Some foods you will only eat at very specific times in the year. In the Netherlands this is the case for oliebollen (literally translated this means oil balls). You will eat plenty of them on New Year’s Eve, but apart from that day you will barely eat any. You might buy some at a local fair or you might buy some at one of the many carts that pop up in December selling mostly oliebollen.
This is very different from donuts which can be bought through the entire year. However, when you look more closely at the two they are quite similar. Both are fried doughs and both are eaten with sugar. Oliebollen are eaten with icing sugar whereas donuts are often covered with a glaze. It seems most likely that that have a similar origin, but still ended up on different spectra of our food repertoire.
What’s an oliebol (Dutch donut)?
On the internet I’ve found a lot of English blogs and websites who call oliebollen ‘Dutch donuts’. Oliebollen are indeed fried heaps of dough, generally small enough to be easily held in your hand but large enough to take several bites to be eaten. Whereas professional oliebollen tend to be quite round, most homemade ones aren’t at all. Instead, they have more of an oval shape and will often have a lot of ‘tails’ sticking out on all sides. Oliebollen are best eaten warm, with plenty plenty icing sugar.
It’s pretty common to put fillings in oliebollen. Adding soaked raisins or some grated apple works great. If you decide on using large pieces of apple you will end up with an apple beignet, also very taste and also mostly eaten on New Year’s Eve.
Long standing recipe
Oliebollen have been around for a long time in the Netherlands. There’s a painting from the 17th century by the painter Aelbert Cuyp in which a woman holds a tray filled with oliebollen.
Made with batter
As you can read in the recipe at the end of this post, oliebollen are made using a yeast risen batter. This batter is than fried in hot oil. This moist batter gives donuts an airy structure, since they can expand easily. Also, an oliebol is not crispy, instead, the whole ball is soft and rich. It’s a savoury batter, without any sugar or only very little as food for the yeast, so the oliebol itself is quite neutral. The oil does not contribute that much to flavour (but it can impact freshness and structure). That’s why it’s eaten with so much icing sugar.
What’s a donut?
We’ve discussed donuts (more specifically sourdough donuts) extensively in a separate post. Even though most donuts you can buy will be round with a hole in the middle, it’s not a requirement for something to be called a donut it seems. Most homemade donuts are the more simple ball shape which is a lot less time consuming.
Made with dough
There are several differences between donuts and oliebollen (or Dutch donuts). The most obvious one though is the structure of the dough/batter. Whereas oliebollen are made from a batter and thus cannot really be shaped or designed, donuts are made from a more sturdy dough. When making donuts you will roll balls of the dough or cut out circles.
As a result, donuts have a more bread like structure, with a lot of small bubbles, whereas oliebollen contain smaller and larger holes. Both do still expand quite a bit when fried in the oil. The expansion takes place right at the start of the frying process for both of them.
Comparing sugar content
Another clear difference between oliebollen and donuts is the sugar content. An oliebollen batter is quite simple, only a little butter and no sugar at all. A donut dough on the other hand contains sugar and more butter. Both will of course absorb part of the frying oil into the structures.
As a result, oliebollen truly have to be eaten with icing sugar, donuts on the other hand don’t really need the icing on top. Nevertheless, most donuts do contain that icing.
The recipe below is a basic recipe for oliebollen. If you’re in the Netherlands on New Year’s Eve though, no need to make them yourselves if you don’t feel like it. There will be oliebollen sold everywhere!
- 500g flour
- 1 tsp dried instant yeast
- pinch of salt
- 50g butter
- 500 ml milk
- 1 egg
- Frying oil (e.g. sunflower oil)
- 75g raisins (pre-soak in water for at least 1 hour to prevent burning during frying)
- 75g currant (also pre-soak these)
- 75g of grated apple
- Mix the flour, yeast and salt.
- Melt the butter and mix with the milk and the egg. Assure the butter isn't too hot when adding the egg, you wouldn't want to actually cook the egg.
- Gently pour the liquids with the solids. Mix the batter with a whisk until well combined without any lumps.
- If you like to be creative, you can add fillings here.
- Leave the batter to prove for at least one hour (dough should double in size).
- Once the dough has risen well, pre-heat the oil in a pot. Take care to not overfill the pot (aim for half full with enough height to prevent the batter from sticking to the bottom).
- Heat the oil to 180C. You can test whether it's the correct temperature by throwing in a little of batter. It should immediately start to bubble and sizzle, but it shouldn't turn black immediately.
- Take two large spoons, use one spoon to take some batter and use the other to drop the batter in the oil. You can also use an ice cream scoop, but that's not always easier.
- Fry the oliebollen until they are a light golden brown. Turn regularly to make sure both sides brown well.
- Once you've finished you first oliebol cut it in half to check whether the inside has been cooked as well. If the inside is not yet cooked, but the outside has turned dark brown either take less batter or turn the heat lower, your oil might be too hot.
- Leave the oliebollen to cool down slightly on a paper towel before transferring in a bowl with napkins. They'll be slightly oily, so best eaten with napkins around.
- Take care to not add too much oliebollen at a time since it will cause the oil to cool down too mcuh.