Bread And Butter Vs Sweet Pickles: What's The Difference?

If the thought of pickles makes you pucker, it's possible there's an entire category of preserved cucumbers you've been missing out on. Of the astonishing 20 billion pickles eaten in the U.S. each year, about a third are in the sweet pickle category. Unlike their dill and kosher cousins which are either lacto-fermented in salty water or simply added to flavored vinegar, sweet pickles have a generous amount of sugar and spices added to the brine, giving them a delicious sweet and sour flavor. Sweet pickles are used in sandwiches, but they're also great chopped and mixed into recipes like tuna or egg salads.

You might have noticed one of the most well-known varieties of sweet pickles nestled on your grocer's shelves among the other sweet pickles — crinkle-cut sliced bread and butter pickles. The recipe for bread and butter pickles traditionally includes some sliced onion or red bell pepper, along with mustard, celery, and coriander seeds. So while bread and butter pickles are a type of sweet pickle, not every sweet pickle can be called bread and butter.

What is a sweet pickle?

Exactly as the name implies, sweet pickles have a form of sweetener in their recipe, with an overall balance that leans toward sweet and not sour. Sweet pickles can come in many cucumber varieties, from small, one-inch long gherkins to full sized cucumbers left whole or sliced. Bread and butter pickles are one recipe of sweet pickles, and many of the other styles and flavors are simply labeled as sweet. If you take a look at the ingredients, you'll see a range of spices, from the sweeter flavors like cinnamon and clove to the more traditional piquant spices of non-sweet pickle types, such as chillies, peppercorns, coriander and mustard seeds.

You'll also find a much sweeter, candied pickle in the sweet pickle category. This Southern specialty starts out with a jar of regular pickles. The pickles are usually sliced, then covered in sugar and returned to their jar for several days with some brine to cover them. The result is a semi-translucent green gem with a unique sugary crunch and a flavor that stands up to the smokiest of meats and richest fried chicken.

What is a bread and butter pickle?

There is no bread, and not even a speck of butter in the recipe for bread and butter pickles. The old-timey name dates back to the 1920s depression era in Illinois. A farming couple used jars of a family sweet and sour pickle recipe to barter for groceries, including — you guessed it — bread and butter. They were very successful as the pickles were so delicious, and word spread. The term stuck, and other pickle companies picked up on it to sell their version of the not-too-sweet, still tart pickle and the recipe became a hit with home cooks, too.

The spices used for bread and butter pickles vary a bit in the handed-down recipes that eventually were published in dozens of magazines and cookbooks, but they are usually some variation of mustard, celery, and coriander seed, with a bit of turmeric. The flavor is sweet, but not candy-like, with a pleasant sour edge. If you want to try the original, Mrs. Fanning's brand Bread and Butter Pickles are still on the market — a rather remarkable achievement for a hundred-year-old condiment.

What sets bread and butter pickles apart?

All types of sweet pickles make a tasty treat alongside savory foods. The slight tartness from the pickling liquid helps cut through fatty meats and fried foods, while the sweet, spice laden preserved cucumber adds a bright contrast to the plate. If you're a fan of sweet and sour flavors together, this pickle category is one you should explore more deeply. You'll find that sweet pickles are perfect to add to a cheese board, or any kind of grazing meal because they bridge the sweet and savory so nicely. You might need to try a few brands or recipes to find the spice profile you prefer. Luckily, there are lots of variations out there.

Bread and butter pickles however, have a more standard recipe. They're slightly more tart than most other sweet pickles, with more prominent savory flavors of celery and mustard seed to balance the sugary brine. Their historic origin has helped create a more certain definition — so when you pick up a jar of bread and butter pickles, you'll have a good idea of the flavor inside. Whether you're looking for the right pickle to plop in your Dr. Pepper or you just want the perfect side for your sandwich or roast, one of the sweet pickle types could be your new go-to for a less vinegary bite.