Copenhagen – Smørrebrød (Open Sandwiches)


Apart from the thrilling restaurant and avant-garde café scene in Copenhagen, there’s still the Danish favourite tradition, smørrebrød – delicious open sandwiches mostly on rye bread with an endless selection of classic and creative new toppings.  A chilled-out way to enjoy a quick snack, lunch or entire dinner – perfect Summer food and infinitely adaptable.
Occasionally one tastes something that continues to live on in one’s memory – the flavour and texture of a smørrebrød that I ate in the 1970’s in Schønnemann’s in Copenhagen is unforgettable.  Rare roast beef, still warm on rye bread with remoulade sauce, crispy onions and horseradish.  The thinly sliced rare beef was still warm, the homemade remoulade sauce thick and unctuous, the onion rings sweet and crisp and finally a sprinkling of freshly grated horseradish all on a slice of Danish rye. The flavours and textures were exquisite.  I’ve returned over and over to recapture those flavours and that experience.

Smørrebrød (pronounced smuhr-broht) simply means bread and butter in Danish and is an interesting part of Denmark’s traditional food culture. 

After several decades of dwindling interest, smørrebrød is regaining popularity. Its waning coincided with a drop in quality – when all the toppings and rye bread became mass produced and there was more competition for fast food concepts like wraps, burgers and shawarma. But smørrebrød is having ‘its moment’.   Once again, cool young chefs are reclaiming the concept with home baked high-quality rye bread and homemade toppings served with ice cold artisan Schnapps and beer from microbreweries.

There’s a ritual, before you take the first bite, always a toast, Skal with Schnapps followed by a second toast, it seems the legacy of smörgåsbord is here to stay.

So how to make a memorable smørrebrød.  Super healthy and tasty rye bread is the foundation. The butter has to be salted. Next assemble the toppings…

According to my friend Trine Hahnemann, who has written a book ‘Open Sandwiches’ on the subject, there must be at least three of the following components: salt, sweet, sour, butter and umami. You’ll also need a contrast of texture and flavour. Balance soft with crunchy, sweet and sour…
There should be more than one colour and a garnish of fresh herbs, could just be a little pinch of cress grown on the windowsill.

Trine gives an example of a classic combination:
A slice of rye bread, buttered, hard-boiled eggs (soft and fatty), tomatoes (firm and sweet/tart), creamy mayo, salt and freshly ground black pepper and cress – a perfect simple smørrebrød.
There are several unspoken rules that only Danes can tell you about.
Always use herring first and then salmon or other fish.  Don’t combine fish with meat and vegetables…Finally, cheese always comes at the end.

Everyday open sandwiches are called Madder. For a family style supper, lay out a range of toppings on a board, everyone can assemble a madder of their choice – a perfect convivial supper. 

Trine Hahnemann reminds us that to make smørrebrød you just need a few basic ingredients most of which will already be in your cupboard or fridge.
You can of course buy some of the toppings but homemade will taste so much better and that’s the trademark of the young chefs who are spearheading the revival. Some of the smørrebrød establishments like Schønnemann’s (est. 1877) have chefs’ specialities like René Redzepi’s smørrebrød.  Smoked halibut with cucumber and dill mayo.

Good rye bread, a Danish staple, is now becoming easier to find over here. Trine gives 70 recipes and two rye breads in her ‘Open Sandwiches’ book published by Quadrille. It’s also worth knowing that rye bread keeps and freezes brilliantly.  All the pickles and condiments can of course be bought but will taste so much better and be better for you if homemade.

Just get started, include the kids, have fun and make delicious smørrebrød part of your everyday life.
Here are a few suggestions but of course one can use alternative ingredients depending on what you have to hand.

Beef, Remoulade, Crispy Onions and Horseradish

For perfection, the beef should be still warm and medium rare.

4 slices rye bread
4 thin slices rare roast beef

Remoulade Sauce (see recipe)

cucumber pickle

fresh grated horseradish
crispy onions rings (cooked in dripping or oil)
flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Butter each slice of rye bread evenly. Arrange a ruffled slice of rare beef on top. Add a dollop of remoulade on one side and some cucumber pickle on the other.  Grate a little fresh horseradish on top and garnish with crispy onions.  Sprinkle with a few flakes of sea salt and a grind of black pepper. 

Cucumber Pickle

Serves 10-12

1kg (2lb 4oz) thinly sliced unpeeled cucumber

3 small onions thinly sliced

225g (8oz) sugar

1 tablespoon salt

225ml (8fl oz) cider vinegar

Combine the cucumber and onion sliced in a large bowl.  Mix the sugar, salt and vinegar together and pour over cucumbers.  Place in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator and leave for at least 1-2 hours or overnight before using. 

Keeps well for up to a week in the refrigerator.

Seasonal Note

When we have our homegrown organic cucumbers, we find that we need to reduce the sugar by 50-75g (2-3oz).


