What’s a Smørrebrød? The Traditional Danish Open-Faced Sandwich

When it comes to sandwiches, the Danish smørrebrød isn’t just any ole sandwich. This traditional Danish dish makes our PB&Js and turkey with cheese sandwiches look down right pitiful. Served open-faced and brimming with an imaginative combination of tasty ingredients, the smørrebrød isn’t any ho-hum lunch box regular. It’s an artfully crafted meal that works for any time of the day. You can find smørrebrød served on plates at home as often as in gourmet kitchens. It’s true Danish comfort food.

The idea behind the smørrebrød is to rummage through the fridge and create a meal from leftovers. It can be just about any combination of ingredients. Some favorites include shrimp with lemon and mayonnaise; boiled egg, cucumber and tomato; beef and arugula; and blue cheese with apple and bacon. Hundreds of combinations exist, some more popular than others.

The smørrebrød dates back to the Middle Ages when thick slices of stale bread (also known as trenchers) were used as plates. The bread absorbed the drippings from the toppings and was then tossed out. Through the years, the bread was incorporated into the meal because, really, it’s one of the tastiest parts. During the 19th century, the smørrebrød truly earned its place in Danish culture. Factory workers packed open-faced sandwiches for lunch, since they were no longer able to return home during the middle of the day. The sandwiches eventually evolved from a working class staple to a mainstream tradition. The sandwich is even a regular at holiday meals today.

Want to make your own smørrebrød? Assemble it with care and a little craftsmanship and you won’t be disappointed. Here’s how to build a mean smørrebrød.

Start with rye

The base of any good traditional smørrebrød begins with rye bread. The dark sourdough bread is a Danish staple, probably stemming from the country’s limited access to wheat when the sandwiches became popular. (On a side note, we could all take a hint from the Danish and try this underrated bread. Nutritious and rich in fibers, rye bread makes a fantastic alternative to wheat.) Although rye bread is the traditional choice, many other types of bread are used for smørrebrøds today.

Spread it on

Smørrebrød technically means “buttered bread” in Danish. It makes sense then that after a layer of rye bread comes the butter or mayonnaise. Although butter or mayonnaise are more traditional, Danish chefs are creating all kinds of gourmet spreads for today’s trendy smørrebrøds. Besides tasting delicious, the spread also keeps the bread from going soggy. I think we can all agree that no matter where you eat it, soggy bread is not an enjoyable texture.

Add the toppings

After you create the base with bread and butter, you load it down with toppings. Smørrebrøds are meant to suggest abundance, so you’ll always see these sandwiches overflowing with ingredients. If you only see the corners of the bread peeking out from under a pile of toppings, you’re doing it right. Traditional ingredients include cured meats, smoked salmon, pickled herring, Danish meatballs, boiled egg, cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes and liver pate. For many years smørrebrøds had a bad reputation for only consisting of fatty meats and butter, but many of today’s creations are piled high with vegetables and herbs. So, if you’re going for the cured meats on your smørrebrød, be sure to add a healthy heap of greens.

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image: Kirsten Hudson