Unless you are a dedicated home gardener or horticulturist, the odds are pretty good that you don’t think a great deal about cucumbers. You see them pretty much year round in the produce section of the market, slice them for use in salads or maybe eat them raw as a snack or with dips, and somewhere in the back of your mind you know that they are what pickles are made of. However, for most people, cucumbers aren’t a particularly thought-provoking vegetable.
In fact, cucumbers aren’t a vegetable at all, although they are most often used as one. The cucumber is the berry of a vine in the gourd family of plants and is actually a fruit. Botanically classified Cucurbitacaea cucunis sativus, the cucumber plant is a creeping vine that in the wild grows by wrapping itself around another supporting plant. In home gardening and commercial cultivation, support poles or trellises are needed for the plant to thrive; while it will crawl along the ground if no support is available, the fruit will normally be eaten by animals or destroyed by rot or powdery mildew if it is not elevated.
The cucumber plant is believed to have originated in India (where some types still grow wild) and was probably eaten there before the dawn of recorded history. The first human cultivation is believed to date back over 4,000 years in India, and the plant eventually made its way to China, the rest of Asia, and Northern Africa. The Egyptians grew cucumbers, and it is mentioned in the Bible as one of the foods the Israelite slaves ate. The Ancient Romans were very fond of the plant and through them it spread to the rest of Europe. The cucumber reached the New World with Columbus – who brought it to Haiti in 1494 – and by the mid-17th century it was being cultivated by both settlers and the indigenous peoples across South and North America.
Today, about 80 million tons of cucumbers are commercially cultivated throughout the world with China (as is so often the case in agricultural production) the largest grower, accounting for over 75% of annual production. Turkey, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Spain, the United States, and Mexico are among the world’s other leading producers. In the US – which ranks 7th and produces around a million tons a year – California, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin are among the major cucumber producing states.
The cucumber is a quite durable and hardy plant that will grow pretty much anywhere and is cultivated on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. Comprised of almost 95 percent water, cucumbers are not a particularly nutritious vegetable (we know, it’s a fruit!), although they do provide some dietary fiber and a good amount of vitamin K. Because of both their adaptability and their ease of growth, cucumbers are widely grown in home gardens throughout the world and particularly the United States, where they can be grown in all 50 states.
There are two basic types of cucumbers: slicing and pickling. Slicing cucumbers are those that are eaten fresh, while pickling cucumbers are specifically grown and used for pickling. There are some cultivars that are ‘crossovers’ and can be both eaten fresh and pickled. Both of these types have hundreds of cultivars within them, many of them relatively recent improvements on a few basic varieties.
So what are some of the most common types of cucumbers you are likely to run across?
Slicing cucumbers are what you will most often find in the produce section at the grocery store, at your local farmers market, and in the salads you are served in restaurants. Also called fresh market cucumbers, they are most often eaten fresh as a vegetable – although some will stand up to pickling and even cooking. Generally speaking, if the cucumber you are eating isn’t a pickle, it is probably a ‘slicer’.
Several varieties of slicing cucumbers belong to a sub-group known as ‘burpless’ cucumbers. These varieties will usually have thinner skins and fewer seeds – the two parts of the cucumber that cause excess gas in some people – and are believed by some to be easier to digest.
Also sometimes called common or North American cucumbers (at least in the United States and Canada), the garden cucumber is a catch-all name for over two dozen cultivars of cucumbers that all look and taste pretty much the same. Unless you are shopping at a specialty market, these are the cucumbers you will most often find at grocery stores in the United States, Canada, and parts of the European Union marked simply: CUCUMBERS. They are usually the least expensive type of cucumber.
In the United States these cucumbers might have minor differences in size and shape depending on your location – particularly in the summer and fall months – as many markets will buy their produce from local farmers during harvest season, and different cultivars grow better in different parts of the country. The various varieties of the garden cucumber are the most widely cultivated type in the United States – both commercially and by home gardeners – and are also very popular in other parts of the world.
Most of the garden cucumbers you find at the store will be between 8 and 10 inches in length, and about 2 inches in circumference, giving them a torpedo-like shape. They will have a thick dark green skin which is usually smooth (but will sometimes have small bumps throughout the surface) and will often be lightly waxed prior to shipment to help increase their shelf life and retain moisture. The flesh will normally be a lighter green or greenish white, with numerous edible (though slightly bitter) seeds throughout the center.
