As much as I appreciate the crust on a beautifully pan-fried meatball, I just don’t have the time or the patience to stand over the stove and fry up all of those little darlings. My Swedish grandmother (born in the U.S. to Swedish parents) used to make her meatballs a “shortcut” way by broiling and baking them. I just can’t bring myself to give up that convenience for the pan-frying route, and my Swedish husband finds them entirely acceptable, as long as there is a crust on the top.
Meatballs are found in many world cuisines dating as far back as Roman times but they have not been definitively credited to any particular culture. Thanks to IKEA, Swedish meatballs are arguably the most well-known meatballs in the world. Initially they were only enjoyed by upper class Swedes but the increased availability of wood stoves and meat grinders in the 1850s made meatballs accessible to the middle classes as well.
Today they are standard fare, year-round in Swedish households and restaurants. Most commonly they are served with a sauce, boiled potatoes, lingonberries, and a plain salad. They are also a mainstay of the Swedish Christmas table, or julbord. Some recipes on the internet, and my grandmother’s recipe, advocate cooking the meatballs in the sauce at some point but that is uncommon in Sweden where the sauce is generally kept separate until serving. Leaving the sauce separate allows for easier freezing of the meatballs as well as the ability to adapt them to a popular open-faced sandwich (smörgås) finished with a mix of pickled beets, creme fraiche, apples and onion. Super tasty. I promise to post a recipe at some point.
There are several different brands of pre-made meatballs available in Swedish grocery stores but they are so easy to make at home, especially this way, that I can’t imagine purchasing a pre-made frozen bag of them. Every home cook seems to have a version of meatballs inspired by a family recipe. They can vary in meat-content based on geography. In southern Sweden they are most often a 50/50 mix of beef and pork whereas further north in Sweden 70/30 of beef to pork is typical. Of course you can also use veal, venison, lamb, or moose, but most common is a beef/pork combination. Then there is the choice of filler; bread, breadcrumbs, potatoes, or oats. You can use water, milk, or cream, cooked or uncooked onion, and a variety of seasonings including parsley, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. Size-wise they aren’t typically larger than a golf ball or smaller than 3/4″ (2.5cm) across. In a pinch, they are even cooked as small, flat patties.
And then there is the sauce. I remember going to a Scandinavian festival in Oregon with my Swedish husband (then boyfriend) and he was shocked to see a white sauce being served with the meatballs. White sauce??? That was a foreign concept to him. He is very keen on a particular medium-brown shade of sauce. But the white sauce is an interesting manifestation of how dishes are adapted and changed when they migrate to another country. My grandmother’s sauce recipe calls for instant coffee and although Swedes LOVE their coffee, I think that ingredient would come as a surprise to most people in Sweden. That is one of the beauties of such a “simple” dish. There is endless variety and you come to love what you grew up with. Truly comfort food.
I must admit that during my time in Sweden I have veered from my grandmother’s recipe. It feels a bit sacrilegious to do so, but as depression-era cook who could whip up an amazing dish when there didn’t look like there was really anything of value in the fridge, I think she would appreciate that I have melded her recipe with a classic Swedish recipe in Vår Kok Bok to come up with my own version. I hope you enjoy it as written, or use it as a jumping off point for starting your own family’s Swedish meatball recipe. And keep in mind that meatball day in Sweden is August 23rd (although many Swedes don’t even know that).
Who knew there was that much to say about meatballs?!
Shortcut Swedish meatballs
This is a “shortcut” way of preparing Swedish meatballs by broiling and baking them. Of course they can also be fried in butter on the stove top in the traditional manner if you have the time and inclination to do so. I have tried frying the meatballs in this recipe as well and don’t find it makes a huge difference taste-wise as opposed to the “shortcut” option. These meatballs freeze beautifully and can be used on sandwiches or as an easy picnic food since they are delicious cold as well.
For the meatballs
1/3 cup (25g) oats
1/2 cup (120ml) cream
1 tablespoon potato starch flour or flour
1/2 pound (250g) lean ground beef
1/2 pound (250g) ground pork
1 tablespoon grated onion
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
For the sauce
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon potato starch flour or flour
1/2 cup cream
3 tablespoons beef fond*
lingonberry preserves to serve
Make the meatballs
1. Preheat the broiler to the highest setting.
2. In a small bowl, mix the cream with the potato starch until it dissolves. Add the oats and mix well. Let it stand for 10 minutes.
3. Combine the remaining ingredients for the meatballs in a large bowl. Add the oat mixture and mix everything together gently with your hands. You don’t want to overwork it and compact the mix too much. Once everything is incorporated it’s a good idea to fry up a little piece of the meatball mix in some butter to make sure the seasonings are right. It’s a great teaser to the meatballs you will soon get to enjoy. Add more spices to taste and proceed.
4. Using your hands, shape the meatballs into the preferred size. One generous tablespoon or so of the meat mixture works well. If you rinse your hands with cold water and shape the mixture with your wet hands it won’t be so sticky to work with.
5. Place the meatballs in a large baking dish allowing a bit of space in-between each one. Broil them about 4″ (10cm) from the heat until the tops are browned and well-crusted, about 5-10 minutes. Keep a good eye on them so the tops don’t burn. Set the oven to bake and reduce the heat to 300°F(150°C). Bake until the meatballs are cooked through, another 5-10 minutes depending on their size. If you find they are getting too brown on top you can cover them with foil to finish baking. While the meatballs are baking, make the sauce.
Make the sauce
1. In a small saucepan, combine the water and potato starch stirring until the potato starch is dissolved. Stir in the cream and fond.
2. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Adjust the seasonings to taste.
Serve the meatballs hot offering the sauce on the side.
*Fond is essentially concentrated stock and is widely available in Sweden. If it isn’t available in your area, substitute 1-2 bullion cubes.