Friday, July 4, 2008

Swedish Meat Balls (Köttbullar)

Returning to the theme of Swedish home cooking, today we take a look at Köttbullar, the Swedish meat balls. These tasty little balls (god I love saying that, please don't hate me for it) are mandatory on the Christmas smörgåsbord, and are served as a quick everyday dish in homes all over that oblong country called Sweden. They were always rather well known abroad, but IKEA has brought them to tables in their warehouses all over the world, ensuring that people everywhere have a chance to try them.

The only sad thing about this story is that IKEA's meat balls just aren't that good. They're decent, but they belong in the category of pre-made, frozen and reheated meat balls that my family affectionately calls "bouncing balls" (studsbullar), due to their rubbery texture. The home made version is another dish entirely, and belongs in the category of simple home cooking that brings you back to your childhood, where your mother served you this perfect comfort food.

Mothers, yes. More or less every mother in Sweden has her own meat balls recipe, and the term mammas köttbullar (mom's meat balls) is used to denote anything with that real emotional aspect to it: nobody makes meat balls like your own mother. Me, I'm not a mother, nor am I likely ever to be, but since November 2007, I am an uncle, so I guess my meat balls are morbrors köttbullar (uncle's meat balls) instead. Not that my little nephew Henning has tasted them, but maybe he will one day.

Morbrors köttbullar

The problem with ground meat is that it can easily get a boring, dry texture and swell in your mouth in a nasty sort of way. To avoid this, generations of Swedish mothers have added breadcrumbs soaked in water or milk to moisten the mixture, and eggs to bind it together. I use heavy cream instead, and I advise you to do the same, the difference in taste is bigger than the difference in fat content. Another trick to help keep the meat balls juicy is to use a 50-50 mixture of ground beef and ground pork.

Like most traditional Swedish dishes, meat balls are seasoned very lightly, the recipes calling only for onions, salt and white pepper. I like to add a bit of tabasco to give them a sort of background heat, without actually tasting of chili, but that's optional. Most people put the onion through a fine grater to create onion mush, while I prefer to chop it. Chopping it gives you little pieces of onion ingrained in the meat, which I think gives a better texture, but it does make the balls a bit more brittle.

This recipe is the usual amount that I make for 2 people, but it probably serves 3-4 adults, especially if you add a salad and dessert to the meal.

500 g of ground meat, preferably 250 g each of ground beef and pork
1 onion
2 Tbsp of bread crumbs
3-5 Tbsp of heavy cream
1 large egg
white pepper
(5-7 dashes of tabasco)


Put the bread crumbs in a bowl large enough to mix all the ingredients, and cover with the cream. Let sit for 5-10 minutes to let the bread crumbs absorb the cream. Rather finely chop (or finely grate) the onion and add it and the egg, some salt, pepper and the tabasco to the crumbs and mix.


Something along these lines. Not too bad looking with the red onion, but please ignore the dirty pot in the background. It's one of those perks of sharing a kitchen with 11 students.

Mix in the ground meat, massaging the mixture until it goes smooth. If it feels grainy, add a little more cream. Season with salt and pepper to taste. This last step can be hard if you're squeamish about tasting raw ground meat, which I am not, but unfortunately, I don't know the amount of salt and pepper necessary; I taste my way to it.


Your mixture should look something like this when amateurely photographed in heavy backlight.

Wash your hands off, and rinse them with cold water. Grab pieces of the mixture and roll them between your hands into meat balls, about 2-3 cm across. Place them on a slightly moist cutting board.


When all the balls have been rolled, heat a generous amount of butter in a skillet (preferably cast iron), and give the balls a nice browning on high heat, then lower to low to medium heat and fry them evenly (just shake the pan, they should roll around nicely) for about 5-10 minutes. You'll probably need two frying pans, or to fry them in batches. When you think they're nearing completion, try one. The ideal is that it should have just a little hint of pink in the middle, and drip juices when you cut into it. Don't overcook them: nobody likes them tough and dry.


Alright, that's it! To serve traditionally, boil some potatoes, and make a sauce by deglazing the skillet with some water and then add some cream or milk, a little bit of starch to thicken, and some soy to give a nice color. Serve the meat balls with the potatoes and sauce, some lingonberry jam and perhaps pickled cucumbers.


We made these for our midsummer's supper, so here's a picture of the finished meatballs along with some other traditional Swedish midsummer's food: pickled herring with sour cream and boiled eggs, beer and spiced vodka (snaps).


Aran said...

i love the swedish meatballs at Ikea!! gorgeous!

Madam Chow said...

That looks like a lovely meal! And I just discovered your posts on cardamom, which I also love, so I'm off to read them.

yang ke said...

haha, i love the swedish meatballs at Ikea TOOOO!!

excellent job doing up the food blogsite!! keep going!! =)

Tartelette said...

I love Swedish meatballs but I really don't like the ones at Ikea. Back home, our neighbor Lena is Swedish and she finally taught my mom ho to make proper meatballs. Delicious...and I love pickled herring in cream sauce :)

del said...

aran: If you love the IKEA version, you'll be positively ecstatic about these!

madam chow: It was indeed lovely, but you should see the Smörgåsbord my mother makes for easter back home, it's ridiculously abundant and delicious. Sweden is one of few countries that uses cardamom a lot, probably because it goes so well with coffee, which is also beloved up there.

yang ke: Hey, nice to see you found your way here! Like I wrote above: if you think IKEA makes good meatballs, you need to try these.

tartelette: I like the IKEA version for the homesick-curing nostalgia, but if you've tasted the real thing, there's really no question about which you'd rather see on a plate. When it comes to herring, my personal favourite is the one with mustard sauce, but I think the mustard might be too sweet for french palates. I'll probably make some pickled herring later this summer, so stay tuned for recipes!


No nutmeg?

del said...

Some people like them with nutmeg (and some even with cloves), some don't. I belong to the second category, although nutmeg has been growing on me lately. I might even try it in my meat balls some day.

Victoria said...

I love my grandmother's meatballs (I'm Swedish too) and she adds leverpastej (almost like liver paté) to hers, which makes them nice and moist, not at all dry. I'm not sure how much she adds, I can't really remember, but they are oh so delicious. Christmas just isn't Christmas without mormors köttbullar.

And Ikea meatballs gives me bad memories of the disgusting things you got in school...

Anyway, great site. I'm putting it on my Favorite list

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