Crunchy on the outside, melting on the inside, bitterballen (singular: bitterbal) are typical Dutch snacks containing minced beef and/or veal.
The round version of croquettes
The Swiss have their raclette, the Italians their pizza, the French their boeuf bourguignon and the Dutch their kroketten (plural of kroket), and bitterballen, although it is very much the same recipe, only the bitterbal has a different shape. It is, indeed, essentially a round version of the famous Dutch croquettes.
How to make bitterballen
Typical bitterballen are made from a kind of dense and thick stew, prepared with roux, mixed with small pieces of beef and/or veal, finely chopped or even minced. Some variations use mashed potatoes in place of the roux.
The mixture is then refrigerated for a few hours to achieve the consistency that will form them. Some versions use gelatin to make it go faster.
The mixture is then shaped into small balls, about an inch (2 to 4 cm) in diameter, breaded in beaten egg and breadcrumbs. They are then fried or, more rarely, baked. The spices and herbs used generally include salt, pepper, onion, parsley, and nutmeg. It is common, but not always, to add bay leaves or even lemon juice. Sometimes vegetables such as carrot, celery and leek can also be included in the preparation.
The original recipe uses beef or veal, but the chicken and vegetarian versions are equally popular. In the vegetarian versions, cheese and/or mushrooms are frequently used.
What is the origin of bitterballen?
Bitterballen literally means “bitter balls”. They get their name from an aperitif liqueur called bitter, and are commonly served as part of a bittergarnituur: a selection of savory snacks to accompany drinks, just like Spanish tapas or Middle Eastern mezze.
The name of the dish does not come from the flavor of the recipe, because bitterballen are by no means bitter. Their name derives from the practice of the consumption, as they were historically served with bitter or juniper liqueur, bittertje, a drink known as “Dutch gin”.
The earliest evidence of the existence of bitterbal dates from the Batavian era. Batavians was the name given during the Roman Empire to the Germanic peoples who inhabited the Rhine Delta region, which roughly corresponds to the territory of the present-day Netherlands.
The Batavians lived in the Netherlands around 200 BC in the province of Gelderland. They used to eat roast meat with bread and vegetables.
After each meal, Batavian women used to mix leftover food with water and bread to feed the hunters on their travels. The Romans then continued to follow the eating habits of the Batavians when they conquered the region.
During the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, the Spaniards copied the recipe from the Batavians. So they changed the preparation method: the leftover meat was mixed with a batter made from flour and eggs, rolled in breadcrumbs and then fried, a recipe very similar to today’s bitterballen.
The cook of a Spanish ship discovered the bitterbal during the Eighty Years’ War. The Eighty Years’ War, or the Dutch War of Independence, was the rebellion of the United Provinces against Spanish rule, which turned into a conflict that lasted from 1568 to 1648.
This would mean that the first Dutch bitterballen were made by the Spaniards. Due to the scarcity, they only had a few ingredients they could use to make their tapas: stale bread, stew, and meat.
Another version says that at the end of the 18th century Jan Barentz, an innkeeper, found that drinking beer or gin developed his customers’ appetite. To make them drink much more, he introduced the first forms of finger food called schenks, small portions of cheese, bread and croquettes, introduced by the Spaniards.
Rumor has it that Jan Barentz’s wife once used the leftover stuffing from the croquettes to shape into little balls. She rolled them in an egg and breadcrumbs and fried them.
But, bitterballen have a much more distant origin, that of croquettes, kroketten in Dutch.
Roux is the essential step in making bitterballen.
Originally from French cuisine, Roux is a mixture that acts as a binder or thickener, for sauces and soups. It is made by mixing one part of flour or cornstarch, with one part, of almost equal weight, of melted butter, or another type of fat such as oil, margarine or lard.
The mixture must be cooked because this way, the unpleasant aftertaste of the raw flour is removed and any toxins it may contain are neutralized.
A perfect roux is smooth and viscous, without imperfections, lumps or irregularities. This result is obtained thanks to a constant and regular whisking, throughout the cooking phase.
The cooking time generally varies from a few minutes to about 30 minutes, giving different results in terms of consistency, coloring, progressively darker, and taste, progressively more intense and bitter.
Thus, three different types of roux can be obtained:
Croquettes around the world
In the West Indies, accras de morue (salt cod fritters) are traditional small, spicy and gourmet croquettes, essential in West Indian cuisine.
In Spain, croquetas de jamón are very popular croquettes made with Serrano ham and Béchamel sauce.
In Barbados, salt fish cakes are made with salt cod and are known in several countries by different names.
In Bangladesh, al-chop (similar to Indian alo tikki) is a croquette topped with potatoes served as an appetizer. In addition to the potato stuffing, there is also a meat-based type.
In Thailand, tod man pla are delicious little fish and bean cakes.
In West Africa, chin chin are small, nutmeg-flavored snacks.
In Brazil, coxinha de galinha is a mixture of ground chicken wrapped in dough and shaped into a drumstick, which is breaded before fried. In Brazil, meat or shrimp croquettes are also very typical.
In the Philippines, croquette is called croqueta and it is a dish brought with the Spanish colonization. The local croquette recipe is filled with mashed potatoes, beef, or ground fish.
In Hungary, krokett is a small, cylindrical biscuit similar to the Czech krokety, which is a small dumpling made from potatoes, eggs, flour and butter, fried in hot oil.
In India, it is called aloo tikki, made from boiled potatoes and various spices. This name is made up of the terms aloo, which means potato and tikki, which means a small croquette.
In Indonesia, kroket is a popular local menu item introduced during Dutch colonization.
In Japan, a variation of croquette is called korokke and can be made with potatoes and other vegetables (onion or carrot), with a small amount of pork or beef. The cylindrical version of the korokke is also served, in this case, with typical crab or chicken fillings.
Crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, bitterballen are traditional meat croquettes from the Netherlands.
- 5 tablespoons butter
- 1 onion chopped
- ½ cup flour sifted
- 1 cup beef broth
- 10 oz. beef or veal very finely minced with a knife
- 2 eggs beaten
- 8 oz. breadcrumbs
- Vegetable oil for frying
- In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.
- Add the onion and sauté gently in the butter for about 5 minutes over low heat.
- Add the flour and mix well with a wooden spoon.
- Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, and stop when it just begins to color. It may take up to 12 minutes.
- Then add in the cold broth and continue to whisk until obtaining a velvety mixture.
- Add the meat, salt and pepper.
- Cook over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 5 minutes until obtaining a fairly firm mixture.
- Pour the stew into a glass container, cover with plastic wrap with the plastic wrap touching the surface, and let stand in the refrigerator for 8 hours or until set.
- Take the stew out of the refrigerator.
- Form meatballs of about an inch (2 to 4 cm) in diameter.
- First roll the balls in the breadcrumbs and then in the beaten egg. Finally roll them a second time in the breadcrumbs.
- Heat a large amount of vegetable oil in a deep pan over medium heat or in a deep fryer to 350 F (175°C).
- Fry the balls in small batches for about 5 minutes, then drain them on paper towel.
- Serve with mustard.