You don’t have to wait for an Italian festival to enjoy zeppole. These delicious fried Italian doughnuts are the ultimate treat: sweet and fluffy inside, and crisp and golden brown on the outside. You’ll often see them served in brown paper bags with a lot of powdered sugar on top, making them the perfect finger-friendly snack while you walk around the streets of Italy. They’re just as good at home, and easy enough to make any time you want a sweet fried dessert.
What Are Zeppole?
Zeppole, pronounced “zeh-po-ley,” are fried Italian doughnuts usually served during carnivals, street fairs and special occasions throughout Italy and around the world. The bite-size treats resemble doughnut holes, only these aren’t remnants from another pastry. The pillowy round dough balls are specifically made for easy eating and sharing.
Zeppola (the singular for zeppole) dough is usually loose and sticky, perfect for dropping in hot oil for frying. Some zeppole recipes call for ricotta cheese, some are more like choux pastry, and others are similar to other fried doughnut recipes made with yeast, flour, egg, milk and sugar. They’re all delicious! You can cover the treats in sugar or serve with chocolate sauce; in Italy, some zeppole have fillings.
Zeppole vs. American Doughnuts
Zeppole are very similar to American fried yeasted doughnut holes (as opposed to cake doughnuts). Italian doughnuts are made with milk and eggs, and that enriched dough needs time to proof and rise. When it’s ready, you drop the dough by the spoonful into hot oil. Then the fried dough balls are either sprinkled with or rolled in sugar.
Zeppole vs. Beignets
While both zeppole and beignets are a type of fried pastry, there are a few slight differences. The dough, for one. Beignets typically use evaporated milk, and are somewhat puffier than zeppole. They’re also cut into squares and completely covered with powdered sugar. While zeppole dough includes regular milk, it’s a bit looser and stickier, which is why it’s easier to drop the dough into hot oil by the spoonful. They’re often sprinkled with or rolled in sugar.
Key Ingredients in Zeppole
Yeast: You’ll need active-dry yeast for this recipe. Active-dry yeast, as opposed to instant yeast, is a fine, granular yeast that needs to be proofed to “wake up.” Here’s a primer on how to proof yeast.
Milk: Whole milk is the liquid used to activate the yeast. Make sure it’s warm but not too hot, so it doesn’t kill the yeast. Usually around 110°F.
Eggs: Let your eggs come to room temperature for easier mixing. It will also help the dough rise faster.
Sugar: Granulated sugar adds sweetness to the dough, but you’ll also need confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling on the warm doughnuts before eating.
Flour: General all-purpose flour is what you want here.
Oil: Use a neutral oil with a high smoke point, like vegetable, peanut or canola oil.
How to Make Zeppole
1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
1-1/2 cups warm whole milk (110°F to 115°)
3 large eggs, room temperature
5 tablespoons sugar
3 to 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Oil for deep-fat frying
Step 1: Make the dough
Heat the milk in the microwave or in a small saucepan over medium heat until warm but not hot (around 110°). Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk, and let it sit for 10 minutes, or until foamy.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, yeast mixture and 2 cups of flour. Beat on medium speed until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a stiff batter that’s still somewhat sticky to the touch.
Test Kitchen Tip: If the yeast doesn’t bubble or foam, it is not active. It could be old or the water was too hot and killed it. Start over with new yeast.
Step 2: Let the dough rest
Cover the bowl of dough with a kitchen towel, and let it rise in a warm place until doubled, about 45 minutes.
Step 3: Heat the oil
In an electric skillet, high-sided pot or deep fryer, heat oil to 375°. If using a pot or Dutch oven, be sure to clip on a thermometer to gauge the temperature of the oil.
Test Kitchen Tip: Make sure the oil stays at a consistent temperature, somewhere between 350° and 375°. This ensures the Italian doughnuts will cook as they should. If the temperature is too low, they’ll come out heavy and greasy; if too high, they’ll cook faster on the outside and leave the inside raw.
Step 4: Fry the zeppole
Punch down the dough. Drop batter by tablespoonfuls, a few at a time, into the hot oil. Use a little oil on the spoon and fingers if the dough is too sticky for easier removal. Fry the doughnuts until golden brown, about two minutes on each side. Drain the zeppole on paper towels.
Test Kitchen Tip: For the best zeppole, don’t overcrowd the pot, skillet or deep fryer, and work in batches. Put too many in at a time, and the oil temp could decrease and the doughnuts won’t cook properly.
Step 5: Dust with confectioners’ sugar
Once the Italian doughnuts are drained of oil but still warm, dust with confectioners’ sugar. Serve immediately.
Other Toppings for Zeppole
Tips for Making Zeppole
What’s the best oil for frying doughnuts?
A neutral-tasting oil with a high smoke is the best oil for frying doughnuts. Vegetable, peanut or canola oil are the most popular.
Can you bake zeppole?
This particular batter isn’t great for baking, but if you’d rather have a baked Italian doughnut, you can try making the choux pastry style, which is similar to cream puffs. You can also make doughnut holes using this recipe for baked doughnuts.
Can you make zeppole ahead of time?
You can make the zeppole dough ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator, covered, a day or two in advance. Let the dough come to room temperature before shaping and putting in the hot oil. You can also fry the doughnuts and store in an airtight container on the counter, in the refrigerator or freezer.
What’s the best way to store zeppole?
Like most doughnuts, zeppole are best when they’re hot and fresh. If you have leftovers, store them in an airtight container on the counter for up to three days. You can freeze doughnuts in a freezer bag or container for up to three months. Make sure the zeppole are completely cool, and hold off on the sugar if possible. Store them in the main part of the freezer, not the door, for best results.
Reheat zeppole in the microwave for 10 to 20 seconds, or in the oven or air fryer. Once warmed, sprinkle them with sugar.