Cucumber Sandwiches

Overhead view of cucumber sandwiches on a green plate
Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Cold and refined. No, I’m not describing English royalty, but something that’s arguably just as highbrow in identity: Cucumber sandwiches. Let’s not tiptoe around it, this is a sandwich steeped in a history of colonialism. A popular origin story goes that British soldiers stationed in India in the mid 1800s would wash cucumber sandwiches (cucumbers being domestic to India) down with hot tea (said to be more refreshing than icy cool water) to keep cool and refreshed in an unfamiliar hot climate. 

For a time in the Victorian era these were really only a tasty snack of the wealthy in England—getting access to cucumbers was difficult and expensive and the sandwich’s lack of sustenance was something to revere for those fortunate enough to leisurely lounge their afternoon away, not requiring a “stick-to your-ribs” meal. Later, in the early 1900s, it became popularized with increased industrialization and the ability to grow cucumbers in hothouses closer to home, allowing access to cucumbers to the masses.

Side view of cucumber sandwiches
Serious Eats / Victor Protastio

There are fewer barriers and obstacles to the snack now, since English cucumbers are available in most grocery stores in many countries, but it still has strong associations with British-style high tea service. The cucumber sandwich may have descended from its pedestal, but it still reserves its seat there.

My connection to the sandwich falls in line with its highbrow origins. Growing up in Philadelphia, my exposure to cucumber sandwiches was limited to the very rare occasion when my mom would forcibly wrangle me into a dress for an outing to a fancy tea parlor. As a kid I’d usually ignore the dainty cucumber sandwiches, extending my arm past them for the scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, petit forts, and other adorable miniature sweet treats.

Now as an adult, I value the understated bite of a cucumber sandwich. Crisp, cooling, and…little more. They are refreshing served on their own on a hot summer’s day, or as a simple bite nestled into the buffet line at a luncheon, baby shower, or brunch spread. 

We don’t stray far from the expected flavor pairings in this recipe, instead preferring to celebrate its simplicity: thinly sliced English cucumbers, a thin slather of salted cultured butter to moisten and faintly season the soft white bread, and not much else. If you’re feeling absolutely wild and want to incorporate (gasp) flavor into this sandwich, opt for fresh dill, a natural pairing with cucumber that enhances its fresh appeal, or an Americanized approach with cream cheese (whipped is easier to spread).

The one additional step we did incorporate to improve this sandwich is salting the cucumbers in advance. Taking a few extra minutes to salt and let the cucumbers drain in a colander before building the sandwich is well worth it. In a short time the salt will draw out excess moisture from the cucumber slices to concentrate their flavor and ensure the assembled sandwiches will not turn soggy while poised in display. 

Whether enjoyed ceremoniously for your own at-home high tea service, or enjoyed solo as a quick and light bite, just remember: pinkies up. (Or not, whatever, it’s your sandwich.)

In a colander, toss cucumbers with salt and set over a bowl; let stand uncovered at room temperature for 20 minutes. Shake colander to drain off excess liquid and gently pat cucumbers dry with paper towels. In an empty bowl, toss dried cucumber slices with the lemon juice and dill (if using); set aside until ready to use. 

Overhead view of cucumbers tossed with dill
Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Meanwhile, use a serrated knife to trim crusts from bread slices to form roughly 2 1/2– by 2 1/2–inch bread squares. 

Overhead view of cutting the crust off of bread
Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Spread butter or cream cheese evenly on 1 side of each bread slice. Top half of the buttered bread slices with the cucumber slices (about 6 cucumber slices per bread slice). Top with the remaining bread slices, buttered sides down. Press down gently on sandwiches to adhere fillings.

Four image collage of assembling sandwiches
Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Using a sharp knife, cut each sandwich into triangles and arrange attractively on a serving platter. Serve immediately.

Overhead view of cutting sandwiches into triangles
Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Special Equipment

Colander, serrated knife


If using cream cheese in this recipe, I recommend using Philadelphia Original Whipped cream cheese. The acidity and tang of the cream cheese pairs well with the mildly flavored cucumber, while the whipped style spreads easily on the bread without tearing it.

This recipe can easily be scaled up or down to suit your serving needs.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The prepared sandwiches can be wrapped tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 6 hours.