If you eat out at diners or American-style restaurants in the U.S. and order sandwiches or burgers, they’re likely to come with a pickle spear or a ramekin full of pickle slices. For fans of the pucker, finding this pickle on the side of your deli order is a delight — but perhaps one you haven’t thought about much as you’re enjoying the crunch.
Why do sandwiches come with pickles, and where did the pairing of a pickle with a sandwich come from in the first place? There are a few reasons why a pickle is the perfect thing to serve with sandwiches, burgers and a lot of other dishes, and now that you’re thinking about it, you can probably guess its origins.
Pickles May Cleanse Your Palate
As SFGate explains, your taste buds are receptors that respond to different kinds of flavors. The taste of one food can linger, affecting the flavor of another that comes right after it. For example, think about how orange juice tastes if you drink it right after you brush your teeth.
Some experts say the acidic taste of pickled foods is a palate cleanser that helps bring out the flavors in your food. Cleansing your palate is designed to remove more intense flavors from your mouth, “resetting” your sensory perceptions so that you can enjoy more subtle flavors and fully appreciate the foods you eat after.
A bite of dill pickle will ready your tastebuds to get a full range of flavors from whatever you eat next; in Japanese cuisine, pickled ginger plays this role when it’s served with sushi.
Spoon University explains that pickled ginger’s acidity can neutralize food residue; the tingling sensation you get from eating it gets rid of strong flavors and is good for removing stinky or fishy flavors. That could apply to pickles, too.
Some common “palate cleansing” techniques in other countries include serving salad between the main course and final course of cheeses in Italy or offering sorbet or apple brandy in France, where the palate cleanser originated.
Pickles Also Offer An Acidic Contrast To Balance Out Fattier Foods
Acidic foods like pickles provide a nice contrast to fatty foods, and the two work together well; acids add freshness, which can be mellowed out by the creaminess of heavy, comforting dishes. Chopping Block calls the two “the yin and yang of cooking.”
Sauerkraut and vinegar coleslaw are potential substitute sides that may bring a tangy, acidic contrast to your sandwich. Salt and vinegar chips would also serve the same purpose.
On a cheeseburger, pickles provide a zing that lightens the heaviness of the meat and provides a counterpart to the meat and dairy flavors already incorporated into the dish, as Real Simple notes.
When added to a sandwich or burger, pickled vegetables and even a splash of vinegar help balance the fatty or meaty parts of the sandwich. This may explain why the weird combo of peanut butter and pickle sandwiches actually works.
This Practice May Have New York City Origins
Pickles had been sold in Brooklyn since at least 1659 by Dutch farmers. Then, in the mid-1800s, the practice of serving pickles with sandwiches seems to have started when Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe started opening delis in New York.
The idea quickly moved beyond its Jewish-deli origins. Pickles are now a pretty standard side that accompanies sandwiches, burgers and similar dishes. However, this does not appear to be traditional in other countries. Of course, sandwiches and burgers aren’t as popular outside of the U.S.
Are You Pro Pickle?
Some food places aren’t content to just offer pickles alongside entrees anymore. In recent years, with a wave of low-carb and keto proponents eschewing bread, some have even gone so far as to use pickles in place of buns to hold sandwich ingredients. A restaurant in Philly named Elsie’s became famous for this specialty.
The Bittman Project also believes in the power of the pickle. The food-focused site has developed more unorthodox ways of incorporating pickles into sandwiches. If you visit, you can find recipes for pickle and cheese spread, tofu and pickle sandwiches,\ and pickle bruschetta.
In the past, some have speculated Chik-fil-A‘s famous chicken sandwiches include chicken patties marinated in pickle juice as their secret ingredient, although others have debunked this idea. However, Chick-fil-A is proud of its pickles, and has incorporated pickles into its chicken sandwiches since the beginning. Its sandwich has led other fast food chains to add pickles to their new menu offerings as they enter the chicken sandwich wars.
In any case, your next take-out sandwich will probably come with a pickle of some kind. Enjoy!