Swedish meatballs are an iconic Stockholm dish.
Plant-based Swedish meatballs with all the fixings are a traditional comfort food. | Getty Images/ Nancy Anne Harbord

Are Plant-Based Swedish Meatballs the New Staple?

Meatballs may be deeply rooted in Swedish tradition, but more Swedes seek plant-based versions.
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Swedish meatballs, or köttbullar, are a staple on every Swedish table, and not just during the holidays, though they are an essential part of a holiday smörgåsbord such as the julbord (Christmas spread). “It’s traditionally what we call husmanskost, which means home cooking. It’s a dish that’s served in every Swedish family,” says Swedish chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Anna Bonde-Mosesson. “It’s a dish that’s ultimately Swedish completely and utterly.” Meatballs are so integral to Swedish cuisine that they even have their own holiday: Meatball Day, or Köttbullens dag, on August 23rd. 

For many, meatballs are associated with home. “It would be very unusual if you went to a Swedish family and they didn’t eat meatballs at least once a week,” says Bonde-Mosesson, adding that kids eat them from infancy. “You always have a pack in the freezer, unless you have a grandmother who makes some freshly for you,” she explains. “If you’ve been out for a long walk and you can’t be bothered to cook, you’ve got those meatballs in the freezer, you just get them out straight into the frying pan, and you’ve got a delicious meal.” 

They’re eaten from the frozen edges of Sápmi to the capital city of Stockholm. But where did Swedish meatballs come from, and how did the dish get to be so ubiquitous with its country of origin?

Surprisingly, what’s now known as the Swedish meatball probably came from significantly warmer climes. In the early 1700s, a young King Charles XII of Sweden traveled throughout much of western Europe, defending his kingdom’s borders and empire building. He spent five years in the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey and Moldova, and developed a taste for the food. He is credited with bringing back not only meatballs, based on Turkish köfte, but also coffee and kåldolmar, stuffed cabbage rolls. “The first mention of meatballs was in 1755 in Kajsa Warg’s cookbook Hjelpreda I Hushållningen För Unga Fruentimber (“Guide to Housekeeping for Young Women”),” says Argot Murelius, Swedish food writer and editor.

They’ve been on Swedish tables ever since. Long dark winters mean that Sweden has a culinary tradition of hearty and preserved foods, and meatballs certainly fit the bill. “It’s a comfort food,” says Bonde-Mosesson. “It’s an everyday food.” 

Meatballs are so integral to Swedish cuisine that they even have their own holiday.

There’s no single recipe for meatballs—each family has its own take. It’s generally agreed that there’s minced meat, usually beef and/or pork, breadcrumbs soaked in milk, onion, salt, black pepper, and allspice. The consensus is that they are served with a sauce, usually a cream gravy; mashed potatoes; and lingonberries (a small, sour red berry similar to a cranberry). They may also be served as a street food “with pickled beetroot and mayonnaise on a piece of bread as a sandwich,” says Bonde-Mosesson.

These vegan meatballs are the ultimate Swedish dish, complete with lingonberry and mash. | Nancy Anne Harbord

“As for its place on the Stockholm food scene, meatballs are found on most menus in traditional restaurants,” says Murelius. “If you ask die-hard Stockholmers, a large portion of them would say that the classic old haunt Prinsen makes the best meatballs. The meatballs at Operabaren and Bakfickan are legendary too.”

Traditional though they may be, Sweden’s meatballs aren’t stuck in the past. Thirty percent of Swedish millennials are eating more plant-based foods for environmental reasons, and Stockholm’s plant-based meatball scene is thriving. Popular restaurant Meatballs for the People in the trendy Södermalm neighborhood serves 14 varieties of organic meatballs, including vegan meatballs. IKEA, Sweden’s famous retailer, debuted a vegetable ball in 2015, but 2020 saw the additional release of a new “plant ball,” a vegan version that cleaves more faithfully in taste to the original. With the increasing variety of plant-based meats on the market, creating vegan meatballs at home is easier for home cooks, too.

They may be on to something. “There are 249,000 hits on Swedish Google for vegan meatballs,” says Murelius. “Swedes are pretty open-minded when it comes to Meatless Monday and all that. Loads of people keep a pretty meat-free lifestyle.” Stay tuned for the plant-based meatball revolution. 

How to make plant-based Swedish Meatballs

Chef Ankan Linden created this plant-based Swedish meatball recipe using Oumph! Mince as a meat substitute.

