Meet Smørrebrød, the Best Sandwich You're Not Eating

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Lined up in café windows, served in specialty restaurants, and packed into their very own custom lunch boxes, sandwiches are everywhere in Denmark. They're piled high with pickled herring, spoonfuls of sharp horseradish cream, and mounds of fresh shrimp. But forget what you think you know about sandwiches; these guys are in a different class entirely. Allow me to introduce you to Denmark's—and my—favorite meal: smørrebrød.

Stories and images of flashy, elaborate smørrebrød (pronounced smuhr-broht) accost visitors to Denmark as soon as they step off the plane. But few tourists are familiar with the sandwich's long history and codified preparation—the traits that truly make it a uniquely Danish staple.

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At their simplest, smørrebrød are open-faced sandwiches built on a thin layer of dense sourdough rye bread called rugbrød. The name of the sandwich itself comes from the words for butter (smør) and bread (brød). However, you'll rarely find one that limits itself to those two ingredients. According to Danish food expert Trine Hahnemann, smørrebrød became the default option for an inexpensive, satisfying lunch in the late 19th century, when factory workers began eating their midday meal away from home. Workers piled the few leftovers they had onto cheap, filling rugbrød and hoped munching on a few open-faced sandwiches would satisfy them until dinner. From there, a gastronomic tradition was born.

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These days, on a slice of bread no bigger than a deck of cards, Danes heap everything from rivers of caper-spiked mayonnaise to pyramids of meatballs. Marcus Schioler, the blogger behind Danish Sandwich, explains that smørrebrød ought to be "arranged in such a way that it looks nice, with more detailed texture and contrast than an ordinary sandwich." And it's these details and contrasts that make smørrebrød the best sandwich you're not eating.

Smørrebrød Etiquette

Before diving head-first into the smørrebrød jungle, the responsible sandwich eater should familiarize themselves with the long-established routines that determine the proper way to make and eat smørrebrød. "Danes are sticklers for the rules. [Smørrebrød] are very regimented in that regard," comments Schioler.

These rules mandate ingredient combinations, the use of utensils, and the proper sequence in which to eat multiple smørrebrød. Some rules are intuitive: avoid mixing proteins; layer thin toppings on first, then bulky ones. Others are less obvious. To eat an array of smørrebrød, start with herring and then move to other fish; eat meat next; finish with cheese. It seems silly, until you adhere to the sequence and realize that acidic herring primes the palate for rich meats, which would be disconcertingly heavy to eat after a simple cheese-topped sandwich.

The Bread

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Unlike soft New York deli rye, rugbrød is a heavy bread packed with seeds and cracked whole grains. The bread's density means making an American double-faced, overstuffed sandwich is pretty impractical. And don't even think about toasting it—the extra heat would dry out the bread and create an unpleasant cardboard-like texture. Rather, slather on a decadent layer of butter to stabilize the bread for an onslaught of toppings. If spread thickly enough, you'll see tooth marks, called tand smør, or 'tooth butter,' after taking a bite. "It becomes smørrebrød the second you have the bread and butter on it," comments Scott Peabody, head chef at The Copenhagen in New York, "anything else you put on after that is extra."

The Main Ingredient

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Whether you opt for five different types of fish or a single slice of exquisite cheese, carefully selected toppings set smørrebrød apart from their less inspired brethren. The classic pickled herring smørrebrød contrasts tangy rugbrød with briny fish, while the crunchy onion complements the dense, earthy-sweet bread. Butter neutralizes the assertive sourdough flavor and cuts the bite of pickled herring. When properly combined, the topping should blend harmoniously with the bread, butter, and garnishes, rather than compete for attention.

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Craving a meatier sandwich? Try a classic roast beef with pickles, onions, and horseradish, which celebrate the rich and tender beef with the watery crunch of thinly cut pickles and brittle bite of red onion. To round out a smørrebrød meal, try pairing a blue cheese with thin slices of mellow pear for a sweet contrast to the thick, funky dairy. When the toppings are arranged so that they cover the bread without overlapping, there's enough flavor to keep you satisfied, while letting you want one more bite.

The Garnishes

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Once the toppings have been layered on, it's time to embellish the taste and texture with garnishes. Schioler suggests adding "something with a good crunch, something that has a little bit of sauce and a nice lump of greens on top." Unfortunately, too many cafés underplay the garnishes, decorating with watery cucumber, meek tomatoes, and cement-like remoulade. When topped with springy, fresh dill, crunchy pickles, and pungent red onions, garnishes unify the already tasty toppings. As Scott Peabody, head chef at New York's The Copenhagen, astutely notes "[smørrebrød] aren't just crap piled on top of each other." If you wouldn't eat the garnish on its own, it shouldn't be on top of your smørrebrød.

How to Feast

Pick up a herring smørrebrød with your hands and the toppings are likely to slide off, dousing your shirt in a mess of dill and sliced red onion. Instead, gently attack it with a fork and knife—as Danes are trained to do from a young age. When your knife saws through the dense rugbrød, the toppings smoosh against the buttered bread and your fork sticks the garnishes from sliding off.

Rather than a single secret ingredient or exclusive Danish sandwich-making gene, smørrebrød shine thanks to a combination of simple, well-executed parts. Fortunately, you don't need to be Danish to prepare open-faced sandwiches that are as tasty as they are extravagant. A slice of rugbrød, a healthy dose of butter, and generous smattering of your favorite toppings are all that's required for Danish sandwich nirvana.