Forget the frozen version, traditional Swedish meatballs (köttbullar) are easy to make at home and taste delicious. These gently spiced meatballs in a flavorful cream sauce are classic comfort food.
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Many cultures have a version of meatball and pretty much all of them have a slightly different flavor. In most cases, this reflects classic flavors from that culture's cooking, like mint and/or oregano in Greek keftedes and parmesan in Italian polpette.
The combination of meats can also vary. Turkish, Persian and Moroccan kofte/kofta are more typically lamb rather than the pork/beef combination more typical in European versions.
These Swedish bites are no different, with a gentle warm spice of allspice and sometimes nutmeg. Warm spices are definitely flavors associated with Nordic cooking, both savory and sweet such as gingerbread cookies and cardamom buns.
As with all traditional recipes, you will find slight variations in the exact ingredients and method for these. Some pre-cook the onion, others don't. Most use a mix of pork and beef but the proportion can differ (usually half and half but some use ⅔ beef).
Most use breadcrumbs or bread that you soak before combining with the other ingredients, but the soaking liquid can vary. Some use milk, others cream, and a few part or all stock or water. Then again, others use potatoes and/or oats instead of the bread.
The seasoning is kept pretty simple in pretty much all. Some only use salt and pepper, but many have at least one or more spice - allspice is most common but others also have nutmeg or ginger. Don't go too heavy on any of them, though.
Tips for making great Swedish meatballs
As I say, these aren't difficult, but a couple tips to help them turn out well:
- Use lean ground beef - ground pork is usually higher in fat so 80 - 85% lean beef is best to balance it out.
- Don't over-mix or compress the mixture, try to more 'whip' or stretch as you mix it to keep it light rather than press it together. You can use a food processor or just get your hands in there.
- I recommend you scoop out all the meatballs then roll them all rather than rolling as you go. It isn't my natural way to do it but I find it works better here.
- Wet your hands with cold water to help you roll the meatballs without them sticking to your hands. You don't traditionally roll these in flour, just cook them as they are.
- Cook over medium rather than high heat to avoid burning. Also, cook in batches to avoid overcrowding.
- Turn the meatballs regularly to cook on all sides, but wait until they release from the skillet/pan naturally rather than forcing them. This means they have a good sear, are ready to turn and keep a better shape.
- If you prefer, you can bake these in the oven. If you do, you might like to finish them off either under the broiler/overhead grill or in a skillet to get a bit of a sear on them.
Making the sauce
While a paler, almost white sauce might be more common in Americanized versions of this dish, traditionally, the sauce is more of a pale brown as you see here.
Why, you may ask? Well, two things: one is a touch of soy sauce and the other is all the wonderful browning from cooking the meatballs. Both add some great flavor and really help make this dish extra delicious.
To get the brownings, you can either use some of the drippings from the skillet or, more easily, use the same skillet after cooking the meatballs. The only slight downside is you may have a little excess fat that you need to drain first, or else larger pieces of browning.
Especially if the browning is a bit lumpy, you might find you need to strain the sauce to make it smoother. Or just leave it, it will still taste good. Then, add back the meatballs to warm them through in the sauce before serving.
How to serve Swedish meatballs
Despite the few variations in the meatballs themselves, what is consistent is how to serve them. Well, sort of. The cream sauce is pretty much a must, as are the lingonberries as a delicious sweet contrasting flavor (and pop of color).
The most common side is mashed potatoes, but you might also have these with boiled potatoes or noodles. Some Swedish pressed cucumbers on the side are pretty common and are great for cutting through the richness.
You may think you know Swedish meatballs, but you probably don't know how good they can really be unless you have had homemade. Yes, they take a little more effort than from a packet, but they are easy to make, especially using the tips above, and the result is comforting, flavorful and delicious.
Try these other tasty meatball recipes:
- Kofte-style lamb meatballs with some warm spices in tomato-pepper sauce
- Greek meatballs - keftedes - with a lovely touch of aromatic mint
- Pork meatballs with arugula and lemon, fresh and tasty
- Fiskefrikadeller - fish cakes would be the English translation but "frikadeller" is meatball and these are made more in that style, being mainly fish (and super tasty!)
- Plus get more comforting winter recipes and Nordic recipes in the archives.
Swedish meatballs - kottbullar
- ¼ cup fresh breadcrumbs
- ¼ cup heavy cream double cream (can also use light/single)
- ½ onion small (½ onion approx ½ cup when diced)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- ½ lb ground pork pork mince
- ½ lb ground beef beef mince (recommend 85% lean)
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
To cook/ for sauce
- ½ tablespoon vegetable oil or a little more if needed
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 cup beef stock (approx - may need a little more)
- ½ tablespoon soy sauce
- ¼ cup heavy cream double cream
- Place the breadcrumbs in a small bowl or other dish and pour over the cream. Set aside.
- Finely dice the onion and warm the butter in a small skillet/frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook for a couple minutes until the onion is softened and translucent without browning. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
- Place both the round pork and beef in a bowl and add the soaked breadcrumbs (along with any excess cream), the cooked onion, egg, salt, pepper and allspice. Mix everything together so that it is all evenly distributed, but try to be light with your mixing so you don't compress it too much. Using your hands or a food processor can help.
- Take tablespoonfuls of the meatball mixture and place on a baking sheet or plate. Don't roll them at this stage, it's easier to roll all at once after. Once you have scooped all of the mixture, set a small bowl of cold water beside you. Dip your hands in the water and then roll the meatballs, dipping again as needed (the water helps them not stick to your hands).
- Warm the oil in a wide skillet/frying pan or braiser over a medium heat. Cook the meatballs in batches, so you don't over-crowd the skillet, turning regularly as they brown to cook on all sides. Remove the meatballs once browned all over and cook the next batch. If needed, add a little extra oil for later batches but you will probably have enough fat come out of the meatballs.
- Once all of the meatballs are cooked, add the flour to the skillet to absorb the excess fat and stir. Add the stock and stir, scraping any browning from the bottom of the skillet (it adds flavor) and getting rid of lumps. Mix in the soy sauce and allow the sauce to thicken slightly, reducing the heat to let it simmer, as needed.
- Depending on the texture of the sauce and any lumps of browning, you may at this stage want to pour the sauce through a sieve to get rid of any lumps. Then, return to the skillet and add the cream over a low heat. You ideally don't want it to boil after adding the cream, just be warm. Add back the meatballs and stir them through the sauce. Cook for another minute or two to warm them through then serve.
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