Every year, on New Year’s Eve, a pot gets filled with oil and a dough is left to proof on the radiator to make something I wouldn’t make any other day of the year: oliebollen. Oliebollen for me are linked to one of two events: New Year’s Eve and when visiting a fair (kermis in Dutch). Especially that link with New Year’s Eve is a typical Dutch phenomenon. On every New Year’s Eve tv-show you will see a bowl full of oliebollen.
I wouldn’t eat oliebollen on any other day than those two, that would make them feel out of place. Which is strange, because they are just fried pieces of batter, very similar to a donut. And, I do eat donuts on all sorts of occasions throughout the year.
Origins of oliebollen
Oliebollen have been around for a long time in the Netherlands. A painting by Aelbert Cuyp, dating back to the 17th century, shows a woman holding a tray filled with oliebollen. It is thought that oliebollen (at the time called olykoeken) are one of several possible origins of donuts (we discuss the history of donuts in more detail), but both grew out into very different uses. I would never eat a donut on New Year’s Eve, nor would I eat an oliebol on a random day in March.
What is an oliebol (Dutch donut)?
Also called ‘Dutch donut’ in the English online stratosphere, oliebollen are fried balls made of a yeast-proofed batter. They are small enough to hold into your hand and are eaten best freshly fried, still warm, with a generous serving of icing sugar. If your oliebollen have cooled off, it’s easy to re-heat them in the oven or microwave. Oliebollen are soft on the inside. If fresh, they might be slightly crispy on the outside, but re-heated they tend to be soft all over.
How oliebollen are made
Making oliebollen involves making a yeast-risen batter that mostly consists of wheat flour, milk and yeast with some butter and egg. They generally don’t contain sugar (or only little) which makes them slightly savoury and ensures the plenty icing sugar doesn’t make the whole thing too sweet.
After proofing the batter you fry scoopfuls at the time in hot oil. Proofing them for long enough and frying them at the right temperature are the biggest hurdles. During frying the oliebollen puff up quite a bit, making them quite airy. The type of oil impacts the final structure of an oil (as is the case for most fried foods anyway) a general favorite is sunflower oil.
Seeing how hordes of Dutch people make them only once a year though, and having success, that’s a sign they’re not the hardest thing to make!
Whereas professional oliebollen tend to be quite round, thanks to a proper way of dosing the batter into the oil, 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. I use two spoons to scoop the batter into the oil, so getting those perfect rounds is not going to happen, although that irregularity is part of the fun of course.
Fillings in oliebollen?
It’s pretty common to put fillings in oliebollen. Adding soaked raisins or some grated apple works great and is the more traditional route. Pineapple or even minced meat are just one of the many possible variations.
If you decide on using large pieces of apple (or other fruits) you will end up with an (apple) beignet, also very tasty and also mostly eaten on New Year’s Eve in the Netherlands.
Comparing oliebollen with donuts
There are a lot of different types of donuts, cake vs. yeast donuts, those shaped like a ring vs. round balls, so comparing the oliebol with the donut isn’t easy.
The ingredients of an oliebol are most similar to the yeast donut, with one notable exception. The sugar content in oliebollen is a lot lower than that of most donuts. Whereas most yeast donut are made with a dough though, which is shaped before frying, oliebollen are made from a batter. This shows more similarity with how some cake donuts are made. The texture is actually quite similar to that of our sourdough donut (with large and unevenly sized air pockets as opposed to the smaller more even bubbles in most other donuts). Of course, the famous ring shape of a donut is very different from that of an oliebol, but then again, not all donuts have that shape. To top it off, oliebollen are best eaten with plenty of icing sugar (to make up for that lack of sugar in the dough) and aren’t very suited for icings (due to their uneven appearance). Donuts of course, seem to thrive under icings!
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. Oliebollen will be sold everywhere (but may sell out quick in some places!) on New Year’s Eve. Come one day later though, and apart from left-over donuts on someone’s counter top, it will be almost impossible to find a fresh oliebol. You’ll have to wait another year, but can get a donut if you want to.
- 500g flour
- 1 tsp dried instant yeast
- pinch of salt
- 50g butter
- 500 ml milk
- 1 egg
- Frying oil (e.g. sunflower oil)
Suggested fillings (don't use all at once and feel free to vary ratios and weight)
- 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
- If you plan to add dry fillings (such as raisins), start by soaking them in water to make them moist. This helps prevent them from burning.
- 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 want to add the fillings, mix them in now.
- 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.* If you don't have a thermometer, 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.
* Make sure that the temperature stays constant during frying for the best results. Turn up the heat a little when you add new batter and turn it down when they're about halfway through fried, all the time checking the temperature.