Swedish meatballs are pillowy, tender bites of pure deliciousness – nothing like the bouncy little balls of spiced meat you may have tasted elsewhere. These ones are meltingly soft and cloaked in a creamy sauce that’s rich, silky, and decadent. A hit of sweet-tart lingonberry or cranberry jam adds just the right amount of zing. One taste and you’ll be gobbling up a plateful. (Skip to recipe.)
I know that most of the world thinks Swedish meatballs are those bouncy little brown balls you get in Ikea. Yes, they are tasty, and yes, I have bought a few bags of them over the years. The convenience of having a stash of prepared meatballs in the freezer was very welcome when it came to feeding four hungry children after we all tumbled in the door from sports, music, dance, and a myriad other after-school activities. A mother’s sanity was gladly traded in for having freezer-ready meals I could get into their hungry bellies before they started eating anything they could pilfer out of the cupboards.
But I have to confess, I never liked those frozen bagged meatballs. Their taste was good; but it was that texture – kind of rubbery. I know they’d have bounced like little rubber balls if I’d tried it (didn’t dare – or four copycats would have been bouncing meatballs, too, boing, boing, boing).
When you taste real Swedish meatballs (kötbullar), you won’t want to go back to those frozen ones again. The home-made ones are soft and creamy and tender. (No chance of bouncing these babies!) They’ve got that distinctive hit of allspice that makes them different from Italian or Asian meatballs. And they’re smothered in a divinely silky cream sauce.
When Sweden was chosen as this month’s featured country on our journey to Eat the World, I was excited to get making real Swedish meatballs. I’d been meaning to cook some for a long time. I got researching, and then I got to work making batches of meatballs. It was a delicious project. (Now I’ve got bags of meatballs in the freezer, and these ones I can’t wait to use.)
In my reading I found out that Swedish meatballs are not in fact Swedish at all! During the early 1700s, the Swedish king, Charles XII, was exiled in the Ottoman empire for a few years. While there, he developed a love for Turkish meatballs (köfte), and allegedly brought home a recipe for them, along with a taste for stuffed cabbage and drinking coffee. Thus began Sweden’s love affair with meatballs and with coffee.
When you taste these meatballs, you will see why a king couldn’t resist them. The Swedes added their own flair to the Turkish köfte, using pork in the meat mixture and serving them in a rich cream gravy. After a few centuries of making them their own, I think we can allow Sweden to claim this version as theirs.
Isn’t that the story of so many cuisines in the world?
Using half pork and half beef is what makes the texture of these Swedish meatballs so light and tender. (It’s a trick I use to make a fabulous meatloaf, too.) Lots of finely minced onion keeps the meatball mixture moist, and the allspice and nutmeg are a must-have. (If you’re not sure you’ll like the spices, reduce the allspice to ¼ teaspoon the first time you make these meatballs.) Traditional Swedish meatballs are made with white bread crumbs, but I find that oatmeal makes a really delicate meatball.
And finally, it’s all about the gravy – that luscious gravy made with a generous pour of real cream. You just cannot have enough of it.
Swedish meatballs are traditionally served with boiled or mashed potatoes (but they’re delicious over buttered noodles, as well) and with lingonberry jam or preserves, which you can purchase at Ikea and other import stores.
If you can’t find a jar of lingonberry jam, homemade cranberry sauce is a close cousin, since lingonberries are known as mountain cranberries (or partridge berries) in North America and their flavour is similar. Homemade cranberry sauce tastes very much like lingonberry preserves.
You could even substitute another tangy jam or jelly, like red currant jelly. There’s something about that combination of lightly spiced meatball, creamy gravy, and tart jelly that makes a meal of Swedish meatballs very memorable. It’s no wonder they are often served as part of a holiday dinner in Sweden. Yet they make a fantastic weeknight meal, too. They’re a decadent comfort food.
I, for one, am thankful that Sweden’s King Charles XII had such a hankering after these meatballs that he brought them home and introduced them to his people. Those creative Swedish cooks added their own touches and turned them into part of the defining cuisine of that country. Just another way the world is brought closer together by sharing a meal.
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Kitchen Frau Notes: If you’d rather, you can use breadcrumbs (gluten-free, if necessary) instead of oatmeal.
To freeze this recipe, make the meatballs and brown them, then freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Transfer them to a freezer bag once they’re frozen. At serving time, make the cream gravy using ¼ cup (57gms) of butter, and add the frozen meatballs, cooking them in the gravy for a few minutes longer, until they are thawed and heated through.
