Where bread and butter pickles got their name

When I was a kid, summers were spent helping with garden produce. We had a vast garden that supplied many family members with fresh vegetables. Whether it was shelling peas, shucking corn or breaking beans, there was always a job for everyone, no matter how small. I loved the smell of the kitchen at that time of year. Tangy vinegar meant pickles and while I am always ready for a good dill pickle, the sweet and sharp bread and butter pickles were a special favorite. I never really wondered why they had that particular name and it seems that the story is actually quite interesting. While the recipe is probably much older, apparently a family of Illinois cucumber farmers named Fanning set the wheels in motion to immortalize these pickles. The tale goes that they made the pickles from their mis-shapen and undersized cucumbers and bartered them to the local grocery store for staples like bread and butter. They filed for a trademark in 1923 for Fanning's Bread and Butter Pickles. Some reports say that the name came from pickles that were all that some folks could afford to put on a buttered slice of bread during the Depression, however I don't think that is accurate. This recipe calls for a significant amount of sugar and that was a luxury item unheard of in many households during that time. The Fanning story holds more truth to me.

Pickling cucumbers vs. salad cucumbers

Regardless of its origin, the basic recipe over the years is pretty much the same. Sliced cucumbers, sliced onions, sugar, vinegar and spices are all that you need and it is simple to make a few jars. With the summer produce at its peak, many farmer's markets have vendors selling pickling cucumbers, so it is easy to pick up a gallon or so even if you don't grow them. Just be sure that you purchase cucumbers for pickles as opposed to salad cucumbers. There is a difference! Salad cucumbers, or English cucumbers are slender and dark green with smooth, thick skins and a softer texture than picklers. They are usually larger as well. Picklers are stubbier and are generally lighter in color with thin skins and a crisper, drier texture. They also sport those iconic pickle bumps along the sides that everyone is familiar with. The thinner skins make it easier for the cucumber to absorb the pickling brine and the drier texture does the same thing. If you use salad cucumbers, they will be a bit softer in texture and not have the crunch that we all expect. In the image below, slicing cucumbers are on the left and the pickling cucumbers are on the right.

slicing and pickling cucumbers

Preparing vegetables for pickles

To make bread and butter pickles, you will need about a gallon of pickling cucumbers and two or three large onions. I used Vidalias, however any yellow or white onion will work. To make your pickles, wash the cucumbers well and drain. Take a sharp knife and take a small slice off of both ends and discard those slices. This helps with crispness too. Slice the remaining cucumbers in rounds for the pickles. I like to slice them between an eighth and a quarter inch thick. I use a mandolin so the task doesn't take very long, but you can just slice with a regular knife if you don't have one. Slice the onions into rings about the same thickness as your cucumbers. Put the vegetables in a large bowl mixed with 1/2 cup of canning or kosher salt and cover with ice. Don't use regular table salt. While there's nothing wrong with the table salt, iodized salt turns the pickles dark and deposits an unsightly sediment in the bottom of the jars. Uniodized salt gives you a much prettier result. Mix well. Add another ¼ cup of salt if you are working with more than a gallon of cut vegetables. Let this mixture set for several hours. The salt pulls moisture from the cucumbers and the ice keeps them crisp and unwilted. Later that day, drain, rinse and rinse again. You are ready to start cooking.

sliced cucumbers, onions and ice

Making bread and butter pickles

In a large stockpot combine 5 cups of sugar, 4 cups of vinegar (white or cider, your choice), 2 tablespoons of mustard seed, a teaspoon of celery seed, or you can omit the celery seed if you want (I did), 1 and ½ teaspoons of ground turmeric and ¼ teaspoon of ground cloves. Bring all of this to a full boil and add the vegetables. Bring back to a boil and your bread and butter pickles are done. Ladle into sterile canning jars leaving about 1/2 inch head space at the top. Proper canning jars are available at most big box stores this time of year. In my area, they are even available at grocery stores and dollar stores too. They are inexpensive and can be reused over and over again. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp paper towel, check for air bubbles (and remove them with a spatula or chopstick) and seal with proper canning lids and rings. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. If you do not have a waterbath canner, you can put a folded tea towel in the bottom of a large stockpot for the jars to sit on and process them that way. Once they have processed, store in a dark cabinet. If you don't want to do the processing step, just store your bread and butter pickles in the refrigerator. They won't keep in room temperature, but make fine refrigerator pickles without processing in the jars.

cooking pickles

Extra brine? Don't worry!

There will probably be pickling brine left over, but don't worry. If there is, you can make more pickles. I like to slice whatever produce is in the house and make a mixed pickle. I use cucumbers, onions, sweet peppers, hot peppers, an overgrown squash or two, green tomatoes and maybe a few small pods of okra. You can add garlic, carrots, corn kernels, horseradish or whatever extra produce you have handy. Salt and ice the vegetables like you did with the cucumbers, bring the vinegar and sugar mixture to a boil and repeat the steps for cooking the vegetables. You can process and can these, or simply put them in the refrigerator. These make great additions to sandwiches or simply something to snack on, just like the bread and butter pickles.

Anyone can make pickles

Anyone can make pickles and they are something that are always welcome at pot-lucks, office parties and for teacher gifts. With fresh produce available this time of year, 'putting by' (an old term our grandmother's used) is a smart move. If you have kids, this educates them about where food comes from and how it is prepared. Even finicky eaters have a hard time resisting a taste of something they helped prepare. I grew up in a generation where our elders all made pickles, jams, jellies and froze vegetables and fruits each summer. Learning by watching and helping gave me a wonderful understanding of what goes into food preparation. Many young adults just starting on their own can barely cook, relying on the microwave and take-out. Their children will grow up without any idea as to what to do with fresh fruits and vegetables. No one has to turn their kitchens into large food prep stations, however a few jars of pickles or jam will only take up a Saturday and the results are exceptional.