I come from a family of four children. When we were little and getting antsy, my mom would sometimes distract us with “party sandwiches.” They could have been made with just about anything— peanut butter and jelly or tuna salad—but she created an air of festivity by cutting off the crusts and then cutting them into triangles. Voila! Party sandwiches!
Sometimes we had an actual tea party, with juice served in teacups. Mom loved sandwiches filled with cucumbers. And radishes, and cream cheese and jelly, and watercress—you get the idea.
We ate them all with her, bolstered by her enthusiasm for these treats, and I confess I’ve acquired a taste for cucumber sandwiches. Rainy, boring days at home suddenly become more cheerful and fun. I’m not sure if it’s from the memory, the sandwich or both.
What Is a Cucumber Tea Sandwich?
These simple (as in, really, really simple) little sandwiches of crunchy, thinly sliced cucumbers inside slices of bread slathered in butter or cream cheese are as delicate as a spring breeze.
While they’re ideal to serve as part of a Mother’s Day brunch, a baby shower, or a graduation party, you can also make just a few of them and have your own private little tea party, or a fast and easy lunch.
The tradition of tea sandwiches started in the mid 1800’s when it became fashionable to serve something in the late afternoon to stave off hunger before the long wait for an eight o’clock dinner. And there you have it. Scones and strawberries and jam-filled tarts soon followed, but cucumber sandwiches still reign.
Best Bread for Cucumber Sandwiches
The best bread for these sandwiches is soft, thinly sliced white bread, such as Pepperidge Farm Very Thin White. As much as I love sourdough, hefty wheat, and rye bread, they would steal the show from the main attraction of butter or cream cheese and delicate cucumbers, so the fewer flavor add-ons, the better. In other words, when preparing these sandwiches, dainty and subtle should be your guiding principles.
Best Cucumbers for Tea Sandwiches
The best cucumbers for these sandwiches are English cucumbers, also called burpless or European cucumbers. Long and thin, they were bred to create a cucumber with smaller seeds and thinner skin than the common cucumber. They are usually shrink-wrapped in plastic to protect the skins from nicks.
Tradition mandates that cucumbers for these sandwiches be peeled, but you can certainly break that rule if you use English cucumbers, which have more palatable skins. Use a mandoline slicer to cut them into paper-thin slices if you have one, or a knife to carefully do the same. Then, after salting and draining them, layer them on the bread slices, already spread with butter or cream cheese.
If you can’t find English cucumbers, use regular cucumbers. If using regular cucumbers, which are larger and have a thicker skin than English cucumbers, peel the tough outer skins and slice the cucumber in half lengthwise. Take a spoon and scoop the seeds out. This will prevent excess moisture from entering your finished product. Then, thinly slice the cucumber into half moons.
Swaps, Substitutions, and Suggestions
There are no hard and fast rules, but in this case, less is more. Pick one or two and add them to create a little variety to your selection.
- Mint adds a summery freshness.
- Watercress lends a sharp, peppery note.
- A few drops of lemon juice or a sprinkle of zest adds something citrusy.
- Dill is one of the more common additions to cucumber cream cheese sandwiches.
- Flat-leaf parsley or chives are also make good additions.
- Dairy-free butter is another option if you have vegan guests.
- Mix up the vegetables. If you don’t have cucumbers, use radishes.
Make-Ahead Finger Sandwiches
Because cucumbers are watery, the sandwiches are best assembled just a few hours before serving to keep them from becoming soggy. But there are a few things you can do ahead of time, so you aren’t doing everything at the last minute.
One day ahead:
- Spread butter or cream cheese on the bread and stack it between layers of plastic wrap or parchment. Wrap the stack in plastic and refrigerate until ready to assemble.
- Slice the cucumbers, salt them, and store them in the fridge on the baking sheet, wrapped well in plastic wrap.
The day of serving:
- Once assembled, cover with waxed paper and then a damp paper towel, and store in an airtight container until ready to serve.
How to Serve Cucumber Sandwiches for a Party
Arrange the sandwiches on platters. If you are serving them as part of a buffet, place them on a cake plate or a fancy silver platter.
One catering trick is to arrange the buffet table so that platters are at different heights, using various cake stands of different sizes. You can improvise your own cake stands by using pretty plates and placing them atop upside-down bowls. Since the bread dries out quickly, serve the sandwiches in batches, refilling the platters as the number of sandwiches dwindles.
What to Serve With Tea Sandwiches at a Party
If you’re thinking of serving your cucumber sandwiches for a party, you might want to serve them with any of the following, though you don’t have to make each and every offering. Be sure to choose some specialty items from your favorite bakery.
- Lemon loaf cake
- Chocolate bundt cake
- Lime icebox cookies
- Strawberry mascarpone tart
- Almond shortbread cookies
- Mini quiches
- Bowls of berries
- Mixed nuts
- Chocolate truffles
Don’t forget the drinks! Offer a variety of beverage options your next brunch, bridal shower, or baby shower. A few of my favorites are Earl Grey Tea and Tonic or a flowery Sparkling Strawberry Sangria, refreshing Mint and Lemon Verbena Tea, glasses of champagne, or a crisp chilled white wine.
More Great Sandwich Recipes
- Pan Bagnat (French Tuna Sandwich)
- Arugula, Mozzarella, and Tomato on Focaccia
- Best Ever Tuna Salad Sandwich
- Ham Salad
- Tarragon Chicken Salad
- Quick and Easy Egg Salad Sandwich
If you choose to use cream cheese over butter, mix the cream cheese with a few tablespoons of mayonnaise to thin it out and make it easier to spread over the bread slices.
- FOR FOUR SANDWICHES
- 1/2 English cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/8 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
- 8 slices white bread, such as Pepperidge Farm Very Thin White
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter or cream cheese, softened at room temperature
- 1/8 teaspoon ground white or black pepper
- Optional: watercress, mint leaves, lemon zest, dill, chives, or parsley
- FOR PARTY SANDWICHES (About 80 mini sandwiches)
- 2 English cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
- 40 slices white bread, such as Pepperidge Farm Very Thin White
- 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter or cream cheese, softened at room temperature (see Recipe Note)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white or black pepper
- Optional: watercress, mint leaves, lemon zest, dill, chives, or parsley
Salt the cucumbers:
(NOTE: Skip this step if you’re just making 4 sandwiches for lunch; simply sprinkle the cucumbers with salt.) Line a baking sheet with paper towels and spread the cucumbers on top. Sprinkle lightly with salt and leave for 20 minutes. Pat them dry with more paper towels. Taste the slices, and sprinkle with more salt if they taste bland.
Add the spread:
Set bread slices on a cutting board and spread one side of each slice generously with butter or cream cheese. You will need about 1-2 teaspoons per slice depending on the size of your bread slices.
Arrange the cucumbers on the bread:
Overlapping them to cover the bread, lay the cucumbers on half of the bread slices. If the cucumbers are very thin, make 2 layers, if thick, make one. The cucumber filling should be about 1/4-inch thick. Sprinkle the cucumber slices with pepper. If you like, top the cucumbers with one of the optional ingredients. Top with a second slice of bread.
Cut into small sandwiches:
Pressing down firmly, cut the crusts off, and then cut into rectangles, triangles, or quarters. Keep it neat!
Arrange on platters (or your plate) and serve.