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Every New Year’s Eve, families all over the Netherlands grab their frying pots, oil, and flour. Ready to make, a lot of oliebollen – the ‘Dutch donut’, if you will. Best eaten with (lots) of powdered sugar, they’re an integral part of a Dutch New Year’s Eve celebration!
But what are these fried pieces of dough? Where do they even come from? And, most importantly, how best to make them? We did some research and fried a bunch of oliebollen to find out.
- The origins of oliebollen
- What is an oliebol (Dutch donut)?
- How to make oliebollen
- Developing a 'perfect' oliebol – The role of ingredients
- Troubleshooting oliebollen
- No success in making oliebollen?
The origins of oliebollen
Oliebollen aren’t a trend, nor a recent hype in the Netherlands. They have been around for centuries. A painting by Aelbert Cuyp, dating back to the 17th century, actually shows a woman holding a jar full of oliebollen. We’d still recognize those pieces of dough in the jar as being oliebollen.
At the time, oliebollen – which literally translates as ‘oil balls’ – were still referred to as ‘olykoeken’ (oil-cookies). Nevertheless, their preparation method was already very similar to the one we use nowadays. A flour-based batter is fried in oil to create puffy balls of cooked dough.
Is the oliebol the origin story of the donut?
It is even said that American donuts may have evolved from oliebollen. Dutch colonists who migrated overseas would continue to prepare oliebollen in their new home country. Over time, the oliebollen evolved to the round shape with a hole in the middle, that a donut is nowadays. Who knows, maybe at some point churros were also a ‘family member’ of the oliebol.
More donut origin stories exist of course, and this one can’t be proven. Nevertheless, American donuts and Dutch oliebollen do have a lot in common. It’s probably why English speakers may refer to oliebollen as ‘Dutch donuts’.
What is an oliebol (Dutch donut)?
So what really is an oliebol? At their core, oliebollen are fried pieces of yeasted dough. The raw, uncooked dough is quite liquid-like. It has more in common with a firm pancake batter than a bread dough. The final fried oliebol is soft and fluffy on the inside, the outside may be slightly crispy. Even though an oliebol is fried, it shouldn’t be oily!
Oliebollen are small enough to easily fit in your hand but too big to eat in one bite. They can be plain, without any add-ins, or contain fillings such as raisins and apples. The dough balls themselves are quite plain in taste, especially if they don’t contain any fillings. It’s why they are best eaten with lots of powdered sugar, dusted all over, preferably while still warm!
Oliebollen vs. Donuts
Oliebollen are closely related to yeast donuts. However, whereas most donuts are made from a dough that can be shaped into a ring, oliebollen are made from a batter. As such, you can’t shape them in any other shape than a ball, or a misshapen, random figure.
Generally speaking, oliebollen contain a lot less sugar than donuts. But both are eaten with a lot of extra sugar on top: a glaze or frosting on a donut and powdered sugar on top of an oliebol.
How to make oliebollen
Making oliebollen consists of just two steps:
- Make the oliebollen batter and leave it to proof.
- Fry the leavened batter in hot oil
Making the oliebollen batter
Oliebollen batter is very simple to make. It merely exists of combining all the ingredients and mixing. The order of addition of ingredients is not important, nor is the overall mixing time. Mix the batter until it looks homogeneous, and you’re pretty much ready to go.
Once mixed, the batter does need time to proof. The time mainly depends on how much yeast you’re using. Proofing time isn’t as critical as it is for bread though. As long as the batter has clearly increased in size and contains plenty of bubbles, you’re pretty much good to go.
Round or octopus shaped?
Whereas professionally made oliebollen tend to be quite round, most homemade ones aren’t. Instead, homemade ones often have several tails coming out of them! Since these ‘tails’ are thinner, they tend to be crispier.
To prevent the formation of (too many) tails, it’s best to keep the batter a little on the thicker side. A very liquid batter is hard to dose properly when frying. A thicker batter will hold together more easily.
After proofing, the batter is ready to be fried in hot oil. Scoop heaps of batter into the hot oil. We like to use two spoons for this, but you can also use an ice cream scoop. To help the batter slide of the spoon, dip them in the hot oil just before scooping out some batter. The oil and hot temperature will prevent a coating that prevents the oliebollen from sticking.
Once the batter hits the oil it will puff up slightly and cook within just a few minutes. Frying in hot oil is one of the fastest cooking methods there is. The oil is great at transferring heat. As soon as the batter touches the oil the outside cooks. The starches in the batter gelatinize quickly. Once they do so, the oliebol will maintain its shape.
You can’t cook oliebollen in the oven without drastically adjusting the recipe. The batter would simply flow flat long before it has time to set. The air in the oven isn’t as efficient and fast at transferring heat!
During frying the oliebollen set, and turn a (light) brown color. This color change is due to the Maillard reaction in which sugars and proteins react. It happens quickly at these high temperatures. Besides color, it also adds flavor!
Temperature control is crucial
Whenever you fry food in hot oil, temperature control is crucial. Fry them too hot and the outside will burn before the inside has a chance to cook. Too cold and the oliebol will soak up oil and taste fatty and greasy.
We found the best temperature to fry at to be: 175-185°C (347-365°F). It makes it a lot easier to maintain this temperature if you don’t add too many oliebollen at the same time. The batter is at room temperature so will cool down the oil!
