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Recipes for Scandinavian beef stew

Warming up with Swedish and Finnish comfort food.

Swedish sailor’s beef stew. photograph by Jim Scherer and styling by Catrine Kelty/Jim Scherer

When you think “beef stew,” Scandinavia probably isn’t your next thought. With plenty of cold, rugged territory, though, it’s easy to believe that a warm bowl of hearty stew would be most welcome there, and sjomans biff, or sailor’s beef stew, attests to that. Often made using beer as the liquid, this stew is simple in that the main players are few — beef, onions, and potatoes — and a little unusual in that they are layered into the pot and baked, almost like a casserole. Smorgasgurka, or simple pickled cucumber, is often served alongside for a fresh counterpoint to the deeply flavored stew.

A rich Finnish version, laced with allspice, combines beef, pork, and lamb and depends on the juices from the meat and onions without added liquid.


Swedish Sailor’s Beef Stew (Sjomans Biff)

Serves 6

Some recipes use water or beef stock instead of beer.

3½ to 4 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1½-inch chunks (about 3 pounds)

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons neutral oil

1 tablespoon butter

5 large onions (about 2½ pounds), halved and thinly sliced

2 teaspoons dried thyme, crumbled

2 bay leaves

1½ cups (1 bottle) high-quality lager beer, such as Sam Adams

2½ pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced about 3/8 inch thick

6 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Tip: If you can’t find boneless lamb shoulder roast for the Finnish-Style Three Meat Stew, use about 2 pounds of lamb shoulder blade chops, trimming the fat and bone.photograph by Jim Scherer and styling by Catrine Kelty

With the rack in the lower-middle position, heat the oven to 325 degrees. In a medium bowl, toss the beef with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and flour to coat. In a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, heat 2 teaspoons oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add 1 teaspoon butter and swirl the pot to melt the butter and mix with the oil. Add half the beef, so that pieces are close together in a single layer but not touching (do not crowd pan), and cook without moving them until deeply browned on the bottom, about 3½ minutes. Turn the pieces and cook, again without moving, until second side is deeply browned, about 3½ minutes longer; transfer the beef to a medium bowl. Add 2 more teaspoons oil to the pot, allow to heat for a moment, add 1 more teaspoon butter, and repeat process to melt butter and cook remaining beef (reducing the heat as necessary if the drippings in the pot begin to burn); transfer to the bowl with the first batch.


Adjust the heat under the pot to medium, add the remaining 2 teaspoons oil and 1 teaspoon butter, allow them to heat for a moment, then add the onions, thyme, bay leaves, and ½ teaspoon salt. Stir to coat with the oil, cover, and cook, occasionally stirring and scraping the bottom of pot to loosen and dissolve the fond, until the onions are soft and lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Add about ½ cup of the beer and 1 teaspoon salt, and scrape the bottom of the pot to loosen and dissolve any remaining fond. Scrape the onion mixture into a bowl and set aside.

Spread a third of the sliced potatoes in the bottom of the pot and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Top with half the beef, then half the onions, spreading each over the potatoes. Repeat with another third of the potatoes and the remaining beef, then onions, and finish with the remaining potatoes as a top layer. Pour the remaining beer and accumulated beef juices into the pot, cover, and bake until the beef is very tender, about 3 hours. (Check the stew 45 to 60 minutes before it is done; if it is more liquidy than you’d like, remove the cover for the remaining cooking time.)


Taste and adjust the seasoning with additional salt and pepper if necessary, and remove the bay leaves if desired. Add most of the parsley, stir to combine, and serve, sprinkling each portion with some of the remaining parsley.


Finnish-Style Three Meat Stew

Serves 6

Many Scandinavian cooks attribute this rich allspice-spiked stew to the rural Karelia region in Finland. Two pounds of lamb shoulder blade chops can stand in for the boneless lamb shoulder roast, if you can’t find it. With no added liquid, this stew won’t be too liquidy, so don’t remove the pot lid during the last bit of cooking, as you might with the Swedish Sailor’s Beef Stew. Mashed potatoes and/or rutabagas are a common accompaniment.

Follow the recipe for Swedish Sailor’s Beef Stew, making the following changes:

1) Decrease the starting quantity of beef chuck roast to 1½ pounds. As with the beef, trim the excess fat from 1½ pounds each of boneless pork shoulder or boneless country-style ribs and boneless lamb shoulder roast, and cut into 1½-inch chunks.

2) Increase the quantity of onions to 7 large (about 3½ pounds) and substitute 1½ teaspoons ground allspice for the thyme, adding the allspice to the onions after they have cooked for 10 minutes.


3) Omit the potatoes and beer. Use a third of the onions as the bottom, middle, and top layers in the pot, with the meat layered in between.

Scandinavian-Style Simple Pickled Cucumber (Smorgasgurka)

Makes about 4 cups

Sometimes these pickles are flavored with caraway, mustard seed, or dill rather than allspice.

2 English seedless cucumbers (about 12 ounces each), scrubbed and very thinly sliced (about 6 cups)


2/3 cup white vinegar

1/3 cup sugar

1½ teaspoons whole peppercorns, roughly cracked

1 teaspoon whole allspice berries, roughly cracked

Toss the cucumbers with 2 teaspoons salt in a strainer or colander set over a bowl. Fill a clean 1-gallon zipper-lock bag about halfway with water, seal tightly, and place on cucumbers to weigh them down. Drain for at least 1 hour (they should exude about ¼ cup liquid). Rinse the cucumbers, dry them well with paper towels, and place them in a medium bowl (you should have about 4 cups).

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring ½ cup water, vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, allspice, and a pinch of salt to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Adjust heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, to reduce slightly, about 5 minutes. Set aside off heat to cool to room temperature.

Strain the vinegar mixture over the cucumbers and toss to combine (press down on the cucumbers so they’re mostly submerged). Cover and refrigerate to meld flavors, at least 3 hours. Taste and adjust the seasoning with additional salt if necessary and serve (can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 4 days).


Adam Ried appears regularly on “America’s Test Kitchen.” Send comments to cooking @globe.com.