Why are Swedish meatballs so much smaller than their American counterparts?

This topic has been knocking around the blogosphere as of late:

I am a longtime reader of MR and there is a question I have been wondering about for a long time.  I was hoping you could share your thoughts on meatball heterogeneity.  My girlfriend made dinner for me and the entree was Swedish meatballs.  I never knew how small their meatballs are.  It seems inefficient to roll all that meat into such tiny balls.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to roll them into big balls like we do in the US?

First, history + hysteresis play a role.  According to Mathistorisk Uppslagsbok by Jan-Ojvind Swahn, the Swedish concept of meatball first appeared in Cajsa Warg's 1754 cookbook.  Yet as late as the early 20th century, beef was still a luxury in Swedish culture, whereas meat was plentiful in the United States.  America had greater access to game in the more moderate climate and also greater grass resources for supporting cows.  The Swedes were also late in benefiting from the refrigerated transport revolution, which started elsewhere in the 1920s and brought more meat to many households.  (This tardiness was due to the concentration of population in a small number of cities, combined with rail isolation from Europe.)  The end result was smaller meatballs, a tradition which has persisted to this day.

On the plane of pure theory, standing behind the lock-in effect is the Ricardian (or should I say Solowian?  Solow is the modern Ricardian when you think through the underlying asymmetries in his model, which ultimately make "capital" non-productive at some margin) fixed factor explanation.  A Swedish meatball recipe usually involves much more dairy than a non-Swedish meatball recipe.  Constant returns to scale do not in general hold for recipes, much less for loosely packed spherical items involving fluids.

Oddly, the extant literature does not seem to have considered these factors.

From the comments: Lennart writes: "Swedish meatballs, having loads of surface that are fried crispy, are much better than other forms of meatballs for that reason alone. Norwegians and Danish have big meatballs, but that's because they are boiled, so there is no crispy-fried surface to maximize (and hence nowhere near as good)."


The meatball also plays a role as a vehicle for the sauce. If IKEA can be used as a representative experience, Swedish meatballs come with quite a bit of gravy or sauce. The smaller meatball has higher surface/volume ratio, hence more sauce can be carried with them.

A good correlational study would be to see whether regions with thicker, more viscous gravies have bigger meatballs than regions with more liquid or more "runny" gravies. Causation would require further studies.

Small meatballs have always been concidered a finer product than their larger relatives, basically because they're more laborsome to make. The same goes for bread rolls, etc.

I'm from Sweden, so perhaps that adds some value to the discussion.

Beef being a luxury -> Small meatballs doesn't compute for me. Fewer meatballs would work as well.

Swedish meatballs, having loads of surface that are fried crispy, are much better than other forms of meatballs for that reason alone. Norwegians and Danish have big meatballs, but that's because they are boiled, so there is no crispy-fried surface to maximize (and hence nowhere near as good).

My guess is rather more time available to make them, so that the time cutting device of big meatballs isn't introduced, instead they are painstakingly made small and fried in a pan.

True Italian meatballs are also smaller than American-Italian meatballs.

@Lennart: Huh? Where do I collect my boiled, large meatballs? I'm Norwegian, and I have never seen such an abomination.

This post is very endearing.


Tyler and Alex, thank you for making my world a better place.

And the Ignobel prize goes to.. the people behind this groundbreaking research

Any research should take into account the much smaller meatballs used in Italian Wedding Soup.

I echo the "endearing" comment. Bravo!

MR has helped change the way I think about all sorts of things.

And done it with humour, as in this post.

Danish meatballs are fried, not boiled.

The boiled Danish meatballs are called "frikadeller". I'm sure the Danish commenters above have all eaten them, but I don't think they think they are "meatballs", hence the confusion.

In addition to the larger surface to voume ratio, the smaller meat balls make it easier to cook them more evenly.


I humbly suggest you just don't get it.

Are swedish meatballs fried? I always thought that the ones my mother made were the real deal, and she made oven baked them. maybe my mother made finnish meatballs.

Anyway. I've never wondered why my mother makes larger meatballs than my grandmother. I've always thought that my mother is only lazier, but maybe it is because my grandmother lived most of her life in poorer times.

@Joe Torben

"frikadeller" are not boiled - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frikadeller

@Sigve and Mark: Admittedly, my experience with Norwegian traditional food is small and wholly negative. But the only Norwegian meatballs I had was large and boiled in a sauce. But of course, two years in Norway is not enough to claim expertise on the subject. :) Similar excuses goes for Denmark. I've only had meatballs once. They were big and boiled, and yes they were called frikadeller. Nothing like this even exists in Sweden, to my knowledge, possibly because both the Norwegian and Danish ones were disgusting. ;-)

@lb: Wallenbergare are not meatballs but ground beef cakes. They are flat. But still fried.

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