Have you ever had a cucumber sandwich?
It’s an English tradition that was likely arrived in the U.S. in the 1800s, along with the concept of afternoon tea, a formal light meal, traditionally served at 4 p.m.
The high-class snack, meant to tide over wealthy people who didn’t eat dinner until 8 p.m. or later.
Cucumber sandwiches were served at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, were enjoyed by the Raj of India in the late 1800s, and were referenced in Oscar Wilde’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” as a “reckless extravagance” (cucumbers were pricey before they became more available in the Edwardian era).
The traditional cucumber sandwich is composed of paper-thin slices of cucumber (no peel) placed between two thin slices of crustless, lightly buttered bread.
You can make the traditional dainty tea sandwiches (photo #2), smaller canapés, or full-size luncheon sandwiches (some people leave the on the crusts for those).
You can cut the sandwiches into triangles, squares, fingers, circles or other cookie cutter shapes.
Some Americans replaced the butter with cream cheese (the latter invented in 1872 in New York), some leave the peel on the cucumber and some don’t cut the cucumbers paper-thin (egad!).
The English traditionally use bread from a Pullman loaf—a whole loaf sliced thin (photo #5; called pain de mie in France).
There are numerous variations below.
Our personal cucumber sandwich is made on Pepperidge Farm Very Thin Bread, which is available in White and Whole Wheat. We use the best butter (Finlandia, Plugra, Vermont Creamery) and snipped dill, the perfect herb to complement cucumbers.
Other Americanizations include:
Warmer weather beckons to cool-as-a-cucumber sandwiches for:
It’s a no-brainer, but we give you the traditional recipe plus ways to modernize it.
First, a note about the cucumbers:
English cucumbers were bred in the U.K. to create a cucumber more desirable for cucumber sandwiches.
It has tender flesh, with a thin, edible peel and tiny or no seeds. Some stores sell it as a burpless cucumber, European cucumber, hothouse cucumber or seedless cucumber.
1. PEEL or score lengthwise the dark green peel of the cucumber. If you have an English cucumber or other thin-skin variety, cut a thin slice and see if you enjoy it with the peel on. You can easily get very thin slices using a mandoline. It’s all up to you.
2. PLACE the cucumbers between paper towels and tamp them to allow some of the moisture to drain. You can then salt them lightly—which also removes moisture—the longer the better (30 minutes to 3 hours). When ready to prepare the sandwiches:
3. THINLY BUTTER the slices of bread all the way to the edges. This edge-to-edge technique prevents the bread from becoming damp with cucumber moisture. NOTE: If you have an unsliced loaf, freezing it before you cut it helps you make even slices.
4. TOP the bottom slice with cucumber and any other ingredients. If using smoked salmon, chicken salad, sliced egg, etc., it should go on the bread first. See the modern variations below.
Any tea goes with cucumber sandwiches; brew your favorite hot or iced tea.
But if you prefer a sauvignon blanc or an IPA, go for it.
 Triangle-cut cucumber tea sandwiches ( photo © B. Hofack | iStock).
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