Miniature cucumbers packed tightly and pickled in jars are often referred to as gherkins and can be sweet, sour or dilled. Their name refers to the variety and size of the cucumber, not the pickling method. Bread and butter, on the other hand refers to the flavor of the pickles. In other words, gherkins can be made into bread and butter pickles, but not all bread and butter pickles are gherkins.
What Is a Gherkin?
Technically speaking, gherkins are a special variety of cucumber, called the West Indian cucumber, that produces tiny prickly fruit ideal for pickling. In practical terms, any miniature cucumber that is pickled is often referred to as a gherkin, even though the term is incorrect. Some sources, such as the Home Center for Food Preservation, refer to any variety of cucumbers 1 to 1 ½ inches in length as gherkins.
Bread and Butter Pickles
Bread and butter pickles gained their name from the Swedish, who served a variety or breads and butters and pickled vegetables – which included pickled cucumbers – as an appetizer before meals, says the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. Traditional American bread and butter pickles are made from sliced cucumbers, onions, vinegar, sugar and spices. The pickling mixture can be used over whole cucumbers, making it possible to make gherkins with the characteristic bread and butter pickle flavor. In fact, some recipes for sweet gherkins include the same ingredients as bread and butter pickles, minus the sliced onions.
Not all Gherkins are Sweet
Not all pickled gherkins are sweet, as these tiny cucumbers can be used in any pickle recipe, such as dill or sour pickles. Their small size and crisp texture make them suitable for a quick snack or as a condiment with meats and sandwiches. Their size prohibits them from being sliced for true bread and butter pickles, but these crunchy little cucumbers give an added boost to any pickle recipe.
To use regular cucumbers for pickling gherkins, harvest your cucumbers a few days after the blossoms drop and the cucumbers are 1 to 1 ½ inches long. Otherwise, devote a section of your garden to growing real gherkins. You can find seeds for West Indian gherkins in seed catalogs and garden supply centers. This variety of cucumber requires the same growing environment as regular cucumbers
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Nannette Richford is an avid gardener, teacher and nature enthusiast with more than four years' experience in online writing. Richford holds a Bachelor of Science in secondary education from the University of Maine Orono and certifications in teaching 7-12 English, K-8 General Elementary and Birth to age 5.