Why You Commonly Find Pickles Served Alongside BBQ

Picture a typical BBQ cookout: smoked brisket, pulled pork, and saucy ribs laid out on a table alongside Southern sides like toasted macaroni and cheese, creamy potato salad, and crumbly cornbread. When you go to a BBQ restaurant, whether it's a cafeteria-style hole-in-the-wall or an upscale establishment, you expect to see certain classic combinations. But in some restaurants — particularly in Texas — your BBQ plate might come with some extras you might not expect, such as sliced raw onions, plain white sandwich bread, and bright green pickles. 

For Texans, this essential BBQ ingredient is so common in restaurants that a plate served without it looks unfinished, but for those uninitiated to Texas-style BBQ, the combination can be perplexing. So, why is it so common to find pickles served alongside BBQ in Texas and beyond? The story of where this tradition started, how it spread, and why it's still so popular today is a fascinating one.

The trend started in Texas

The practice of pairing tangy pickles with barbecue was popularized in Texas meat markets in the early 1900s. At a time when refrigeration was rare, butchers needed a way to offload their unsold meat before it went bad, so when it was on its last legs, they would smoke it and sell it to shoppers. But since they were selling BBQ as a practical side hustle and not running a full restaurant, the butchers didn't prepare the Southern sides we expect to see alongside BBQ today.

To round out the meal, butchers (and sometimes the shoppers themselves) would pull ready-to-eat foods off the market shelves to serve as sides which, at that time, was usually bread, produce, and pickled vegetables. No one knows who did it first, but the practice spread rapidly throughout Texas and beyond, influencing other regional U.S. BBQ styles and cuisines. For example, white bread and pickles are also often found on plates of Nashville fried chicken — and for some, pickles became an essential element of BBQ.

Why the pickle and BBQ pairing works

The practice of pairing pickles with pulled pork and other BBQ staples was more than just a smart way to make a little money on something that otherwise would have gone to waste. It was also a brilliant culinary combination, which is why it's still so popular today in the post-meat-market age. The key is contrast. In many ways, pickles are the opposite of BBQ. 

While pulled pork, smoked brisket, and other BBQ staples are typically served hot, pickles are refreshingly cold out of the refrigerator, and even taste cool at room temperature. BBQ is rich, dripping with rendered fats and sticky sauces, and typical Southern sides are often cheesy, starchy, and heavy. Pickles, in contrast, have an acidity that cuts through all that richness, brightening up what can sometimes be a dish that weighs you down.

There's a contrast in texture, too. BBQ, when done right, is so tender, it falls off the bone and can be cut with a spoon. Pickles, on the other hand, can be anywhere from soft and crisp to fresh and crunchy. This is part of what makes coleslaw a popular BBQ side dish — the snap of the cabbage adds interest to an otherwise soft meal. Of course, the sour tang of a pickle is a perfect complement to the sweet and savory flavors of smoked meat BBQ, and the bright green hue also adds color to the typical brown and beige palette of most BBQ spreads.

Perfect pickle pairings

So, what's the best pickle to pair with your BBQ feast? Any pickle can bring extra flavor and zing to the party, but some types of pickles are better suited to the task than others. First, consider the type of BBQ you're serving. For sweet, saucy BBQ, go with something sour like a dill pickle. For tart, vinegar-based BBQ sauces, sweet pickles make a nice contrast. And if you plan to serve a sampler of sauces (or no sauce at all), classic bread and butter pickles, with their unique blend of sweetness, tang, and spice, are your best bet.

As for brand recommendations, most of the big-time Texas BBQ joints go with Best Maid pickles, which you can sometimes find at major grocery stores like Walmart and Kroger. If you can't find those or want to try something different from the store, skip the shelf-stable pickle aisle and head to the refrigerator section for pickles that pack a flavorful punch.

Homemade pickles are also a welcome addition to any BBQ platter, but the process makes a difference. Refrigerator pickles are quick and easy to make, but for a more complex pickle flavor, plan ahead and try your hand at a slower-fermented variety.