What is a Swedish meatball?
That might sound like a stupid question, because most of us have a pretty clear idea: They tend to be small, flavored with warm spices, coated in gravy, and sometimes stabbed with toothpicks. You know, plus lingonberries and IKEA and stuff.
But, as I began working on this recipe (which, as is usual for us, included researching existing recipes), I found a definition hard to nail down. Many seem to think that allspice is mandatory, but some people online who claimed to be Swedish decried allspice as categorically un-Swedish (one commenter said he adds it only during the Christmas holiday season). Allspice is in this recipe on Sweden's official website—but it says that the gravy isn't required and, in fact, should be skipped if the meatballs are going to be part of a traditional smorgasbord. And that's just the beginning of the variations I came across.
So many possibilities, though, just meant that I had plenty of freedom to come up with a recipe that delivered what I wanted in my Swedish meatballs, whether it adhered to someone else's idea of what's correct or not. What I ended up with was meatballs that are springy enough to be speared by a toothpick. They're also very delicately spiced, since I, frankly, don't want my meat tasting like mulled wine and gingerbread. And yeah, there's gravy.
To get there, I tapped deep into my one-quarter-Swedish roots, which, seeing as I'm generations removed from any family member who was actually from Sweden, basically means I did my best Swedish chef impersonation.
Here's-a orn-it all-a breakee-borksen down.*
*"Here's how it all breaks down."
Da Meetsy Beetsy Bop (The Meat)
Beef and pork are the most common meats in Swedish meatballs, though some folks throw veal in there, too. Veal can be pricey, so I skipped it. It's easy to just default to a 50-50 blend of beef and pork, but I wanted to make a more deliberate choice, so I mixed up different ratios of ground beef chuck and pork shoulder (with about 20% fat in each) for a side-by-side comparison.
What I found was that the more beef I used, the springier the meatball ended up, but an all-beef ball crossed the line by becoming too tight. A 50-50 blend is good, but my favorite was a 2:1 ratio of beef to pork: It made meatballs that were springy and flavorful, but still tender and juicy.
One question that may come up is why I wanted a springy meatball in the first place. The answer is practical: Springy meatballs are easier than loose ones to spear and keep speared on toothpicks. Obviously, there's no law that says Swedish meatballs have to be eaten from toothpicks, but I just can't separate Swedish meatballs from their glory years as 1960s cocktail-party finger food. Toothpick-able-ness is critical.
This question of springiness led to my other meat decision: how to mix it. Hamburgers, for instance, are often very minimally handled, for a loose texture. Sausage meat, on the other end of the spectrum, is usually worked heavily to bind the meat proteins, creating a tighter, more resilient texture. There are many meatballs in the world that require minimal mixing—just enough to distribute salt and flavorings, but not so much that the meatballs end up with a sausage-like texture.
In my research, I found one Swedish meatball recipe, from a 1965 cookbook, that advised minimal hand mixing, but most of the more current recipes I found use more aggressive mixing methods. Clearly, the Swedish meatballs of today lean more toward the springy-sausage end of the spectrum. And I'm fine with that. Like I said: toothpicks!
To get that more emulsified, springy texture, I tried mixing the meat and seasonings both in a food processor and in a stand mixer—long enough to beat the crap out of the mixture, but not so long that friction would heat it up and melt the fat, which can lead to texture problems down the line.
Between the two, the food processor whips up a more homogeneous final mixture than the stand mixer, which makes sense given that it's beating the meat with blades. But interestingly, once the meatballs were cooked, the differences were very subtle. So subtle, in fact, that I'd say you can use whichever machine you have at your disposal, with near-equal results.
Dee Panadee Bloopen (The Panade)
Contrary to what the name suggests, meatballs aren't just about the meat. Equally important are the ingredients the meat is mixed with. Chief among those other ingredients is the panade, a wet bread mixture. Call it filler if you want, but when it comes to meatballs, you want to filler 'em up: Once mixed with the meat, the wet bread adds lightness, tenderness, and moisture. Remove that panade, and you'll end up with a denser, heavier meatball.
The question I had was what kind of bread—or other starch—makes the best panade. To find out, I mixed up various batches. One I made from fresh, crust-free white bread soaked in milk; one from dried bread crumbs soaked in milk; and one made from pasta (pastina, to be specific) cooked in water until very mushy.
The pastina thing was just a hunch I had. My thought was that maybe pasta, which is designed to absorb water and swell with moisture, might do an even better job than wet bread. It didn't hurt that I could already imagine the headline: "The Best Meatballs Are Made by Putting the Pasta IN Them."
