Ikea is not just the world’s most popular furniture company; it might be the world’s foremost meatballer, too. The company sells over a billion Swedish meatballs each year in its cafeterias and frozen to-go packs. And now, with Ikea stores closed around the world in response to COVID-19, the company published a recipe so you can duplicate the dish at home.
Despite countless, perilous trips to Ikea over the years, I’d always abstained from the meatballs. I mean, who in their right mind eats at an Ikea in the first place? What are you people doing with your lives? Like, maybe grab a cinnamon roll in the morning, sure. I get it. But who drives to an Ikea, spends four to who knows how many hours trapped in a maze of furniture and umlauts, and then concludes, “Why yes, I would like to also have dinner here with my partner who will, at this point, barely speak to me.”
— IKEA UK (@IKEAUK) April 20, 2020
But as both a journalist covering Ikea and an obnoxiously overzealous home cook, I drew the short straw to try out the recipe of what may be the least appealing food on the planet. Besides, I’m on lockdown. I’ve already baked banana bread and shaved my beard. What else do I have to do?
According to the Twitter account of Sweden itself, the Swedish meatball is actually a descendant of the Turkish köfte, created from a recipe King Charles XII brought back from Turkey in the 1700s. Now, I don’t know what Sweden did next to completely ruin the köfte. Because köfte are an aromatic, mouthwatering mix of lamb, garlic, and cumin, while Swedish meatballs are made of beef and pork and can best be described as that-which-you-politely-spit-into-a-cocktail-napkin. On any objective ranking of balls of meat, the Swedish meatball comes in dead last. I’m sorry, Sweden. It’s just not your strong suit!
In any case, Severin Sjöstedt was the Swedish chef who was tasked in 1985 with creating the perfect Swedish meatball for Ikea. Sjöstedt hailed from the northern end of the country, where meatballs are simpler in flavor, compared to versions with spices such as nutmeg or allspice you might get in the south. “Over the course of 10 months, Severin hardly left the kitchen,” Ikea explains on its website. “He was totally engulfed and put his heart and soul into finding the right recipe. He not only had to create a meatball that tasted good, he had to create one that could be made in batches of more than 300 kg each.”
After nearly a year of work, he developed a meatball recipe with a northern Swedish flavor. It’s a mix of beef and pork, bread crumbs, milk, egg, salt and pepper. And onion. Lots of onion. (More on that below.) It’s paired with a simple white sauce, spiked with a splash of soy sauce and mustard.
After calling in the ingredients—I don’t know how the hell this recipe came out to a $45 Whole Foods delivery, but these are the times we’re living in—I set aside my Wednesday night to make the dish.
The recipe requires almost zero technique, beyond dealing with the metric system instead of the U.S.’s preference for pounds and cups. It is delightfully easier to assemble than any other Ikea product I’ve ever tried! To make the balls, I dump the meat and accouterments into a bowl on a scale, and I roughly dice a single onion to mix with 1.6 pounds—sorry, 750 g—of meat. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but as I squish and squeeze it all together, I realize that I diced the onion when I should have done a tighter mince.
Rolling the balls—pro tip: gently, as to keep them tender!—there was so much onion in the mix that they resisted coming together. I found myself eagerly picking excess onion out of the bowl as I went, cursing Sjöstedt and his passion for alliums. Once I was done, the balls went into the fridge for two hours to solidify.
When they were ready, I seared the meatballs in my Le Creuset (you can also use a regular pan) and then tossed them into the oven for 30 minutes to finish cooking.
At this point, the wafting beef grease and onion have transformed my kitchen into an olfactory White Castle.
Now it’s time to cook up the white sauce. In a saucepan, I melt a shameful amount of butter and mix in flour to make a roux. Once the roux is really bubbly, I stir in a mix of beef broth, veggie broth, and “double cream.” I have no clue what the hell double cream is. From what I can tell, the internet has no clue what double cream is. But I assume this is just heavy cream, so that’s what I use.
The sauce thickens up beautifully, then I squirt in some mustard and a splash of soy sauce as instructed. I stir the sauce a few times just for the hell of it, beginning to allow myself to get a bit excited about these meatballs. When is the last time I made myself something this decadent? Heck, maybe I like Swedish meatballs now. I haven’t tried them in years!
I pull the meatballs from the oven, noting how they glisten in their own grease. The onions seem to have figured themselves out, cooking down during the baking process. So I toss a few into that luxurious-looking sauce and find myself getting excited.
I take my first bite. The outside is almost crunchy, which gives way to the perfectly moist and springy interior of the ball. The texture is superb. (My compliments to the chef for not overworking the meat.) And it tastes . . . terrible. All I get is the flavor of onion sweat and grease. The sauce is velvety and bland. It’s offensive in its tragic inoffensiveness.
Yes, it’s a Swedish meatball indeed.