Plant-Based Swedish Meatballs

By Ankan Linden

25 mins to prep
1 hour to cook
Yields 4
Vegan

Ingredients

Swedish meatballs

  • 1 package Oumph! Mince, thawed
  • 4 tablespoons 60 grams vegan butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

Blackcurrant cream sauce

  • 1 tablespoon 15 grams vegan butter
  • 1/2 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon dried mushrooms
  • Handful fresh chanterelle mushrooms
  • 1 1/4 cups 300 milliliters oat cream, divided
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon blackcurrant jelly or conserve with pectin
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

Pickled cucumbers

  • 1/2 large cucumber, peeled alternating skin on and off and sliced 16-inch thin
  • 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped
  • A pinch ground white pepper (optional)
  • 1/2 tablespoon white vinegar (12% acidity, if available)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Creamy mashed potatoes

  • 6 medium 1 kilogram all-purpose potatoes (such as Yukon Gold potatoes), peeled and cut into 1-inch/2-centimeter cubes
  • 3 tablespoons 45 grams plant-based butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup 60 milliliters plant-based milk
  • Kosher salt, to taste

Crushed lingonberries

  • 1 1/4 cups 130 grams fresh or frozen lingonberries, thawed
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Preparation

    Swedish meatballs

    • 1
      In a large frying pan over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon (15 grams) butter and onion. Cook until tender and lightly browned.
    • 2
      In a large bowl, add Oumph! Mince, cooked onions, and salt and black pepper to taste. Use damp hands to roll the mixture into 1-inch/2-centimeter balls (about 1 tablespoon each) and set aside on a plate.
    • 3
      Heat the same frying pan over high heat and add 2 tablespoons (30 grams) butter. Fry half the meatballs until firm and well browned, 2-3 minutes, shaking the pan every 20 seconds so they cook evenly. If the meatballs stick to the pan, use a spatula to loosen. Set cooked meatballs aside on a plate and repeat with the remaining meatballs, using the remaining1 tablespoon (15 grams) butter.

    Blackcurrant cream sauce

    • 1
      Wipe and heat the same frying pan over medium-high heat. Add butter, onion, and both mushrooms. Cook until tender and lightly browned.
    • 2
      Add oat cream, stock, soy sauce, blackcurrant jelly, and thyme. Gently simmer for 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.
    • 3
      Gently add the cooked meatballs into the sauce and bring back to a simmer. Use a spoon to evenly coat the meatballs in the sauce.

    PICKLED CUCUMBERS

    • 1
      In a small bowl, add cucumbers and sprinkle with salt. Rest for 40 minutes to draw out liquid.
    • 2
      Drain the cucumbers and use hands to gently squeeze out excess liquid. Return to bowl and toss with parsley and white pepper, if using. Transfer into an 8-ounce lidded jar.
    • 3
      In the same small bowl, add 1/3 cup water, vinegar, and sugar. Stir to dissolve. Pour over the cucumbers. Rest in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.

    CREAMY MASHED POTATOES

    • 1
      In a large saucepan, add the potatoes, cover with cold water, and season with salt to taste. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until tender enough to crush with a fork, about 20 minutes.
    • 2
      Drain potatoes and let steam for 1 minute to remove excess water. Return potatoes to saucepan.
    • 3
      Add butter and milk. Mash with a potato ricer or masher until smooth. Season with salt to taste. Cover with a clean dish towel to keep warm.

    CRUSHED LINGONBERRIES

    • 1
      In a medium bowl, add the lingonberries and sugar. Mash with a fork. Taste and add more sugar if the lingonberries are extra tart.

    TO SERVE

    • 1
      Divide the mashed potatoes among 4 plates and top with the meatballs and sauce. Serve with lingonberries and cucumber pickles.

Chef's Notes

Defrost the Oumph! Mince in the fridge the day before to get ahead. You can also make the cucumber pickles several days ahead. Simply store in the refrigerator.

To make really creamy potatoes, use a hand mixer to whip the potatoes. Start on slow speed for 1 minute to break up the potatoes, then add the butter and milk and beat on medium speed for 1-2 minutes, until very creamy and fluffy.

Can’t find lingonberries? Substitute with fresh or frozen cranberries. Substitute the homemade cucumber pickles with dill pickle chips found at your local grocery store. The oat cream can be substituted with any heavy plant-based cream. The dried thyme can be substituted with dried Italian herb mix.