Swedish Surströmming: Unveiling the Polarizing Flavors

Swedish Surströmming

blog authorBy Johanna Hansen shield verification Verified Expert

    Surströmming, a word that can evoke a myriad of reactions, especially from those who've dared to venture close enough to catch its distinctive aroma. This traditional Swedish delicacy has been the subject of countless challenges, debates, and culinary adventures.

    But what exactly is surströmming, and why does it hold such a notorious reputation? Let's embark on a journey into the heart of Swedish culinary tradition to uncover the mysteries of surströmming.

    What is surströmming?

    At its core, surströmming is a type of fermented Baltic Sea herring. But it's not just any fermented fish; it's a dish steeped in centuries of Swedish history and tradition. Its name translates to "sour herring" in English, which gives a hint about its taste and preparation method.

    History of surströmming

    Surströmming has been a part of the Swedish traditional cuisine for centuries, with roots tracing back to the Viking era. The tale of surströmming dates back several centuries.

    In a time when refrigeration was a distant dream and salt was a luxury, the Swedes devised a method to preserve their catch. By allowing the herring to ferment, they could ensure a food source that would last through the unforgiving Nordic winters.

    Over time, what started as a preservation method evolved into a cherished culinary tradition, celebrated with surströmming parties in late summer when the cans are traditionally opened.

    surströmmings historia

    How is surströmming made?


    • Freshly caught Baltic Sea herring
    • A generous amount of salt


    1. The herring are caught during the spring months, primarily in April and May.
    2. Post-catch, they are gutted, leaving the backbone intact. This is crucial as it aids in the fermentation process.
    3. The fish are then layered in wooden barrels with salt and left to ferment for a couple of months.
    4. After this initial fermentation, they're transferred to tin cans, where the fermentation continues. It's this canning process that gives surströmming its powerful aroma, one that's often described as one of the strongest in the food world.

    How is surströmming made?

    Taste and smell of surströmming

    Surströmming has garnered attention worldwide for its unique taste and pungent aroma. Often described as an acquired taste, this Scandinavian dish is not for the faint-hearted. We'll dive into the intriguing world of surströmming, exploring its taste and smell.

    How does it taste?

    Describing the taste of surströmming can be a challenge. It's intensely salty, with the tang of fermentation and a deep, underlying fish flavor. Some liken it to a very mature cheese or a robust blue cheese, but with a fishy twist.

    Despite its challenging smell, surströmming offers a complex and nuanced taste that many aficionados appreciate. When prepared and served correctly, the flavors can be surprisingly enjoyable. Here are some key elements of the taste of surströmming:

    • Salty: Surströmming is intensely salty due to the brine used during fermentation. The saltiness is one of the defining characteristics of this dish.
    • Umami: The fermentation process imparts a deep umami flavor to the herring, which is often complemented by the addition of potatoes, onions, and flatbread.
    • Creaminess: When combined with sour cream or crème fraîche, surströmming takes on a creamy texture that balances its bold flavors.
    • Nuttiness: Some enthusiasts describe surströmming as having a nutty undertone, which adds complexity to the overall taste.
    • Tanginess: A touch of acidity from pickled onions or chives can brighten the dish and cut through the richness of the herring.

    How does it smell?

    One cannot discuss surströmming without addressing its distinctive aroma. Often compared to a combination of rotten eggs, pungent cheese, and a hint of ammonia, the smell of surströmming can be overpowering to the uninitiated.

    The smell is a result of the fish's fermentation process, which produces volatile compounds like putrescine and cadaverine. While some may find the scent repulsive, others consider it an essential part of the surströmming experience. However, many Swedes will tell you that the taste is far milder than the smell suggests.

    what does surströmming smell like

    Where to buy surströmming


    The digital age has made it easier than ever to get your hands on a can of surströmming. Websites like SURSTRÖMMING - THE OFFICIAL STORE offer worldwide shipping. For those looking for a variety of brands or user reviews, platforms like Amazon also list surströmming for purchase.

