuts can be traced back to biblical times.
“I’m talking book of Leviticus — 'Cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour and fried as an offering for God,' " he notes.
The next known written recipe for the doughnut was found in Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife cookbook published in 1803. In fact, the term "doughnut" is an American invention according to Kyle.
"It’s mentioned in Brown University’s archives relative to Civil War battles and supplies coming in and crullers being delivered, so there’s a long, long, long history,” he says.
Crullers even make an appearance in The Wizard of Oz:
While doughnuts got their start with religious celebrations, their presence continued through the Middle Ages to the New World, where settlers had extra oil from an abundance of animal fat.
“[The settlers] can fry to their heart’s desire and it doesn’t have to just be on Sundays and the American doughnut is born!” says Kyle.
Now, for the cruller. The doughnut can be spelled with the letter “c” or the letter “k” – both of which are acceptable, according to Kyle. However, he contends that there is only one pronunciation.
"It’s not a 'crawler' it’s a 'cr-UH-ler,' and it’s [of] Dutch, German, Polish, origin,” says Kyle.
There is also the French cruller — but there’s a big difference.
“I think the big argument is that the Dutch, which first came into Pennsylvania and New York brought the cruller with them, and it’s very different than the French cruller, which is made with this panna choux dough. And it’s kind of if a churro met a cream puff and had a child — that’s what that dough is like,” he says.
Depending on where you are in the country, crullers can also be known as a dunkin’ or doughnut stick. Our Milwaukee-style cruller is based on the German and Dutch recipe and is a heartier and longer doughnut compared to the circular French style cruller.
The Pennsylvania Dutch most likely introduced their cruller to America in the late 1700s and early 1800s on the east coast, according to Kyle. The cruller gained popularity in Milwaukee during the early 1800s when the city had a massive German population with butchers and bakeries on nearly every corner — which, of course, brought crullers.
Grebe’s Bakery on Lincoln Avenue in West Allis probably makes the best known example of the Milwaukee-style cruller. To find out what makes their crullers so special, I met with Colton Grebe — a fourth generation Grebe’s baker, co-owner, and vice president of operations.
"So, I spell it c-r-u-l-l-e-r, and I pronounce it a ‘crawler’,” he notes.
Grebe's Bakery has been in business since 1937 and started making crullers in the mid-'50s according to Colton. He attributes their popularity to a good product and the right timing — particularly with the introduction of bakery in gas stations in the mid-'60s.
“I'm biased because this is my family's history, this is what I've been told. But we were the first bakery in the country to start selling to gas stations, start selling the grocery stores. At the time, before all the wonderful convenience stores that we have, gas stations were not a place you'd want your food in, and so we started doing that and then that's really how we became famous for a lot of our doughnuts,” he explains.
While the Milwaukee-style cruller quickly took off in southeastern Wisconsin, Grebe's didn't have as much success introducing the cruller in their sister bakery in Minnesota started by Colton's grandfather.
"They made so many crullers they didn't know what to do with them, and not one person would eat it," says Colton. "No one would buy it, so it's a very strictly Milwaukee thing."
According to Colton, a Milwaukee-style cruller needs to have crunchy outside, a rich inside, and what they call “a burst.”
“It has to have a really big burst, a big surface area that allows more glaze and toppings to go on it," he explains. "And also at the same time, it's a very rich and dense product, but it also has certain formulations in it that it should melt in your mouth.”
How you get that melt in your mouth flavor profile is with buttermilk, but that’s the only ingredient I could get out of Colton. The rest of the recipe, including the kind of fryer they use made especially for their crullers, is a Grebe family secret.
Once the cruller dough is fried to perfection, it rides along a conveyor to an icing waterfall and continues on the conveyor into the room next door to cool for 16 minutes and 46 seconds. Colton notes that while Grebe’s makes 15,000 to 18,000 crullers a day, they still have a homemade feel.
“That's why I always say we're one of the biggest little bakeries around because you look at our cruller and that looks like that is handmade, so that's really the secret to it,” he says.
Grebe's Bakery offers its traditional Milwaukee-style crullers, mini glazed crullers, mini chocolate covered glazed crullers, and a new brownie cruller. The bakery is even getting a second fryer installed in the near future to experiment with and produce even more cruller flavors.
Colton admits he may get some heat from the friendly competition of other bakeries, but he believes that Grebe’s has the best crullers.
"That's what makes a bakery really unique around here is, 'Hey, what kind of cruller do you have?' I would say hands down, we have the best cruller in Milwaukee. And I would also say that whether the cruller made us famous or we made the cruller famous, Grebe’s definitely had some part in making the Milwaukee cruller where it is today,” he says.
So whether you get your crullers from Grebe’s Bakery or any other bakery in Milwaukee, we can all agree that the cruller is something uniquely appreciated by us locals.
“Some things just go together — and a cruller and coffee are heaven-made,” says Kyle.
Have a question you'd like WUWM to answer? Submit your query below.