Sadly, it didn't work. Though they were thoroughly overcooked and aggressively beaten into the meat with the stand mixer, those little pasta stars didn't break down one bit. I ended up with star-studded meatballs. Maybe good for a tongue-in-cheek July 4th celebration; not good for anything else.
Between the other two, the fresh bread made the juiciest, most tender meatballs. Bread crumbs, on the other hand, even when fully soaked in milk, produced denser, drier meatballs.
Fresh it is!
Nomy-Nomy Nomions (Onions)
I was certain from the start that I'd cook my onions first, to deepen their flavor and add more sweetness to the meatballs. But then the other day, while making a test batch at home, I looked out my window and saw a hawk tearing apart a pigeon in the back garden (yes, there's wildlife even in New York City).
Distracted by the sight, I dumped my onions into the mixer raw. It was serendipitous: I ended up loving the crunchy bits of onion in the cooked meatballs.
I figured there was no reason this had to be an either/or situation, so I decided to get the deep, sweet flavor and the crunch by cooking half the onion and using the other half raw.
In my tests, I minced and grated the onion, and both methods work. Mincing creates bits of onion that are more discrete, while grating mushes them up a little more. But one word of warning with the grated onion: The grater breaks open a lot more of the cells in the onion, releasing more onion juice. As the onion juices mingle in the air, they can quickly undergo chemical reactions that produce an unpleasant bitter flavor, which I tasted in both the raw onion and the sautéed onion. Once the onion was fully cooked into the meatballs, I found that the bitter flavor wasn't noticeable, but it's something to keep in mind, since it's possible that bitter flavor may sometimes come through. Just to be on the safe side, I'll be more inclined to mince from now on.
Kookin' Cookin' (Cooking the Meatballs)
There are a few different ways to cook meatballs. You can roast them in the oven, brown them in a pan, or fry them (and some meatballs aren't browned at all, but poached in their sauce instead). I tried all three of those browning methods.
For Swedish meatballs, I found oven-roasting to be a poor choice. Since the meatballs tend to be on the small side, they didn't brown sufficiently in the time it took to cook them through.
The tougher decision was between searing them in a pan and frying them. Searing is appealing because it leaves browned bits on the bottom of the pan, which can then be used to make a more deeply flavored gravy. But searing has some downsides. First, it's very difficult to get even color all over a spherical meatball when pan-searing, since the point of contact with the pan is so small. Roll them around all you want—the meatballs are almost guaranteed to end up looking more branded than browned. Second, the meatballs are very soft when raw, and they have a tendency to deform when pan-seared, flattening on the seared sides and losing their spherical shape.
Frying, meanwhile, browns the meatballs much more evenly all over, and because the meatballs float in the oil, they don't flatten against the pan as they cook.
In the end, I decided that more perfectly round, evenly browned meatballs were preferable to ones that looked like a three-year-old made them, even if it meant losing the ability to deglaze the pan for the gravy.
Graybee Daybee (The Gravy)
Just because I didn't have a pan to deglaze didn't mean I was going to make a bland gravy. With a couple very simple tricks, this version hits all the right notes, while letting the meatballs remain the rightful stars.
I start by making a roux, cooking flour and butter together until the raw flour smell is gone.
Then I whisk in chicken stock. You can use beef broth if you have it, but chicken tends to be the workhorse I keep on hand, since it's so much more versatile. Just like most gravies, this is essentially a velouté—a classic French sauce made by thickening stock with a roux (béchamel, by comparison, uses milk instead of stock).
A gravy made with just stock and roux is a little one-dimensional, so I sneak in some flavor and depth with a splash of soy sauce. It's just enough to make the sauce taste rich and meaty, but not so much that you'll feel like you ordered Swedish meatballs and ended up with Chinese takeout.
As a last flavor-enhancing step, I add a small amount of cider vinegar. A little acidity will improve just about any sauce, and I liked the idea of cider vinegar here, since it plays off the spice notes in the meatballs.
Finsky Finishy (Finishing It Up)
To finish the dish, I add the fried meatballs to the gravy and toss them to coat. I let them simmer in there for several minutes, to heat the meatballs through and ensure that any that didn't fully cook during the frying step are done before serving.
Then I spoon them onto plates.
A little parsley adds color and a dose of freshness.
Some buttered boiled potatoes and lingonberry jam are all that's needed to complete it.