    In stores

    If you're in Sweden, especially around August, many local supermarkets and specialty stores will stock surströmming. For those outside of Sweden, international or Nordic specialty food stores might be your best bet.

    surströmming where to buy

    How to open a can of surströmming

    Given the fermentation, surströmming cans are pressurized. It's highly recommended to open the can outdoors to prevent the strong aroma from permeating your living space. Some even suggest opening it submerged in water to contain the initial burst of smell.

    How to store surströmming

    Unopened cans should be stored in a cool, dark place. Once opened, any leftovers should be sealed in a container and refrigerated, to be consumed within a few days.

    How to eat surströmming


    Traditionally, surströmming is served with tunnbröd, a Swedish flatbread. A typical serving includes the fish, potatoes, onions, and sometimes sour cream, all wrapped in the bread.


    • Rinse the fish before consumption to reduce the overpowering saltiness.
    • Pairing surströmming with a cold beer or milk can help balance and complement the strong flavors.

    Safety precautions

    While surströmming is safe to eat, always inspect the can before opening. Any signs of damage or excessive bulging indicate that the contents might not be safe for consumption.

    Cultural significance of surströmming

    In Sweden

    Surströmming holds a special place in Swedish culture. It is often enjoyed during festive occasions and family gatherings, particularly in the northern parts of Sweden.

    Surströmming is more than just a dish; it's an experience. Families and friends gather to enjoy it, celebrating the end of summer. It's a communal event, filled with laughter, perhaps some pinched noses, and a lot of memories.

    Around the world - The surströmming challenge

    Beyond Swedish borders, surströmming has found fame (or infamy) through the "surströmming challenge." Many brave souls, often on platforms like YouTube, attempt to eat the fish, often with comical, gag-filled results.

    The Surströmming Challenge is a test of culinary courage and an exploration of extreme flavors. Here's how you can participate:

    1. Acquire Surströmming: First, you'll need to obtain a can or jar of surströmming. You can usually find it in specialty stores or order it online. Be sure to check local regulations and shipping restrictions, as surströmming's odor can be an issue.
    1. Gather Supplies: You'll want to be prepared. Get some traditional accompaniments like flatbread (knäckebröd), butter, potatoes, onions, and sour cream. These ingredients can help balance the surströmming's intense flavors.
    1. Find a Suitable Location: Given surströmming's strong smell, it's best to open it outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Many surströmming enthusiasts choose to do this challenge outdoors to avoid lingering odors indoors.
    1. Open the Can: Prepare yourself for the initial release of the smell. It can be overpowering, so brace yourself. Use a can opener to carefully open the surströmming container.
    1. Serve and Assemble: Lay out your accompaniments, including the flatbread, butter, potatoes, onions, and sour cream. Some people prefer to make a surströmming sandwich, while others like to eat it alongside the accompaniments.
    1. Taste and Share: Take a bite, and be prepared for an intense sensory experience. The taste is salty, pungent, and undeniably unique. Share your reactions with friends or capture the moment on video to remember your surströmming challenge.

    The Verdict

    So, what's the verdict on the Surströmming Challenge? Well, it's not for everyone. Surströmming's smell is often compared to rotten eggs or ammonia, which can be off-putting. However, some intrepid food enthusiasts find the taste surprisingly enjoyable, describing it as a salty, umami-rich adventure for the palate.

    A Gastronomic Adventure

    Surströmming is a testament to Sweden's rich culinary history. It's a dish that evokes strong reactions, be it love, curiosity, or sheer disbelief. But beyond the smell and the challenges lies a tradition that has stood the test of time.

    If you're ever in Sweden, or if you're just adventurous with your palate, give surströmming a try. And if you're exploring the culinary delights of Sweden, don't forget to check out Campervan Sweden for more on traditional Swedish food and to make your journey even more memorable.


    Let’s go on an adventure!

    Unbeatable prices. Premium customer service.

    Campervan Sweden Logo BOOK NOW