S is for Smørrebrød

Smørrebrød is a Danish open sandwich made of dark rye bread as the base and a variety of toppings. Pronounced ‘shmur-broht’, smorrebrod is a signature item and an integral part of the Danish food culture. The word smørrebrød has its origin from the words ‘smor’ meaning butter and ‘brod’ meaning bread.

The idea of the open-faced sandwich is supposed to have come from the middle age custom of serving food on slabs of stale bread called ‘trenchers’. Someone smart must have realized that the juices from the toppings infused the bread and added flavor to it, and started using good bread as trenchers so that the trencher could be eaten too. And Smørrebrød was born!

Back in the 19th century, when most of Scandinavia was agricultural country, lunch was the main meal of the day. The farmers would pack cold meat and the bits and pieces of the previous day’s dinner to sustain them through the day and eat them piled up on pieces of hardy bread. Thus the open-faced sandwich became the popular meal of the region.

The easy way to plan for this, is to think about the main ingredient – usually a protein – first. Roast beef, smoked (cured) salmon, cooked shrimp, boiled eggs, crab or fish cakes, cold cuts, cheeses, fruits, pickled herrings… these are just a few among the possibilities. Now think about what vegetables – pickled or fresh – will go with them. A dressing to match and something on top to make them pretty. You have the whole plan ready to go!

The bread is buttered generously and this prevents it from getting soggy from the juices of the toppings. Then you pile up the layers, making sure that all the ingredients on a slice of bread get along well together and look good.

They are eaten at celebrations or at daily meals, for any meal of the day – breakfast, lunch or dinner – and are served as starters or entree. At gatherings, often the toppings and accompaniments are passed around on platters so that people can build their own, as per choice.

There are certain rules to be followed in the serving and eating of smørrebrød. First and foremost, you eat them using a fork and knife, never picked up like an NY pizza slice. Secondly, there is a sequence in which they are to be served and eaten: pickled herrings first, other fish next, to be followed by meats and cheeses in that order. A word about the pickled herring… it is definitely an acquired taste. Just like some extreme versions of Danish licorice. But I digress. The third and most important rule is to say ‘skol’ (cheers) frequently, raising your glass. There might be other rules but these are the only ones I recall.

The recipes below are for three variations of smørrebrød, each with its own dressing: Boiled eggs and shrimp with garlicky mayo dressing, Smoked salmon with honey dill mustard dressing and Roast beef with a remoulade dressing.

To make the sandwiches, place the ingredients listed, in the order listed, in a single layer on a well buttered slice of dark rye bread. Drizzle or pipe the dressing over the toppings as indicated in the dressings recipes.

Boiled Eggs and Shrimp

Lettuce leaves

Thick slices of boiled egg

Salad shrimp

Thin slices of radish

Lemon

Springs of dill

Garlicky Mayo

1/2 cup mayonnaise 

Garlic chives, chopped fine

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Drizzle over the sandwich.

Smoked Salmon

Slices of smoked salmon

Thinly sliced cucumber

Capers

Sliced cornichons

Pickled beets

Springs of dill

Honey Dill Mustard

Equal quantity honey mustard, cider vinegar, and grape seed oil (or any neutral oil)

Chopped dill sprigs

Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk mustard and vinegar together in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the oil to emulsify. Add the chopped dill, pepper and salt. Mix well and pipe over the toppings.

Roast Beef

Arugula

Slices of roast beef

Rings of red onion

Thin carrot strips

Remoulade

Equal quantity mayonnaise and sour cream

Cornichons, chopped fine

Capers, chopped coarsely

Dijon mustard

Pinch of curry powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl and pipe over the toppings.

4 thoughts on “S is for Smørrebrød”

  1. They are really beautiful! There must be something similar in Sweden. When I was 13 my family visited, and I remember getting up very late (time change) and missing breakfast. The restaurant (but self-serve) had thin breads with toppings. I am not sure what the spread on it was, nothing I’d tasted before! So much effort into making them pretty.

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