Swedish Meatballs (Kottbullar)

December 13, 2010

Growing up in a Scandinavian American household, the tradition of Santa Lucia was always one that spoke to me, not only as a connection to my Swedish heritage, but also to the rhythm of the seasons.  Last night, my children and I gathered around our Santa Lucia doll and I told her story (generously interpreted).

Santa Lucia

A long time ago in Sweden (which is near the North Pole, a meaningful landmark for those obsessed with that region of planet this month), the days were short and the nights were long and cold.  The people of Sweden did not have enough food to eat.  One night, they looked out over the water and saw a beautiful woman gliding towards them.  Upon her head, she wore a crown of light and in her arms she carried food for the hungry.  Santa Lucia  saved the people of Sweden, not only from their hunger, but from their despair as well.  The food she brought filled their aching bellies and the light she wore reignited their hope of brighter days to come.

Many cultures have special ways to celebrate the Winter Solstice, the Northern hemisphere’s shortest day.  This is naturally a time of year to draw inward, hibernate, and nourish our minds and souls with quiet time.  The holidays though, provide an opportunity to gather, share, and allow us to look forward to the brighter days of spring and summer.  As a child, I loved Santa Lucia Day.  I would dress in a white robe, crown myself with lit candles and then, with hesitant steps, deliver cookies to my family or classmates.  It is easy to hook children into a tradition, when cookies are involved!  My daughter is still too young to wear a crown of fire, but still she  glowed with pride at being the chosen one to carry the cookies to our table.

carrying cookies

The foods we prepare and serve our loved ones on these special days define our traditions.  In honor of Santa Lucia, I prepared a hearty feast of Kottbullar (Swedish Meatballs).  To complete the meal, I served them with mashed potatoes, roasted brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce, and agurke salat (cucumber salad).

Santa Lucia mealThis meal ties my family and me to our ancestors.  The meatball recipe originates from my maternal great-grandmother, Agda, who grew up in Sweden.  I never had a chance to meet Agda, or Gigi as she was affectionately known by her grandchildren.   Nonetheless, I feel a connection to this special woman through the rosy stories shared by my mother and her cousins.  Of course, her spirit lives on through her recipes as well.

These meatballs are outstanding.  If you have only experienced Swedish meatballs from the cafeteria line at IKEA, you are going to be blown away.  They are tender and moist without any of the strange chewy texture that plagues store-bought meatballs.  The subtle sweetness and hint of allspice make for a delicious treat.  In this recipe, you broil the meatballs to brown them.  This is a huge time saver over browning them in a pan.  You still get that yummy caramelization without all the time and trouble of  stove top browning.  One significant change from the family recipe is the omission of veal.  I have too many fond memories of feeding calves on my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm to consider veal good eats.  If anyone knows of a source for humanely raised veal, let me know.   This dish is a huge hit with my whole family.  Serve as a main dish or a popular appetizer!

kottbullar plateSwedish Meatballs (Kottbullar)

Adapted slightly from my Great-grandmother Agda

serves 6 as a main dish

1/3 cup minced onion

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1/2 cup milk

1 egg

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 pound ground chuck

1/2 pound ground pork

Soak bread for 5 minutes.  Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well.  (I like to use my hands to mix instead of bothering with a spoon).  Roll into 3/4 inch balls. Wet your hands well to prevent sticking.  After several meatballs, if your hands begin to stick, simply rinse them in warm water and begin again.  Place meatballs on baking trays, cover, and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Remove trays from refrigerator and uncover.  Brown under broiler.  Put in a baking dish with 1/2 cup beef broth.  Cover and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.  Alternately, place in a slow cooker on low.

Serve meatballs over potatoes, egg noodles, or eat them with a toothpick.  They are delicious enough to stand on their own, but yummy with gravy too.

These meatballs freeze very well.  Feel free to double the recipe and make enough for another dinner.

Here is a printer friendly version of the recipe: Swedish Meatballs (Kottbullar)

You may also like:

Perciatelli and Meatballs

Sesame Ginger Meatballs

Swedish Cardamom Bread


11 Responses to “Swedish Meatballs (Kottbullar)”

  1. Janice Juul Says:

    I’m going to share this Lucia issue with our Swedish relatives.

  2. kathy Says:

    love the blog – i immediately went scrambling in my cupboard to see if I had the ingredients for the meatballs – out of luck, but added a few things to my shopping list so I can make them this week. thanks for the stories and the inspiration!

  3. Karen Says:

    I hope you enjoy! I made a double batch and set some aside in the freezer for another night. Soooo good!

  4. Babygirl Says:

    Aww.. the kids are adorable. And this recipe is very nice. I am definitely trying this.

  5. Karen Peterson Rubio Says:

    Hi Karen,

    I am going to make my first batch this Christmas Eve. I do remember Agda very well, and can’t wait to try this out. Wish me luck! Thanks for posting!

    • Karen Says:


      So glad to hear you are trying this recipe. Let me know how they turn out! We spend Christmas Eve with the Danes, so it is goose for us.


  6. Anna Keller Says:

    Your energy and enthusiasm are contagious, Karen! You inspired Josh and me to make these family faves for the Doody Clan Christmas Eve gathering!

  7. […] of weeks, we have transformed our home into a full-fledged  Christmas scene.  The tree is up, Santa Lucia is perched on the buffet, and the winter mugs in the morning coffee rotation.  While trying to […]

  8. I realize it’s a long shot to ask, but do you happen to recall where you got the Santa Lucia doll? I’ve found two other instances of the same one on Pinterest/Flickr, but no indication of where you might purchase such a thing. So adorable!

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