Swedish Cuisine — Köttbullar, Swedish Meatballs

Sweden’s cuisine, due to its long, cold winters and long coastline, is comprised of relatively few ingredients.  Most of the national table can be represented by the use of game meats, beef, dairy products, seafood, berries, potatoes, root vegetables that thrive in cold weather like turnips and rutabagas, bread, and butter.  A lack of native ingredients does not limit the Swedish cook’s imagination, however, and this diversity and imagination is celebrated in perhaps the most famous of Swedish culinary traditions, the smorgasbord.

Sweden quick facts:

  • Capital: Stockholm
  • Population: 9,555,893 (2012 census)
  • Notable Swedes: Max von Sydow, Ingrid Bergman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, The Swedish Chef (or as he is known locally, “The Chef”)

In the United States, waves of Swedish immigrants brought with them a dish that is now very much a part of American food culture — Swedish meatballs (in Swedish, köttbullar, recipe follows).  The American version has a coarse texture and is usually baked in the oven before being bathed in a cream sauce.  Swedish cooks prefer a more tender, delicate texture and will beat their meat mixture for köttbullar until it has a creamy consistency.  The meatballs are made fairly small, about an inch or so in diameter, and gently fried in butter.  Served alone, they will usually be eaten with a cream gravy, but as a part of the smorgasbord köttbullar are best left unadorned by any sauce.


adapted from SWEDEN.SE — the Official Gateway to Sweden and from the November 2011 Saveur


  • 1 large slice white bread, preferably slightly stale, torn into small pieces
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3/4 pound ground beef
  • 1/3 pound ground pork
  • 1 egg
  • 1 onion, minced finely (we used the food processor)
  • 1 Tbs butter (for softening onions)
  • 1/2 tsp ground allspice
  • salt and pepper
  • More butter for frying

For the gravy:

  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1 1/2 Tbs flour
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup milk

First, the bread was soaked in the milk while we prepared the other ingredients.  A long soak is not needed; enough time for the bread to absorb the milk will suffice:


Some recipes we consulted made their meatballs using raw onions, but we sided with the recipes that cooked the onions before mixing with the meat.  We figured that the end result would benefit from cooking off the excess liquid in the onions first, hopefully resulting in a meatball that would hold its shape more easily.  To that end, we heated a tablespoon or so of butter in one of our trusty cast iron pans over medium-low heat:


Once the sizzling had shown signs of slowing down, we added the minced onions:


The onions were stirred frequently until softened a little and all the excess liquid had evaporated, about five minutes:


The onions were put into a mixing bowl along with the meats, egg, milk-soaked bread, allspice, and some salt and pepper:


To achieve the lightest texture for the meatballs, aggressive beating is needed.  This can be done by hand (tediously) for several minutes, squeezing the meat mixture between the fingers over and over again.  We chose instead to use power tools and hooked the mixing bowl up to our stand mixer.  Using the paddle mixer attachment, we commenced the beating:


After about five minutes we stopped the mixer to check the texture of the meat, finding it to be just a little too coarse:


We turned the mixer on for another five minutes and were pleased with the results:


Using bare hands moistened slightly with water (a great help in preventing the meat from sticking to the hands) the meat mixture was shaped into golfball-sized balls and arranged ready to add to a hot pan:

The texture of the meat is delicate enough that some of the meatballs had slumped a little by the time they were all made and the photo taken.

To cook, the pan used to soften the onions was wiped clean, then placed over almost medium heat on the stove.  Once hot, about one tablespoon of butter was added and melted, then in went about half the meatballs:

Maybe a few more meatballs could have fit in the pan, but it is important not to overcrowd them.

After a couple minutes the pan was shaken to redistribute the meatballs:


The shaking of the meatballs was repeated every couple of minutes (using tongs when needed to move stubborn pieces) for about ten minutes until our meatballs were browned all over:


The finished meatballs were removed and set aside and the process was repeated for the last batch of meatballs, again starting by melting some additional butter first.  Once all the meatballs were cooked, we went to work on the sauce.  Using what we were sure were delicious pan drippings:


We added one tablespoon of butter to the pan and placed it on a burner on medium-low heat:


Next the flour was added and whisked into the butter:


The flour and butter were stirred constantly, forming a nice roux, and heated for about a minute until the mixture was just beginning to darken:


The sour cream and milk were then added:


…and whisked together until incorporated into a rich, delicious gravy:


At this point all that was left to do was put the meatballs in the sauce:


…and toss to combine:


A common Swedish presentation for köttbullar, especially in taverns, is alongside potatoes, pickles, and lingonberry preserves, which sounded just fine to us:


Our köttbullar were meaty, tender, and made even richer with the cream gravy.  The tart and sweet pickles and lingonberry preserves balanced the richness nicely, and a bite containing all three was especially delicious.  Swedish meatballs, with all due respect to Ingrid Bergman and Ikea furniture, might be the nation’s greatest gift to the rest of the world.


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