I honestly can’t remember when I first started making bread and butter pickles, or even why. I did not grow up eating them and I don’t recall ever craving them. Pickles to me were my Italian mother’s giardinera, a colorful, vinegary mix of cauliflower, red bell peppers, carrot coins, and tiny onions, which she put up every year in big mason jars. She pickled other things too: peppers, eggplant, green tomatoes, even mushrooms.
As for cucumbers, I was a kosher dill pickle girl all the way—born in New York and raised in New Jersey, how could I not be? The more sour and the more garlicky, the better. To my mind, sugar had no place in a cucumber pickle.
So when did my love affair with bread and butters begin? I can only assume it coincided with my move, in the late 1980s, to Michigan, where I took a job as a reporter at The Detroit News. In fact, moving to the Midwest was a little like moving to a new country where people whom you didn’t know said hi in the elevator and on the street, and where the windows of antique shops beckoned with carved oak furniture and stacks of Depression glass and shelves displaying sets of salt and pepper shakers: vegetable heads, dog and fire hydrant, organ grinder monkeys. I loved it all (though the friendliness threw me off at first) and for a few years the salt and pepper shakers became a mini-obsession which, much to my husband’s relief, has since passed.
I probably just woke up one Saturday morning and decided that if I was to be a proper Midwesterner I needed to can something Midwestern. I have no idea if bread and butter pickles even originated in the Midwest (and indeed, I would guess they are more Southern than Midwestern). But sweet pickles in general seemed to be more popular in Michigan than in New Jersey, so I suppose that’s why I chose them.
Plus, they seemed easy. My canning record was more than a little spotty. My jams were either too syrupy or two firm. I once stirred a batch of blueberry jam till midnight in my tiny non-air-conditioned Grosse Pointe kitchen on what I am sure was the hottest summer night on record. It never did gel.
But my bread and butter pickles were perfect, sweet, sour, spicy, with just the right amount of crunchiness. I decided they would be my signature annual contribution to the world of preserves. I have made them every year since. In fact, I still have the original printout of the recipe that I got off the Internet. It has no date and no source, and I can’t for the life of me remember where it came from. But when we moved to the D.C. area some 15 years ago I made sure that printout came with me.
I’ve adapted the recipe slightly over the years but I can’t say that there’s anything special about the recipe itself; it’s a standard combination of vinegar, sugar, and spices. But there is one thing that sets my bread and butter pickles apart from all others I’ve tried, and it is this: I slice the cucumbers thin. Very thin. Paper-thin, so that when they have cured they are almost like a relish rather than pickle chips. It makes all the difference in the world. (I also use a lot of onions and I slice those paper-thin as well.)
A number of years ago, my husband gave me a mandoline slicer, a good, sturdy, stainless-steel French one. I don’t use often but I use it for these pickles and even he will tell you that for this very reason it was a good investment. (I also use it when I’m making enormous batches of fried sweet potato chips, but that’s a story for another day.)
I make my pickles any time between mid-August and mid-October, which is when our local farmers markets carry those smallish bumpy cucumbers. They are perfect for these pickles.
At our house, we like to pile these pickles on our hamburgers. They are also delicious chopped up in potato salad, or tuna salad, or even salmon salad (not to mention egg salad). I also put them in my homemade Thousand Island dressing. I bet you’ll find plenty of delicious ways to use them, too. But please don’t blame me if you are seized by a sudden urge to start collecting salt and pepper shakers.
Copyright 2010 Domenica Marchetti
- 2 dozen unpeeled pickling cucumbers, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter, sliced very thin
- 7 large yellow onions
- 1/2 cup coarse salt, such as kosher
- 5 cups distilled white vinegar (at least 5% acidity)
- 5 cups sugar
- 2 tablespoons whole mustard seed
- 2 tablespoons whole celery seed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Trim the ends off the cucumbers and cut them crosswise into very thin slices (preferably using a mandoline), transferring them to a very large bowl as you go. Peel the onions and cut them in half lengthwise (from stem to tip). Slice them as thin as you can (I also use the mandoline for this). Add them to the bowl with the cucumber slices. Sprinkle the coarse salt on top and with you hands carefully mix everything together until the salt is thoroughly combined with the cucumbers and onions. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
To make the pickles, remove the cucumber and onion mixture from the refrigerator. Rinse them under cold running water and drain well.
Have on hand 10 hot sterilized pint-size jars, lids, and rings.
Combine the vinegar, sugar, mustard seed, celery seed, turmeric, cloves, and ginger in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Carefully add the drained cucumbers and onions. Heat thoroughly but do not boil.
Carefully ladle the mixture into the hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space, and place the lids on the filled jars. Process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes (15 minutes for high-altitude locations). Store in a cool dark space for at least 2 weeks before opening. Once opened, store the pickles in the refrigerator.