Frying foods in hot oil is a balancing act of time and temperature, as well as good coming up with a good recipe. Deep-frying fish follows some of the same ‘rules’.
Type of oil
You can use any oil that is suitable for deep frying. That means you should be able to heat the oil to 190-200°C (374-390°F) without it starting to smoke. It is also best to use an oil instead of a fat. Solid fats such as shortening or clarified butter solidify again when cooled down. This can give oliebollen an unappetizing outside coating.
In the Netherlands sunflower oil is a favorite for frying oliebollen, but many others such as canola seed oil or peanut oil will work fine.
Should you stir before you fry?
Some recipes call for stirring the oliebollen batter before frying. This would help get rid of very large air pockets. We tested both and didn’t find a difference for a small-scale, homemade batch.
Developing a ‘perfect’ oliebol – The role of ingredients
Even though making oliebollen consists of just two steps, there are still plenty of customization options. For one thing, the recipe for your batter will influence just how your oliebol turns out. Let’s have a look at the role of the ingredients that make up a batter. Knowing how they work can help you define your ideal batter recipe.
Flour & Yeast
First of all, all recipes will call for some sort of flour, almost always white wheat flour, and yeast. Flour brings the batter together and is the core of the recipe.
The yeast ensures the fried dough balls don’t turn out rock solid. Yeast are tiny microorganisms that can convert sugars into carbon dioxide, a gas. This gas is trapped within the dough. The resulting air pockets lighten up the oliebollen.
Forgetting the yeast makes tough, solid oliebollen instead of light and fluffy ones!
Salt & Sugar
Oliebollen batter often contains some salt and sugar. Both add flavor, but more importantly, influence the activity of yeast! Oliebollen only contain a little added sugar. As such, it doesn’t add much sweetness. Instead, it mostly serves as an energy source for the yeast. The yeast will ‘eat’ the sugar.
Salt has the opposite effect, it slows down the growth of yeast. It also impacts the flour protein structure.
Milk – The traditional option
Most oliebollen recipes traditionally call for milk as the main source of liquid. Milk contains proteins as well as sugar, lactose. During frying, the proteins and sugars will react with other proteins and sugar in the batter and make the oliebol turn brown – remember the Maillard reaction? By replacing milk with water you can slow this browning process down.
In most recipes you can replace the milk with water without a detrimental effect.
Beer, cider, carbonated water – A less traditional option
Some recipes don’t use milk. Instead, they use a carbonated drink such as beer, cider, or carbonated water. The gas in the drinks can help aerate the batter. However, if you proof the batter long enough, you don’t need the extra gas. In our comparisons, we didn’t find a clear benefit.
Depending on the drink you choose, it can add some extra flavor.
Butter & Eggs
This is where we found most variability between recipes! Some recipes contain butter and eggs, some contain one and others contain none.
We found that adding (too much) butter makes a crunchier oliebol. Eggs on the other hand helped to create a fluffy, moist center.
Fillings – Go crazy!
Oliebollen can be made plain, as is. However, you can also go all-in on the fillings. Traditional fillings are raisins and apples. However, a wide range of other fillings can work as well, such as pineapple, or even ground beef. Generally speaking, the filling is added after the batter has been mixed and makes up less than half the weight of the flour used.
Don’t burn the filling!
When using a filling it is very important that it won’t burn during frying. There are roughly two ways to do so. First of all, you can make sure none of the filling sticks out during frying. That way the batter protects the filling.
Alternatively, make sure that the filling is sufficiently moist. The water will protect the filling during frying. This is why recipes will call for soaking raisins or other dried fruits on fore hand.
There are two possible solutions to this problem:
1) Fry the oliebollen at a lower temperature. A very high frying temperature can cause the outside to burn before the heat has time to penetrate within. A good temperature is 175-185°C (347-365°F).
2) Lower the amount of sugar and/or milk in the recipe. Both of these accelerate browning through the Maillard reaction. Adding less of either of them will slow down browning, giving you more time to fry the oliebol!
We noticed that adding (too much) butter increases the crispiness of the oliebollen. Try lowering the butter content.
Did you control the temperature of the oil? If the temperature is too low, the oliebollen can soak up a lot of oil during frying.
Did you add too many into the oil at once? That might have lowered the oil temperature.
Did you use a wok or small pot to fry your oliebollen? Temperature control is a lot easier with a slightly larger pan and excess oil.
Did you soak your raisins for at least an hour? Soaking really helps protect the raisins against burning. The excess water evaporates during frying, keeping the raisins cool.
That’s not up to us to answer! Tastes differ and you probably don’t want to drive an hour to get your oliebollen. Most oliebollen stands arrive at least a few days before New Year’s Eve. Why not do a tasting round before the big day to find your local favorite?
Did you forget to add the yeast? Or did you not proof the oliebollen batter for long enough before frying?
No success in making oliebollen?
Having no success in making oliebollen? Or did you embark on the oliebollen make adventure too late and is all oil and powdered sugar sold out?
If you’re in the Netherlands on New Year’s Eve, there’s no need to panic! Oliebollen are sold anywhere and everywhere that day. You might have to stand in line to get them at a popular stand, but you should be able to get your hands on some. It isn’t truly New Year’s Eve if you don’t have at least one (or a few more), isn’t it?