One of the best things that I learned in Texas was that pickles are among the perfect accompaniments to barbecue. At Smitty’s in Lockhart, I tried both the sweet bread and butter pickles and the sour dill pickle. The winner was the former as it cut the richness of the meat. The flavor and textural combination was so good that my husband asked me, “Didn’t you used to make bread and butter pickles? Would you make again soon?”
Indeed, I once did make those pickles every summer for about 10 years, canning them in pint jars. I fell in love with the old fashioned American pickle in high school, when my best friend Danielle Glover introduced them to me. Sweet, tart, and a touch savory, the thick slices of cucumber had me from the get-go.
Danielle enjoyed Mrs. Fannings Bread’n Butter pickles that came in a tall glass jar. Those were the ones I bought for a while, though I ate them too often and too quickly that they became an expensive snack. When I got my hands on a copy of James Beard’s American Cookery, I began making my own, tweaking the recipe every time. Over the years, my renditions seem to edge toward being an East-West kind of hybrid pickle. Call it an Asian American bread and butter pickle!
In Beard’s recipe, he noted that bread and butter pickles were also called “Old Fashioned Pickles”. Turns out that Omar and Cora Fanning (of the brand that Danielle loved) came up with the name in 1920. In 1923, they applied for a trademark of their pickle under that name. The Fannings had a good supply of cucumbers from their land in Illinois and the recipe was a family favorite.
When they were low on cash, the couple took to exchanging their sweet-tart pickles for groceries. Among the items that their bartering yielded were bread and butter and the name stuck. Man, I always thought that the pickles evoked some amazing old timey fare such as sandwich of sliced white bread spread thick with butter and slices of bread and butter pickles! Oh well, a girl can still dream, can’t she?! For more bread and butter history details, see CooksInfo.com.
For this batch, I added some Asian spices – black mustard seeds, elliptical Indian coriander seeds, Vietnamese black peppercorns, cassia bark, and Thai chiles. Turmeric is what turns the cucumber and onion their day-glo yellow. Instead of using just salt, I combined salt and sugar to tone down the saltiness in the pickle but still retain its crunch. Another personal tweak was not canning the pickles. I eat them so fast that what’s the point of canning? I just make a big jar and stick it in the fridge.
Pickling cucumber buying tips: Now is the time for making pickles because farmer’s markets and Asian markets are flushed with pickling (Kirby) cucumbers. I bought mine from Hmong vendors last Saturday. Theirs was so fresh that the spent blossoms were still attached. I try to buy the cucumbers that are between 1 and 1 1/4 inches thick as they are just right in maturity. On Sunday, I made the pickles and then let them rest over night before sampling them.
Aside from serving the pickles as a side for barbecue and sandwiches or adding it to potato salad, we eat them as an accompaniment to Southeast Asian dishes. For example, today, we had leftover stir-fried chow fun rice noodles (Singaporean char kuey teow, to be exact) with the pickles on the side. The cucumber’s crunch and bright flavor were terrific contrasts to the savory-sweet-earthy noodles. Tonight, I grilled some Vietnamese lemongrass pork and the pickles were a perfect sidekick.
It’s been years since bread and butter pickles were in our fridge and we welcomed them back with our mouths wide open.
Bread and Butter Pickles
Vary the spices as you like, though keep the mustard seed and turmeric as they are foundational. For example, use a tablespoon of celery seed instead of the coriander, peppercorn, and cassia bark.
Makes 2 quarts
3 1/2 pounds pickling (Kirby) cucumbers
1 large yellow or white onion
5 tablespoons salt2 cups plus 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons mustard seed (any color)
1 teaspoon whole coriander seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2-inch piece cassia bark or cinnamon stick
4 or 5 Thai or Serrano chiles, split lengthwise to the stem so that it remains intact
1. Trim the ends from each cucumber and then cut crosswise into generous 1/4-inch-thick slices. Transfer to a large bowl. Halve the onion lengthwise and then cut into wedges about 1/2 inch wide at the middle. Add the onion to the bowl of cucumber slices.
2. Add the salt and 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar to the vegetables, tossing to coat well. Set aside, uncovered for 3 to 6 hours to draw moisture away from the vegetables. They will sweat, soften, and wrinkle.
3. Drain the vegetables, flush with water, then let drain. Taste for saltiness. If the pickles are exceedingly saltly (you wince), then rinse some more or let them soak in water for a few minutes before rinsing and draining well. You want the vegetables to be salty but not overly so. The tart-sweet brine will curb the saltiness so don’t worry too much about it.
4. Select a 2-quart glass container or 2 one-quart glass containers to hold the pickles. Wash and dry it. Set aside near the stove. If you have a wide mouthed canning funnel, have it handy. If not, you’ll just have to be careful with transferring the pickles to the container.
5. In a 5 or 6-quart pot, combine the remaining 2 cups sugar, vinegar, turmeric, mustard seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, cassia bark, and chiles. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add the cucumber and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally to ensure even exposure to the seasonings, until the pot is just at the simmering point. Avoid boiling as that will cause the cucumbers to go limp.
6. Turn off the heat. Transfer the vegetables and brine to the glass container. You should fill the container. Push down the vegetables as they have a tendency to bob up. Set aside, uncovered, to cool. Occasionally press down on the vegetables to submerge them in the brine.
When cooled to room temperature, cover tightly, and refrigerate overnight before eating. The flavor will mellow and the vegetables will pick up a brighter yellow hue. The pickles keep well for a good 6 months in the refrigerator.
How do you enjoy this sort of pickle? I've got a whole giant jar full to eat this summer!