If you think the answer to “What is the difference between meatballs and Swedish meatballs?” is all in the sauce, think again!
If you’re trying to trace the branches in the family tree between polpette and kottbullar (aka Italian and Swedish meatballs), there’s no better place to start than with the meat of the matter: The blend.
With both, the guidelines for the meat mixture are a little fuzzy and a lot personal. Like, my grandma’s recipe versus your grandma’s recipe, this has been in our family for generations and is the only true authentic (God that word makes me nervous) meatball, kind of personal. Ground beef, pork, and veal are the main players in both styles. Swedish blends are most commonly dominated by a 50-50-ish pork and beef combo (though veal and even venison are sometimes included), while Italian versions, especially those you find in the States, typically dance around with a proprietary ratio of the Big Three.
Beef vs Bacon Blend, 2 pounds for $22 on Porter Road
Try making bacon-flecked meatballs with this blend.
But let’s stick to the basics for now.
As in life, size matters when it comes to distinguishing Swedish and Italian meatballs. The former are generally shaped to be much smaller in size—think, golfball-sized, or like a hearty teaspoon. You want to be able to easily pick one up with with a toothpick and not have it feel like a deadlift exercise. Italian meatballs are generally larger in size (except, perhaps, if they’re being served as a component in a soup), and Italian-American meatballs, if you care to make the distinction, are even larger. I know, “color me surprised,” said no one. Apparently the stateside renditions originated by Italian immigrants in New York started off more modestly sized, as you’ll still find them in Italy, but since have ballooned up like Violet Beauregard in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Think somewhere in the range of a tennis ball or average-sized fist.
Trigger Ice Cream Scoop, $29 at Sur La Table
Make really big meatballs with one of these.
Seasoning is another good way to draw a line in the sand between these two iconic meatball styles. While both varieties include ingredients such as grated onion and panade (milk-soaked bread) or bread crumbs, plus the usual salt and pepper, Swedish meatballs traditionally use spices like allspice, nutmeg, white pepper, and sometimes ground ginger as flavoring. Italian meatballs classically call for grated parmesan or Pecorino, as well as garlic and and chopped parsley; sometimes fennel seed and dried oregano are also added to up the ante.
Of course, sauce is a big part of the flavoring component that sets the two a part. Italian meatballs are famously served in a bright, tangy, often chunky tomato sauce (marinara to the layman) whereas Swedish meatballs are cooked in a rich, roux-based, creamy gravy made with beef or bone broth and sour cream (or sometimes heavy cream).
How They’re Served
While intrinsically different, both types of meatball are fairly versatile in terms of presentation and serving style. If you’re a fan of the ’60s-era cocktail party, you’ll remember that Swedish meatballs make a great pass-around appetizer, served simply on a toothpick. Of course, as a main dish, they’re more typically served over German-style egg noodles or with potatoes and a side of lingonberry sauce.
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Grape jelly might be okay for your everyday party meatballs, but you’ll need lingonberry jam to go full Swedish.
Italian meatballs come in a wider variety of outfits, so to speak. Though in Italy they are often served simply, on their own and garnished with fresh grated cheese and sprinkled with herbs, in the U.S. you’ll find them in a nest of spaghetti—duh—but also baked into a pasta casserole, over creamy polenta, sliced on pizza, stuffed into sandwiches, and even swimming in soups.
Alright enough talk, the only real way to tell the difference between meatballs and Swedish meatballs is to taste!
Just as good as Nonna used to make ‘em, these fork-tender, herb-studded meatballs in tomato gravy are equally delicious on their own, over pasta (get our Spaghetti and Meatballs recipe for proof), smothering creamy polenta, or stuffed into a sandwich. Get our Italian Meatballs recipe.
When your craving for meatballs leans more on the side of creamy white sauce than zesty tomato, give this recipe a try. The traditional, small beef and veal meatballs are served with a tangy sauce made from a combination of beef broth, a little flour, and sour cream. Enjoy them as a stand-alone dish (present on toothpicks and pass them around at your next cocktail party), or, even better, over a bed of egg noodles, or with a side of mashed potatoes and a dollop of the traditional lingonberry jam. Eat your heart out, IKEA. Get our Swedish Meatball recipe.
Lodge Chef Collection Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet, $39.95 at Sur La Table
Brown the meatballs and whisk the pan drippings into the sauce so you don't lose any flavor.
Spaghetti gets all the fame and glory when it comes to meatball-pasta combos. And I get it, I really do, but don’t you sometimes want a heartier, more substantial pasta partner? If you replied ‘yes’ then you need to check out this semi-homemade-style recipe that cheats a little with Italian sausage rolled into spherical shapes—but if you want to swap in homemade meatballs, please do! Either way, they nestle happily among saucy ziti with dollops of creamy ricotta, melty mozzarella, and plenty of parm. Genius. Get our Baked Ziti with Meatballs recipe.
This recipe has you brown the meatballs in a skillet (use butter instead of olive oil if you please), then finish them in the Crock-Pot, which definitely underscores that retro, throwback appeal that speaks to the dish’s ’60s-era cocktail party heyday. While lingonberries are always a perfect partner, similarly sweet-tart cranberry sauce is also great. Get the Slow Cooker Swedish Meatballs recipe.
Think of these as Italian-style meatballs that went to a spa. They’re flecked with oregano, fennel, and red pepper (some garlic wouldn’t be out of place either), but lightened up with ricotta and ground turkey instead of beef. You end up with tender, juicy spheres that still taste amazing drenched in red sauce and showered in cheese, whether stuffed inside a toasted roll or tumbled with pasta. Get our Turkey Ricotta Meatballs recipe.
If the Swedish furniture superstore is still your gold standard for meatballs in cream sauce, you’ll be very happy to know that they’ve shared their recipe with all of us. Bonus: Wait ’til you see the amazingly adorable way the instructions are presented in the official IKEA Swedish Meatball recipe.
Header image by Chowhound