How Bread And Butter Pickles Get Their Sweet And Sour Flavor

Pickles can be a divisive food, but if you like them, you may lean more towards wanting to put them on every dish you make. There are a seemingly unlimited number of pickle varieties to choose from and pair with your lunchtime sandwich, burger, or anything else that could use the extra bite. They're universally crunchy and salty, but can also be garlicky, cucumber-y, or even sweet like a bread and butter pickle.

While bread and butter pickles don't actually taste like their namesake, they do have a uniquely sweet flavor that's hard to find in other jarred varieties. The sweet and sour flavor combo actually comes from the sweet onion and sugar added during the pickling process. Much like other varieties, they're made by submerging cucumbers in a salty brine along with onions and peppers. After soaking overnight, they're removed and boiled with sugar, vinegar, and water in a kettle. Finally, the pickles and all their pleasant and sugared flavor are sealed in a jar to preserve them.

Why doesn't the name match up to the flavor?

You can add bread and butter pickles to the list of foods with odd names that don't actually describe their flavor — think monkey bread or ants on a log. While pickled cucumbers don't actually taste like bread and butter, their name actually comes from the farmers that originally created them.

In the 1920s, Jim and Cora Fanning, two cucumber farmers in Illinois, slapped a trademark on their family recipe for bread and butter pickles. The lore goes that others in the area loved the pickles so much that they could be traded like currency for more common household staples like bread and butter. Hence, the name stuck, and they've been gone by this moniker ever since. 

Another curious tidbit: The reason these pickles are smaller than others is that the Fannings were forced to grow a smaller cucumber variety after coming into some financial troubles. Although they have roots in the Midwest, the pickles also spread to the South where they remain popular.

Potential pickle pairings

The potential pickle pairings (try saying that three times fast) for this variety are endless, especially if you are of the mindset that pickles should be eaten all day long. The classic recommendations may be to have pickles as a side for a sandwich, burger, or hot dog, but there are definitely more creative ways to utilize the crunchy topper if you're a brave eater. 

Inspired by Elvis' peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwich, you could try a peanut butter and pickle sandwich instead. For this combination, the sweetness of bread and butter pickles would be an excellent pairing for the nut butter, and if you slice them very thin you'll get a nice balance between the two flavors. There's also a strong case for adding pickles to your breakfast sandwich, whether it's a bagel schmear or bacon, egg, and cheese croissant.

Another out-there marriage is pickles and ice cream. The ice cream brand Van Leeuwen made headlines for their Dill Pickle flavor ice cream introduced in late 2023, so there's definitely a precedent for this combo. Although there's no bread and butter flavor of Van Leeuwen's treat, you could make your own if you have an ice cream machine, or just top a scoop of vanilla with a few pickle slices to achieve that same sweet, creamy, and tangy combination.