Swedish Meatballs with Cream Gravy
- ½ cup (50gms) small-flaked oats (quick oats), gluten free if necessary
- 1/3 cup (80ml) milk
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- ½ teaspoon white or black pepper
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 medium onion (about 1 cup, finely chopped)
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped (or 1 tablespoon dried)
- 1 lb (454gms) lean ground beef
- 1 lb (454gms) ground pork
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon oil
- pan drippings + enough butter to make 4 tablespoons (60ml)
- ¼ cup sweet rice flour (or regular flour for non-gluten-free)
- 2 cups (480ml) beef stock (from a good concentrate is fine)
- 1 cup (240 ml) heavy cream (whipping cream)
- 1 tablespoon tamari or gluten free soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ½ teaspoon white or black pepper
- boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, or buttered noodles
- Swedish lingonberry jam, red currant jelly, or homemade cranberry sauce (recipe below)
- chopped fresh parsley for garnish
To make the meatballs: Combine the oats in a large bowl with the milk. Allow to rest for 10 minutes so the oats can absorb the milk.
Dice the onion very finely, then chop it some more! You can also grate the onion, making sure to collect and add in the juice it creates.
To the soaked oats, add the eggs, mustard, salt, pepper, allspice, and nutmeg, and beat with a fork until the eggs are well mixed. Add the finely chopped or grated onion, chopped parsley, ground beef, and pork. Mix with your hands until the mixture is well combined.
Gently form the meat mixture into walnut-sized balls. The mixture will be very soft.
Heat the butter and oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Fry the meatballs in two batches so they don’t crowd the pan. Turn the meatballs over gently so as not to break them, and brown all sides. Each batch will take 7 – 8 minutes to brown. Remove the cooked meatballs to a bowl.
To make the Cream Gravy: Eyeball or measure the drippings left in the pan. You want about ¼ cup (60ml). If there’s not enough, add butter to make up the difference. There will be bits of browned onion in the drippings – they add to the flavour. (If you’ve made the meatballs ahead and have no drippings, you can also just use ¼ cup (60ml) melted butter.
Add the sweet rice flour to the drippings, and cook and stir until the flour is incorporated and bubbling. Add the beef stock a little at a time, whisking constantly, until you have a thick gravy. Pour in the cream, and add the soy sauce, dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. Whisk until the gravy is smooth and comes to a bubbling simmer. It will seem thin, but it will thicken as it cooks with the meatballs.
Add the meatballs and gently turn them to coat all sides in the gravy. Heat the meatballs until the gravy comes back to a bubbling simmer. Cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Serve over boiled potatoes or buttered noodles, with lingonberry jam or cranberry sauce on the side to eat with the meatballs.
Serves 6 to 8.
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Homemade Cranberry Sauce
- 2 cups (6 oz/170gms) fresh or frozen cranberries
- ½ cup (100gms) sugar
- ½ cup (120ml) water
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 8 – 10 minutes, until the cranberries have popped and broken down and the sauce is slightly thickened. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. The sauce will thicken more as it cools. If it gets too thick upon cooling, stir in a splash of water.
Makes a generous cup of sauce (275ml).
Guten Appetit! (Smaklig måltid!)
Check out all the wonderful Swedish dishes prepared by fellow Eat the World members and share with #eattheworld. Click here to find out how to join and have fun exploring a country a month in the kitchen with us!
Camilla: Fläderblomsglass (Elderflower Ice Cream) for Midsommar
Tara: Våfflor (Swedish Waffles)
Heather: Korngryn och rotsaker (Pearl Barley with Roasted Root Vegetables)
Juli: Färskpotatis – Swedish Dill Potatoes
Evelyne: Swedish Egg Coffee recipe
Loreto and Nicoletta: Smorgastarta – Swedish Sandwich Cake
Amy: Rödbetssallad med Getost (Grated Beetroot Salad with Goat Cheese)
Margaret: Swedish Meatballs with Cream Gravy
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Check out some of my other ‘Eat the World’ Recipe Challenge posts:
(in alphabetical order)
- Argentina: Red Chimichurri Sauce
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- Cambodia: Noum Kong (Cambodian Rice Flour Doughnuts)
- China: Kung Pao Chicken
- Colombia: Pan de Yuca (Warm Cheese Buns)
- Egypt: Fava Beans and Feta
- England: Gluten Free Fish and Chips and Mushy Peas
- Ethiopia: Four Ethiopian Recipes for a Fantastic Feast
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- Finland: Lohikeitto (Creamy Salmon, Potato, and Dill Soup)
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- Georgia: Charkhlis Chogi (Beets with Sour Cherry Sauce)
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- Jamaica: Rice and Peas (Coconut Rice and Red Beans)
- Japan: Chawanmushi (Steamed Savoury Egg Custard)
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- New Zealand: Classic Pavlova
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- Portugal: Tuna and Sardine Pâtés
- Puerto Rico: Piña Colada Cocktail
- Scotland: Cranachan (Raspberry, Whisky & Oat Cream Parfaits)
- Senegal: Mafé (Beef and Peanut Stew)
- Sudan: Peanut Butter Creamed Spinach & Peanut Meringue Cookies
- Sweden: Swedish Meatballs with Cream Gravy
- Switzerland (Christmas): Basler Leckerli Cookies
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- Trinidad & Tobago: Peanut Butter Prunes
- Ukraine: Buckwheat Kasha with Beef
- United States (Soul Food): Smothered Pork Chops
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