My grandmother used to throw together thinly sliced cucumbers and onions in a tangy-sweet dressing to create harmony on our summer table. It's not that the table was in disharmony, but the rich Southern main dishes we commonly enjoyed—succulent pulled pork, crunchy fried chicken—needed a bright side dish to balance things out. This simple, refreshing combination of cucumbers and onions was just the ticket.
The Side That Belongs At Your Barbecue
Published June 11, 2019.
I'm pretty sure my grandmother didn't follow a recipe for this dish. I've tried to re-create her version many times, but my attempts have never come out exactly right (either too pickled or too sweet). I wanted to develop a formula so I could get it right every time. For inspiration, I made five existing recipes from a mix of Southern sources. Our favorite version combined peeled cucumbers with thinly sliced onion in a pungent dressing of apple cider vinegar and sugar.
The dressing was too assertive and sharp, so I tamed it by adding ¼ cup of water. As for the cukes, I tested regular cucumbers, English cucumbers, and smaller pickling cucumbers. The pickling cucumbers were hard to track down without going to a specialty grocer or farm stand. The English cucumbers worked fine, but our top choice was regular cucumbers; my tasters preferred their ultracrunchy texture. Peeling the cukes eliminated any bitter taste. (Read “Cucumbers Compared” to learn more about different types of cukes.)
I assumed sweet, Georgia-born Vidalia onions would be the right choice here. But in a side-by-side test, tasters couldn't tell the difference between sweet and regular yellow onions once the salad was dressed. Not having to call for a specialty onion was good news.
My grandmother always told me this dish got better as it sat, so I refrigerated a batch for a few hours before serving. As I expected, she was correct; the flavors came together and the vegetables softened just enough. Time to fire up the grill for that pulled pork.
Pickled Cucumber and Onion SaladThis refreshing side of cucumbers and onion falls somewhere on the spectrum between a salad and a pickle.
If you're looking for other side dishes, check out The Best Side Dishes for Your Summer Picnic collection from our sister site, America's Test Kitchen.