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How to Get Your Smörgås On

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Casual or fancy, just for a few people or a crowd, smörgåsbord is a classically Swedish way of celebrating and enjoying a wide variety of delicious meats, cheeses, salads, homemade breads, and other savory foods. In her latest book, Smorgasbord: The Art of Swedish Breads and Savory Treats, Swedish cook and illustrator Johanna Kindvall breaks down the steps to building your very own spread. Below is an excerpt on what exactly makes a smörgåsbord for Food52.

Cultured butter shaped into roses sitting next to breads that smell of rye, fennel, and caraway seeds. Different kinds of herring lined up in separate ceramic jars next to a glorious Cheddar wrapped in cotton. A platter of salmon, mildly sweet with a smooth texture that melts in your mouth. Generous mounds of pink shrimp, piled up in a crystal bowl, just waiting to be dipped into a creamy sauce or eaten just as they are, salty and fresh. Strong flavors like mustard and horseradish—faithful companions to the spread of charcuteries like pâté, smoked goose breast, and wrinkled juniper-smoked sausages. This table, with its light and well-balanced flavors of sweet, sour, and salty, is the ultimate display of Nordic cuisine. In Sweden, we call it a smörgåsbord.


The word smörgåsbord is composed of two words: smörgås (open sandwich) and bord (table). A smörgåsbord is a buffet set up with many small dishes, including bread, butter, and cheese. The foods, which range from cured fish to small meatballs, are almost always set up at a separate table where all the dishes are beautifully arranged, sometimes at different levels to make room for every dish. It’s not unusual for a table like this to have up to 100 different dishes. Obviously, it takes time to eat a whole smörgåsbord, and that is the beauty of it. It encourages you to slow down, focus on the food, and munch on favorite foods (and discover new ones), while you have a good time with your friends and family.

Photo by Johanna Kindvall

To experience the variety of dishes, a smörgåsbord is traditionally eaten in a specific order: the first round offers pickled herring, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, and aged hard cheese. On the second round you have fish and seafood dishes like gravlax, pike pâté, caviar, and crayfish. The third round provides a variety of charcuteries, pickles, and salads. The fourth round belongs to the warmer dishes like meatballs, sausages, and gratins. The final round is the sweet table, which is often set up separately after the meal and includes fruit, whipped cream, and an assortment of cookies and cakes.

Traditional Swedish Ginger Cookies, Two Ways

Traditional Swedish Ginger Cookies, Two Ways by Taylor Rondestvedt

Swedish Almond Cake

Swedish Almond Cake by Posie Harwood

The best way to conquer a smörgåsbord is simple: take small portions and eat slowly. You are encouraged to go to the table several times and switch out your plate when there is a risk of mismatching flavors from other rounds. Overloading your plate will just make you unhappy. Treat the dishes as appetizers and you will go to bed with the satisfaction that you had room for an extra round of pâté and pickles.

Tags: Sweden, smörgåsbord, Scandinavian cooking,