Swedish Meatballs

December 13, 2015

Saturday afternoon I made some clarified butter for Sunday night’s dinner of Swedish meatballs. Carla used to make these when the kids were little but we haven’t had them in a long time. I looked at her old recipe along with a couple of others, including a new web site I’ve been reading: Serious Eats.

A week or two ago I read an article that reported Christopher Kimball has left America’s Test Kitchen. This was a mini bombshell to me; I thought Christopher owned ATK, which produces a weekly cooking show on PBS along with the magazine/websites Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country. Apparently, he holds a minority stake in the company. I don’t know what is going to happen to the show and magazines; he is the center of the America’s Test Kitchen TV series and writes a full page essay for each of the magazines.

The article about Chris’ exit  referenced the web site Serious Eats which is run by J. Kenjii López-Alt. They take a similar approach to cooking as America’s Test Kitchen; picking a recipe and working it through many iterations until they have the perfected the dish. I was so impressed I bought his cookbook – The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. The books is both a New York Times Best Seller and and Amazon Cookbook of the Year.

While doing my own search for a Swedish meatballs recipe I found very similar recipes by Serious Eats and Alton Brown.  I eventually used the Alton Brown recipe because it produced fewer meatballs and the cooking method called for sautéing the meatballs in clarified butter rather than frying in an inch and a half of oil. Knowing that these two respected sites were in agreement I was confident of a tasty dinner.

I had never clarified butter so that had me leaning toward Alton’s recipe – with a couple of modifications.  I don’t have anything against frying in plenty of oil, that the Serious Eats recipe calls for, but the thought of a gravy based on butter plus beef fat and pork fat broke the tie. My recipe copy references both sources so you can compare and do what you’d like.

Wow; that was a long preamble; let’s get to it. There are plenty of items for this dish including spices that I rarely use: nutmeg and allspice.

Ingredients and mis en place for Swedish meatballs
Ingredients and mis en place for Swedish meatballs

The top photo doesn’t have the egg carton I should have included. I had to buy some white bread, something we don’t normally have in our pantry; so I made some French toast earlier in the morning. How very continental of me – French Toast and Swedish Meatballs.

We sweat (not sauté) the finely chopped onion in a Tablespoon of clarified butter until soft.  Other than holding back the broths (chicken and beef), flour, and cream for the gravy, everything  (not the noodles of course) goes into the stand mixer for a minute or two.

Swedish meatballs ingredients ready for the mixer
Swedish meatballs ingredients ready for the mixer

This old KitchenAid stand mixer is a workhorse.it was Carla’s mom’s; I remember her using it way back in the 70’s. I think the motor may be on its last legs but I’ll use it until it breaks. I wonder if I could get the motor re-wound?

We form the meat mixture into one ounce balls. I used a #40 scoop leveled off, measuring some on a scale to make sure they were  close to the same in size. I learned why scoops are numbered like they are: it never made sense to me that the higher the number the smaller the scoop. The number tells how many portions it takes to measure a quart. Saturday morning I hunted for a #32 scoop but none was to be found – the #40 worked perfectly.

Next step is to melt those last two Tablespoons of glorious clarified butter and sauté the meatballs. The clarified butter acts much differently that regular butter; there was none of the frothing and smoking. Rather, it behaved much more like a traditional oil spreading slowly over the pan as it heats up. And it smells heavenly – condensed buttery goodness.

They took longer than Alton’s recipe called for; I wanted to make sure they all reached at least 165°

Swedish meatballs frying in the pan
Swedish meatballs frying in the pan

Serious Eats deep fries the meatballs and makes the gravy in a separate pan. I wanted my gravy to use that fond (brown bits at the bottom of the pan), butter and meat fats. I had more than I needed to handle three Tablespoons of flour so I drained it all of and returned three Tablespoons and stirred in the flour while mixing constantly with a silicone whisk (I don’t want to scratch my nonstick skillet) for a few minutes.

Alton calls for three cups of beef broth while Serious Eats uses a combination of beef and chicken. I’ve had success with a mixed broth gravy at Thanksgiving – and I love any excuse to use my home made chicken stock  – so I used two cups of chicken broth and one cup of beef broth. I slowly whisked in the broth and stirred for a few minutes until it started to thicken. Then I stirred in the 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Tasting it early I was underwhelmed; then I realized I was using my ultra low salt chicken broth so added a hefty pinch of kosher salt. Beautiful.

One of the comments on Alton Brown’s Food Network recipe said the sauce was bland. I can only figure the cook didn’t cook the roux long enough or reduce the stock enough. This gravy is worth making the dish.

While I made the gravy, Carla boiled some noodles and threw together a salad and dinner was ready.

Dinner is served: Swedish meatballs
Dinner is served: Swedish meatballs

The past two weeks we’ve had the kind of weather the rest of the country thinks is typical for a  Portland winter: cold with lots of rain. Normally December and January features mid 40’s temperatures with some drizzle. Recently we’ve had some record setting rains. This is the perfect dish to combat the weather.

The traditional accompaniment is lingonberry preserves. I couldn’t find any at the two markets I searched. But our neighbors had some they got at IKEA so we borrowed that. It’s not shown in the picture but I put a dab on the side of the bowl and mixed some in with each bite.  It’s not real sweet – I liken it to cranberries with turkey – though not as tart as cranberry sauce.

Holy cow! Over one thousand words for this write up – that’s long even for me. If you’ve made it all the way through, thank you.  Try this dish – I think you’ll like it.


4 thoughts on “Swedish Meatballs

  1. Howard, these look so good! If it took a thousand words to write, how long did the process take? And did it make leftovers? Almost worth a trip to Ikea to get the sauce. Yum!

    1. It took a little over two hours start to finish. Probably shorter if I hadn’t been taking pictures. It made 29 meatballs and plenty of gravy. Plenty for 4 servings; could have been enough for 6 if we had nite than salad for side dishes. So definitely leftovers.

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