What is Surströmming and how to eat this smelly fish

surströmming can

Surströmming is the Swedish name for soured herring. It is fermented Baltic Sea Herring that is sold in tin cans and eaten in the north of Sweden. Learn all about this weird and smelly food and how to eat it.

The Process of Surströmming

The process for producing surströmming is as follows. The fishing is made during spring, usually in April and May before the spawning takes place. First, the herring is gutted and the head and guts are removed. Then the fish is salted and put in open containers and left to ferment in controlled temperature kept rooms. The temperature is about 15-20°C.

The enzymes and bacteria create the smelly acids that the fish is known for during this process. In July the fish is fermented enough to be canned and this process is made through summer for the fish to be ready for consumption in the second half of August. The fermentation continues after the fish have been canned and it is not uncommon for the cans to bulge.

The smell of suströmming

The smell is the thing that has made surströmming famous. The smell is created by autolysis in the fermentation when the enzymes and bacteria create different acids that are where the smell comes from. Such acids are propionic acid, butyric acid, and acetic acid. Hydrogen sulfide more known as the smell of rotten eggs is also created and responsible for the smell.

The History of Surströmming

Fermentation and drying food have been a necessary way of preserving food for hundreds of years. There are signs of surströmming being produced as early as the 1300-hundreds but the method seems to have been commonly used in the 1500-hundreds due to a shortage of salt. Salt is used to produce surströmming but far less is used than with normal salted herring. If the method of fermenting herring was known at the time have been disputed, some believe that this could have been a lucky accident and was actually first made at this time.

Due to the long shelf life of the fish, it became a popular staple for Swedish soldiers at the time. In the 19th-century food production techniques made canning an option for the surströmming and the herring could now be marketed all over Sweden. Before the herring had first been fermented in big barrels and later moved to smaller wooden barrels.

Selection of Surströmming cans from Oskars Surströmming.

Modern production of surströmming

The production of surströmming is in today’s standards still a small business. Most of the production is made by small companies located close to the north eastern coast of Sweden. The center of the production is at the Höga Kusten (high coast) in Sweden.

Even though the production is made and consumed mostly in the north of Sweden it is sold and consumed all over Sweden. By tradition, surströmming is not to be sold until the surströmmingspremiär (fermented herring premiere) which takes place on the third Thursday in August.

This premiere used to a be a law to make sure that the fish being was sold had been fermented enough. The law was set up in the 1940’s by the demand of the producers. Since 1998 this is no longer a law but the premiere is still held up by the producers and the traditional consumers.

How to eat Surströmming

The most common way to consume surströmming is with tunnbröd (thin bread) which is a soft or crisp very thin bread commonly baked in the north of Sweden. The bread is consumed in Sweden all year. Usually, a sandwich is made with surströmming, butter, potatoes, sour cream and diced onion. This is what usually is called a surströmmingsklämma. But every consumer has their own way of making it and things like cheese, dill, chives, and tomatoes can be added.

This being Sweden there is only one drinking option, akvavit and beer. Akvavit is also known as snaps. We have a great article on akvavit and how to make your own here. The style of beer should be a lager or a pilsner, light and cold. Some like to drink milk or svagdricka but it is not as common as beer. Svagdricka is a low alcohol malt drink similar to Porter.

On Youtube, there are collections of videos where people who have never experience surströmming are trying to eat it. We have posted some videos where Americans are trying to eat it that you can watch here.

Where to eat Surströmming

Due to the strong smell surströmming is usually consumed outside in the late summer. It is usually not allowed to eat indoors in most apartment buildings. Sometimes you can get it at certain restaurants. But when sold at restaurants it is often for one night only, at the surströmmingspremiär.


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