Taken from Open Sandwiches by Trine Hahnemann published by Quadrille

Makes about 400g (14oz)

200g (7oz) mustard pickles (see recipe)
150g (5oz) mayonnaise
50g (2oz) full-fat natural yoghurt
sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper

Drain the pickles a little in a sieve if you do not want the rémoulade to be too runny. Then mix them in a bowl with the mayonnaise and yoghurt. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Mustard Pickles

Taken from Open Sandwiches by Trine Hahnemann published by Quadrille
The best pickles I know of; this is my mother’s recipe. I use the pickles in the Rémoulade, but also just to serve as pickles for meat, fried fish or fishcakes.

Makes about 400g (14oz)

750g (1lb 10oz) green tomatoes, cut into chunks
1kg (2lb 4oz) courgettes (zucchini), cut into chunks
350g (12oz) onions, cut into chunks
35g (3 tablespoons) sea salt flakes, or to taste
500ml (18fl oz) apple cider vinegar
50ml (2fl oz) lemon juice
400g (14oz) granulated sugar
40g (generous 1 1/2oz) plain flour
2 1/2 tablespoons mustard seeds, ground
2-3 tablespoons curry powder, or to taste

Blend the tomatoes, courgettes and onions until very fine in a blender or food processor (or with a hand blender). Mix with the salt, then set aside for 3-4 hours in a cool place.

Pour the vegetables into a jelly bag and leave to drain for a couple of hours. Then place the vegetables in a big saucepan with 400ml (14fl oz) water and 75ml (3fl oz) of the vinegar. Bring to the boil while stirring, then let it simmer over a very low heat for 20 minutes. Once more, pour the vegetables into a jelly bag and leave to drain for some hours – even better overnight until rather dry.

Place the vegetable mixture in a big saucepan, then add the remaining vinegar and the lemon juice. Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl, then stir into the vegetables. Bring to the boil, still stirring, then let it simmer for 30 minutes over a very low heat, stirring often. Season to taste with more salt, curry powder and sugar. Pour the pickles into sterilised jars and seal them. Store in a cold place, they will keep for 1 year.

Crispy Onions

Taken from Open Sandwiches by Trine Hahnemann published by Quadrille

Makes enough for 10-12 smørrebrød

750g (1lb 10oz) onions, finely sliced

50g (2oz) plain flour

1 tablespoon sea salt flakes, plus more to taste

1 litre flavourless vegetable oil, for deep-frying

Place the sliced onions in a bowl with the flour and salt and mix very well, until the onions are covered with flour.  Pour them into a sieve to get rid of any extra flavour.

Heat the oil in a frying pan.  Make sure the oil is hot by dropping in a slice of onion; if it sizzles, it is ready.  Reduce the heat a little and add one-third of the sliced onions.  Be careful – it may spit!  Don’t leave; instead, stir occasionally.  Fry until light brown and crispy.

Using a skimmer, transfer the onions to a plate lined with kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little more salt.  Repeat the process with the other batches. 

Mackerel Rillettes

Taken from Open Sandwiches by Trine Hahnemann published by Quadrille
In August, the mackerel are big and fat, and that’s when they are best to smoke. They can be eaten on rye bread with egg yolk and raw onions. When I visit my mother in the country in summertime, we always sit outside and eat the smørrebrød. I have merely added fresh coriander; I hope she doesn’t mind…

Serves 4

170g (scant 6oz) smoked mackerel
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
5 radishes, finely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated unwaxed lime zest
2 tablespoons chopped coriander, plus leaves to decorate
1 1/2 teaspoons chilli flakes
freshly ground black pepper
4 slices of rye bread
salted butter

Carefully remove and discard the skin and bones from the mackerel. Break up the fish into pieces.

Mix the mackerel, eggs, chives, radishes, lemon juice, lime juice, lime zest, coriander and chilli flakes. Season to taste with pepper.

First hard-boil the eggs.
Place the eggs in a small saucepan and pour cold water over, so they are covered. Bring to the boil and let them boil for 4 minutes. Take the saucepan off the heat, pour out the boiling water and pour plenty of cold water over the eggs. After 10 minutes, peel them; they are ready to be used.

Place the rye bread slices on a work too and spread the butter evenly on each slice. Divide the mackerel rillettes between each bread slice and top with the coriander leaves.

Tomato, Egg and Mayonnaise

Taken from Open Sandwiches by Trine Hahnemann published by Quadrille
You can use cottage cheese instead of mayonnaise here, if you prefer. Or change the herbs: chopped chives, chervil and dill will work well instead of cress.

Serves 4

4 slices of rye bread
salted butter
2 large tomatoes
2 hard-boiled eggs
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons cress
sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper

Place the rye bread slices on a worktop and spread the butter evenly on each slice. Slice the tomatoes. Cut each egg into 4 slices, and place 2 slices of egg with 1 slice of tomato in the middle of each bread.

Divide the mayonnaise between the open sandwiches, place the cress on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


Past Letters

  • Recipes