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Why do Swedes care so much about butter knives?

Have you ever wondered what's behind the Swedish fondness for the wooden butter knife?

Why do Swedes care so much about butter knives?
What is it about the 'smörkniv' that so captures the Swedish imagination? Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

Almost every Swedish households will have several of these in their cutlery drawer, and if you go to a souvenir shop you’re bound to see plenty of them, perhaps with an elk or Viking decoration carved into the handle.

Dairy in general, including butter, plays a big part in the Swedish diet – although it only became really accessible to the majority after the Second World War – so the knife is often used to spread butter or Bregott (an oil-based spread) on crisp bread (knäckebröd) or open sandwiches (smörgåsar).

The Swedish butter knife (smörkniv) doesn’t have a blade but is rounded for ease of spreading. So what is it that makes them such a beloved symbol of Swedish culture?

When I asked about the butter knife on Twitter, it was clear a lot of people have strong opinions. Some said that the use of wood rather than metal made it distinctly Swedish, and that it did the job better than other materials.

People from nearby countries, namely Finland, Norway and Estonia, jumped in to say they also have wooden butter knives – and that one reason they’re so close to people’s hearts is that it’s a typical early woodwork or handicraft project in schools. 

Others agreed with me that the Swedes can’t claim the butter knife as unique.

But maybe it’s not the shape or material of the knife that makes it so Swedish, but rather the way it’s used. The Local’s writer Richard Orange argued that the Swedishness of the butter knife is the way one knife is used by everyone at the table (and that people who keep it on their plate are committing a huge faux pas). In that way, it shows the value placed on collectivism in Sweden.

Either way, it’s not the only dairy utensil that there’s a Nordic complex over.

Swedes can be equally protective of their cheese cutters (osthyvel), a tool for getting thin, even slices of cheese, and woe betide the person who uses them incorrectly, leaving a “ski slope” (skidbacke) in the cheese.

Member comments

  1. Let’s hear what you think! Is there something special about the Swedish smörkniv, or maybe another seemingly mundane item that sums up Sweden to you?

  2. Aren’t many things found in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, probably including wooden butter knives, of Swedish origin, delivered or left behind by harbor raiders and inland invaders, I.e. “Vikings”?

  3. This article was great! Butter knives can be found in all cultures, but I think the Scandinavians have made the butter knife an essential kitchen utensil. So much so that they can not think of using anything else with which to spread their butter. As an immigrant to Sweden, I was fascinated with this and so I started to make butter knives, but with my own design and style. I make mine in porcelain and decorate them with various fun designs under different names for each range because butter knives do not have to be boring 🙂

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For members


Julmys: How to get into the Christmas spirit like a Swede

The First of Advent kicks of the Christmas season in Sweden. How do you get into the festive spirit like a Swede?

Julmys: How to get into the Christmas spirit like a Swede

Julmys, made up of the word jul (Christmas) and that famous Swedish word mys, roughly translating as “cosiness”, is not an event as such, more just getting your friends or family together to do some Christmassy activities and get into the Christmas spirit.

Usually you’ll have some sort of festive food and activity, like baking, making paper decorations for your Christmas tree, or decorating your Advent candlestick.

If you’re meeting up on one of the four Sundays in Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, you can call it adventsmys, but you can still do these activities on a normal day and just call it julmys instead.

What should I bake?

Obviously you can bake whatever you want, and this is a great opportunity to show off whatever kind of festive baking you do back home for big holidays, but if you want to do as the Swedes do, there are a few essential cakes and biscuits you should try around Christmas time.

The most easily recognisable biscuits are probably pepparkakor, the Swedish version of gingerbread, a spiced brown dough which is rolled out and cut into shapes before baking.

Pepparkaka literally translates as “pepper cake” – biscuits are known as småkakor or “small cakes” in Swedish – but in most cases pepper doesn’t refer to actual black pepper but rather to some kind of spiced dough, commonly flavoured with some combination of ingefära (ginger), kanel (cinnamon), kardemumma (cardamom) and nejlika (cloves).


You can buy pepparkaksdeg (gingerbread dough) in most supermarkets which you shape and bake yourself, but it’s relatively easy to make from scratch too. Some Swedes may balk at the idea of köpedeg (store-bought dough) – this is because there’s a little gnome who prefers everything homemade and traditional who lives inside them this time of the year, but it’s not socially unacceptable to buy ready-made.

You can also use the pepparkakor to make a gingerbread house (pepparkakshus).

Especially around Lucia on December 13th, Swedes also like to make lussekatter, saffron buns shaped like an S which is said to resemble a sleeping cat, hence the name “Lucia cats”. Warm, soft and sweet, they are at their best hot out of the oven. Enjoy them with a cup of glögg.

Many people also make knäck this time of the year, a kind of hard Swedish toffee. It’s tricky to get the consistency right – they should be hard when you first put them in your mouth, but quickly melt into a gooey softness as you begin to chew – so try to find an experienced Swede to teach you.

What about decorations?

OK, so you’ve got your Christmas snacks sorted – now onto the decorations!

One of the most common types of paper decorations you’re likely to see people making around Christmas is the julgranshjärta (Christmas tree hearts). You’ll need scissors, relatively thick paper in two different colours and a lot of patience. Here’s a useful guide to how to make them.

Another popular decoration is the smällkaramell – Christmas crackers. The Swedish version usually doesn’t go “crack!” like its English-language equivalent, but on the other hand they are very easy to make yourself.

You just get an empty toilet roll, roll it up in some pretty, thin paper and cut the edges of the paper into strips.

If you want, you can put a piece of candy inside before taping it shut, which you open at the julgransplundring when Christmas is over. But more often than not, Swedes will save their smällkarameller for future Christmasses.

Hopefully that’s given you some ideas for how to get into the Christmas spirit, Swedish style. Now all that’s left is to warm up a bottle of glögg and put on some Swedish julsånger. God jul!