Bread is a very important part of the Scandinavian table, primarily rugbrød, which is sour-dough rye bread. It is a dark, heavy bread which is often bought sliced, in varieties from light-coloured rye, to very dark, and refined to whole grain. It forms the basis of smørrebrød, which is closely related to the Swedish smörgås. Some toppings are served on franskbrød, a very light, crusty wheat bread. The bread is usually buttered, though for some variants, a spread of lard is customary.
Traditional toppings include marinerede sild, which are pickled herrings (plain, krydret – spiced, or karry – curried), slightly sweeter than Dutch or German herrings; thinly sliced cheese in many varieties; sliced cucumber, tomato and boiled eggs; leverpostej, which is pork liver-paste; dozens of types of cured or processed meat in thin slices, or smoked fish such as salmon; mackerel in tomato sauce; pickled cucumber; boiled egg, and rings of red onion. Mayonnaise mixed with peas, sliced boiled asparagus and diced carrot, called italiensk salat (lit. Italian salad, so named because the colours match the Italian flag), remoulade or other thick sauces often top the layered open sandwich, which is usually eaten with utensils. It is custom to pass the dish of sliced breads around the table, and then to pass around each dish of toppings, and people help themselves.
More festive meals can be loosely divided into courses: Fish toppings first (such as herring, shrimp, or smoked salmon) followed by cold cuts and salads, and finally cheese with bread or crackers and a little fruit. One or several warm dishes are often served with the meats on special occasions: For example breaded plaice filet, fried medister sausage, frikadeller with pickled red cabbage, or mørbradbøf (pork tenderloin with sauteed onions or a creamy mushroom sauce). Toppings change with the seasons and some are mostly associated with Easter or Christmas lunches, like sylte (head cheese) and æbleflæsk (roast pork or bacon in apple sauce). Summer offers lighter fare such as smoked mackerel, sommersalat (radish and cucumber in a smoked cheese dressing), new potatoes, and freshly peeled shrimp.
Hundreds of combinations and varieties of smørrebrød are available, and some traditional examples include:
A lavish piece of restaurant smørrebrød can almost be a meal unto itself, whereas everyday toppings are much simpler and often ungarnished.