Smørrebrød 101, An Introduction to Danish Open-Face Sandwiches
The first time I had smørrebrød was with my in-laws. For lunch, my mother-in-law prepared a traditional Danish spread. She filled the table with small plates of cold sausages, fish and crème fraîche-salads; bookended by pickled vegetables and baskets of dark and light sliced bread. I watched as everyone waited for her to say, “Værsgo!” before helping themselves, and knew to anticipate my father-in-law’s meal stopping salute, “Skål!” Lunch seemed to be going well. I ate every and anything offered my way and sought inspiration from others before creating my own sandwich. But just as I began to congratulate myself on learning the family rhythm, a couple side glances signalled I was doing something wrong. It may seem uncomplicated but there are rules to be followed when making Danish smørrebrød. And, judging by my plate, I had broken every last one.
The building blocks of smørrebrød are fairly straightforward; it’s buttered bread, a protein, a vegetable and fresh herbs. It may sound simple but the trick is knowing what is, and is never, paired. Like herring on white bread (nope) or dill with liver pâté (absolutely not!).
Now, one could argue that rules are meant to be broken, especially when it comes to food, and that you should create a smørrebrød to your palate’s desires. I couldn’t agree more. Channel that energy into culinary perfection. But before you do, why not get acquainted with the traditional pairings first?
Herring is typically the first course of a traditional smørrebrød lunch, followed by shellfish, chicken, red meat and then dessert. As a general rule, herring, mackerel and fish cakes go on rye bread; while salmon, halibut and shrimp are layered over a slice of white baguette. The popular fish rødspætte (European plaice) is a bit of an exception. You’ll find it served on both dark and light slices of bread.
Marinerede Sild (Pickled Herring)
Marinerede sild is a classic Danish smørrebrød of herring fillets marinated in vinegar, sugar, onions and black peppercorns. For the full experience, pair the sandwich with a bit of snaps. A potent glass of aquavit is the customary accompaniment for pickled herring.
Stjerneskud (Shooting Star)
The dressiest of the smørrebrød, a stjerneskud is made with fried plaice, shrimp and a crème fraîche-based dressing. Unlike some open-face sandwiches that can leave you a bit peckish after lunch, a stjerneskud is a pretty filling (albeit a less common) midday bite.
Beef and Pork
Choosing the right bread for beef or pork smørrebrød is very simple. Always (always) pair it with a slice of dark rye bread.
Leverpostej (Liver pâté)
When American kids are snacking on a PB&J, their Danish counterparts are enjoying a thick slice of pâté. Leverpostej is a popular Danish spread typically made of pork liver. As smørrebrød it’s topped with pickled red beets, bacon and mushrooms or a gelatinized gravy known as sky.
There’s really only one classic smørrebrød made with chicken and it’s typically served on a slice of toasted white bread.
Hønsesalat (Chicken Salad)
Hønsesalat is a crème fraîche chicken salad with mushrooms, asparagus and a crispy bacon topping. It’s simple but delicious, creamy and filling yet lighter than the mayonnaise-based chicken salads.
There is an option for the lacto-vegetarian.
Kartoffelmad (Potato Sandwich)
The potato sandwich is a meat-free smørrebrød of rye bread, boiled potatoes, crunchy vegetables and an herb-infused dressing.
Where to eat smørrebrød in Copenhagen
There are plenty of places to eat smørrebrød while in Copenhagen. Here are some of the favorites among local and tourist crowds:
- Hallernes Smørrebrød, the tourist stop in Torvehallerne.
- Selma Copenhagen, the foodie favorite that recommends a reservation.
- Cafe Gammel Torv, the traditional Danish restaurant in Indre By.
- Royal Smushi Cafe, the sushi-sized option for an afternoon snack.
- Fars Dreng, the hip café with a breakfast menu that’ll make you want to return.
- CPH Cooking Class, the place where you get to build your own creations.
Here’s one last note to help avoid those pesky faux pas: smørrebrød is always (always!) eaten with a knife and fork.