What is a Swedish meatball? Köttbullar, like all traditional recipes, have thousands of variations, but what nearly all Swedish meatballs have in common is that they are made of ground pork and beef, use bread and milk as a binder, are covered with a rich gravy, and are served with lingonberry jam.
With this recipe we're sticking with tradition and delivering meatballs spiced, fried, and sauced to perfection. The next time the craving for classic Swedish meatballs hits, nix the trip to IKEA and makes these instead.
A Short History of Swedish Meatballs in America
Swedish meatballs were served at buffets or classic smorgasbords. They first became popular in the United States after the immigration of Scandinavians to the northernmost Midwestern states in the 19th and early 20th centuries; they had another surge in the 1950s and '60s as party fare. The advent of IKEA's Swedish meatballs, served in a creamy sauce with lingonberry jelly on the side, reintroduced the tasty morsels to a new generation.
The Meat of Swedish Meatballs
One meat won't do it. For the best texture and flavor, and to keep things in the vein of tradition, pork and beef it is. This recipe calls for flavorful and fatty ground chuck, ground pork, and a bit of bacon for depth. Together the three meats (along with the soaked bread) keep the meatballs tender and produce enough drippings to make a truly outstanding gravy. As with any meatball, a light hand when shaping helps keep them from being too dense.
The Spices of Swedish Meatballs
Like any good recipe with a multitude of variations, Swedish meatballs can be seasoned with a number of spices and at varying levels according to preference. This recipe calls for white pepper, allspice, ginger, and nutmeg in amounts that deliver just enough flavor to be distinct but never cloying. A heavy hand with any of these spices automatically feels overpowering, and too timid a touch leaves them bland. Consider this a delicious middle ground and feel free adjust to taste from here.
To Bake or to Fry?
Meatball recipes from everywhere must deal with this issue. Frankly, the choice is up to you. This recipe requires pan-frying. Little meatballs — about the size of a walnut or smaller — have time to cook through with just a frying. Baking meatballs is your only option when they are big, so they have time to cook through. You can always bake a smaller meatball, instead of frying; it just won’t be as browned on the outside and may be just a wee bit less flavorful, but it’s an easy switch-a-roo if it works better in your kitchen.
The Swedish Meatball Gravy
Do you need a gravy to go with these meatballs? No, but need is a strong word. Do you want a gravy with these meatballs? To that question, we can answer a resounding yes — especially when the gravy is as simple as adding flour, butter, and most importantly, tangy sour cream to the pan. Some might argue that it's not a worthwhile gravy if there isn't sour cream, and we couldn't agree more. There's nothing like it draped over a plate of meatballs and mashed potatoes.
A Note On Lingonberry
The lingonberry is a Scandinavian berry, tart and sweet, that is closer in taste to a cranberry and is the size of a currant. Lingonberry preserves are the classic accompaniment to Swedish meatballs. Like mozzarella and tomatoes, or gefilte fish and horseradish, some aficionados contend that you simply can’t have Swedish meatballs without their partner. Lingonberry jelly or preserves are widely available online or at specialty or gourmet shops.
How To Make Swedish Meatballs
What You Need
For the meatballs:
2 1/2 cups (20 fluid ounces) warm low-sodium beef broth
1 cup loosely packed, roughly torn fresh soft bread, crust removed
2 thick slices bacon, minced
1 medium sweet onion, peeled and grated
1 1/2 pounds ground chuck (80% lean/20% fat)
1 pound ground pork
2 large egg yolks
8 cloves garlic, peeled and grated, any green centers discarded
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, divided
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
For the gravy:
2 tablespoons unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 cups (16 ounces) sour cream
Lingonberry preserves or whole-berry cranberry sauce, for serving
2 large mixing bowls
Mixing spoon or heatproof spatula
Rimmed baking sheet
- Soak the bread: Pour 1/2 cup of the stock into a small bowl and add the bread. Set aside.
- Cook the bacon and onions: Set a fine-mesh sieve over a mixing bowl and position it near the stovetop. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat and add the bacon; stir and cook until the bacon is lightly browned. Add the onions and cook until they are translucent and the bacon is golden, about 4 minutes. With a slotted spoon, scoop the bacon and onions into the fine-mesh sieve to drain and cool. Turn the heat off under the pan and set aside.
- Prepare the meatball mixture: In another large mixing bowl, combine the ground chuck, pork, egg yolks, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger. Add the bread, which has by now swelled, softened, and become mushy. When the bacon and onions have cooled, add them to the mixture. With your clean hands, mix well to incorporate.
- Roll the meatballs: Preheat the oven to 200°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a scoop or spoon, scoop about 1 1/2 tablespoons (about 1 ounce) of the meat into your your hands, roll into a ball, and place on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining meat mixture. There should be about 60 meatballs.
- Fry the meatballs: Return the saucepan to the heat and set it to medium-high. Add 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon oil and let the butter melt, swirling the pan to coat it. Working in batches, add meatballs, arranging them in a single layer, and sauté until golden-brown on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to an ovenproof dish. Tent lightly with foil and place in the oven to keep warm. Add about 1/4 cup of the stock into the pan, scraping up any browned bits, and pour the stock and pan scrapings back to the container holding the rest of the stock. Add 1 tablespoon each of oil and butter to the (more-or-less) clean pan and let it melt. Repeat the process with the remaining meatballs, working in batches as necessary.
- Prepare the gravy: Once all of the meatballs are cooked, add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter to the pan and heat until it melts. Add the flour and stir, scraping up any small bits, and cook for about 1 minute. Switch to a whisk, and begin to stir. While whisking, gradually add the remaining stock, until well-combined. Remove from the heat, and whisk in the sour cream.
- Serve the meatballs: Remove the meatballs from the oven, pour the gravy over them, and serve with lingonberry preserves or cranberry sauce if desired.