Danish food culture is all about rye bread, and smørrebrød, open-faced sandwiches, are the most popular way to enjoy it. Smørrebrød are made with a slice of rye bread topped with meat, fish or vegetables and different spreads. There are lots of understood rules about what to combine and what not to — some are regional, but on the whole, as a Dane, you just know. On weekends and at special occasions smørrebrød are enjoyed with beer and aquavit.
Smørrebrød (“smørre” means butter, “brød” is bread) started as a very simple food around the 1880s when, in the age of industrialization, more and more Danes worked in factories and had to bring lunch. The lunch box typically contained slices of bread with some salty fat spread, and evolved from there. Often the toppings would be leftovers from dinner the night before — cold cuts or some vegetables like boiled potatoes. In order to get more taste, there might be mustard or preserved beetroots. Restaurants started to serve smørrebrød and the open sandwiches soon became more elaborate and decorated. In the 1920s, they were popular at nightclubs, where the guests did not want to spend hours sitting down to eat a three-course dinner, but instead wanted to spend their time dancing.
Smørrebrød have evolved over more than a hundred years and have become popular again in Denmark. There are plenty of variants, often named after occasions, people or places. Some Danish restaurants, like Restaurant Schonneman Aamans and the Royal Cafe have a long smørrebrød tradition and are well worth a visit — remember, aqua. A visit to some of these places tells you a story about an important part of Danish food culture.
Five Smørrebrød Recipes
Smørrebrød can be cut into smaller pieces and serve as canapés, which we call snitter. They make great party food, especially served with aquavit, white wine and a variety of beers.
Avocado, Egg and Shrimp Smørrebrød
- Peel the eggs and cut them into wedges.
- Peel avocados and cut into wedges, drain the shrimps.
- Place the rye bread slices on a plate, then put 3 avocado wedges on each slice.
- Squeeze some lemon juice over the avocado.
- Place the egg wedges on top.
- Lastly, place shrimp on top of the eggs, sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Serve right away.
Optional: Use one teaspoon of mayonnaise on each smørrebrød
Pan-Fried Cod Roe With Capers Smørrebrød
For the brine:
For cream topping:
For the garnish:
- In a large pot add water, lemon, pepper and salt. Bring to a boil and then add the cod roe and bring to a boil again. Let simmer for 30 minutes.
- Mix the cream for the topping.
- Let roe cool before removing from pot. Then cut into slices and pan-fry in butter until golden brown on each side. Place right away on the rye bread, add 1 tablespoon of the cream and garnish with a bit of dill.
Smoked Mackerel Salad Smørrebrød
- Remove bones and skin of the smoked mackerel, divide into four and place on rye bread.
- Chop the radishes and spring onion and sprinkle over the mackerel. Serve right away.
Beetroot and Apple Salad Smørrebrød
- Boil the beetroot in lightly salted water for 20 minutes, cool down, then peel and cut into small cubes.
- Cut apples in same size cubes and mix with beetroot, then mix in the yogurt, capers and lemon juice.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Place on 4 pieces of rye bread and serve right away.
Tomato and Bacon With Anchovy Mayonnaise Smørrebrød
- Take the basic recipe for mayonnaise and add the garlic, then mince the anchovies and add with lemon juice.
- Pan-fry bacon until crisp, chop medium fine.
- Place sliced tomatoes on bread and add a tablespoon of anchovy mayonnaise on top.
- Sprinkle with bacon and chives.
- Mix egg yolks, mustard and lemon juice in blender or food processor.
- Add oil in light stream while continuing to blend.
Makes one large loaf
In Denmark, rye bread is part of the everyday diet and available everywhere. To bake your own, you’ll need a sourdough starter and 3 to 5 days to cultivate it for the first time. Then you can keep reusing it. In the U.S., look for German-style rye bread in the supermarket, or for Scandinavian bakeries.
For the sourdough starter:
For the dough:
For the sourdough starter (start at least 3 days ahead):
Mix the rye flour, buttermilk and salt in a bowl. Cover with foil and leave for 2 days at room temperature (25 to 28 C, or 77 to 82 F). And there you have a sourdough! Note that if the temperature is too low, the sourdough will not develop and instead will go bad. The starter can be tricky to make, so do not give up if it molds the first time.
For the bread (start 1 day ahead):
- In a large bowl, dissolve sourdough in lukewarm water. Add rye flour, wheat flour and salt, and stir with a wooden spoon until you have a runny dough. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and set aside for 12 hours at room temperature. I normally do this around dinnertime so that it can sit overnight, then I can do step 3 the next morning.
- Add the cracked whole rye, lukewarm water and salt to the dough and stir again with a wooden spoon until the rye grains are evenly distributed. Now take 3 tablespoons of the dough, add 2 tablespoons of coarse salt, and save in a container in the refrigerator for the next time you make rye bread. It will last there for up to 8 weeks. Remember to do this every time you make rye bread and you will not need to make the sourdough again.
- Pour the rest of the dough into a non-stick loaf tin measuring 10 centimeters wide by 29 centimeters long by 9 centimeters deep (4 by 11 by 4 inches). If you do not have a non-stick loaf tin, grease the inside with a little oil. Cover the tin with a tea towel and leave the bread to rise for 3 to 6 hours, or until it has reached the rim of the tin. Preheat the oven to 175 C (350 F, Gas 3) and bake for 1 hour 45 minutes. When done, take loaf out of the tin immediately and let it cool on a wire rack.
Trina Hahnemann is a Copenhagen-based chef and caterer and the author of six cookbooks, including “The Scandinavian Kitchen.” She has catered for artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones. Her company Hahnemann’s Køkken, which runs in-house canteens, counts the Danish House of Parliament among its clients. Trina writes a monthly column in Denmark’s leading women’s magazine Alt for Damerne.