All parts of the garden cucumber are edible, although most people find the skins to be bitter and so peel the fruit before using it; in many applications, the seeds will also often be removed. As the flesh is not particularly flavorful on its own, garden cucumbers are usually used in either green or heartier (Caesar, etc) salads to provide extra body and crunch, as well as served with other vegetables and a variety of dips in fresh vegetable platters or crudités. Normally consumed fresh, most garden cucumbers will not stand up to pickling and are not widely used in cooked dishes – although in some areas they will be used in certain soups and stir fry dishes.
Popular varieties of garden cucumbers include the Straight 8, Tendergreen, Marketmore 76, and Ashley.
Depending on what part of the world you happen to be in, you might also find the English cucumber referred to as the European, hothouse, gourmet, or seedless cucumber. Widely cultivated throughout most of the world today, the English cucumber first showed up in Europe sometime in the 14th century and became extremely popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, where it was often grown in hothouses (hence one of its nicknames) during the winter months so as to ensure a year-round supply for the nobility and upper classes.
The English cucumber is longer and thinner than the garden variety, and can grow up to almost two feet in length, although the ones you will most commonly find in the market will usually be between 14 and 18 inches long. Normally growing quite straight, they have a very thin dark green, slightly ridged skin, a lighter green flesh, and very small almost translucent seeds running through the center. Due to the thinness of the skin and the tiny seeds, the English is considered to be a burpless cucumber.
The English cucumber has a very crisp texture and a mild, slightly sweet flavor with almost none of the bitterness found in the garden variety. It will almost never need to be peeled. Widely used in salads and crudités, it is also the quintessential ingredient in cucumber tea sandwiches and widely utilized in many sushi dishes and spring rolls. The English cucumber is generally not used for pickling, but will stand up to cooking quite well and is grilled or lightly cooked and included in vegetable medleys in some cuisines. It is also sometimes pureed and used as an ingredient in soups, and to make cucumber water.
Throughout the Western world, the English cucumbers found in most markets are usually shrink-wrapped in plastic wrap to increase their shelf life and help keep them moist. Popular varieties of English cucumbers include the Chelsea Pride, Sweet Success, Tyria and English Telegraph.
The Persian cucumber was developed in 1939 at the Biet Alpha kibbutz (and is also often referred to as the Biet Alpha cucumber) in the northern part of what is currently the State of Israel. The result of the crossbreeding of several types of cucumber including the English and the Japanese (discussed below), it is widely grown throughout the Middle East, Asia, and parts of Southern Europe. In the last 30 years or so, Persian cucumbers have dramatically increased in popularity in Western Europe and North America both with farmers and home growers, and can be widely found in specialty markets throughout the United States and Canada.
The Persian is a short, squat cucumber that is generally harvested at 4 to 6 inches in length, when it is at its most flavorful. Another burpless variety, the Persian has a thin, dark green skin with shallow ridges, a firm and crisp lighter green flesh, and relatively few seeds – most of which are underdeveloped. A very crunchy cucumber, the Persian has a sweet, fairly mild flavor with very little if any bitterness.
Usually used without peeling or removing the seeds, the Persian cucumber is a very popular addition to all types of salads and fresh vegetable platters, sometimes used in salsa recipes, and incorporated into dips and dressings. It stands up well to cooking, and is often used in curries, some stir fries, and other spicier dishes to add extra sweetness and ‘cooling’. Some cultivars are also used for pickling.
Popular Persian cucumber cultivars include the Diva, Rambo, Figaro, Cordito, and Sarig.
Japanese cucumbers (also called Kyuri) were first developed in Japan centuries ago by crossbreeding cultivars from China and India. Improved upon over the years, they are currently cultivated throughout Asia and the Middle East, and have recently been increasing in popularity in Europe and North America.
The Japanese cucumber resembles the English cucumber; most are long (usually 12 to 14 inches) with a thin, forest green, lightly grooved skin, a light green flesh, and few seeds. Some cultivars will have a slightly prickly skin, which will need to be scraped before use. Japanese cucumbers have a crisp texture and a sweet, succulent, melon-like flavor. One notable fact about these cucumbers is that their flesh will often be up to 20 degrees colder than their skin.
Japanese cucumbers are usually eaten fresh alone, in salads, or with other vegetables and are widely used in sushi and sashimi dishes, ceviche, bento, and gazpacho. Although classified as a slicing cucumber, the Japanese is also often pickled in its native Japan and in this form is an essential ingredient in many traditional Japanese dishes, and enjoyed as a snack.
Cucumbers have been pickled in some way almost since they were first cultivated by man; the first documented pickling of cucumbers occurred around 2,000 BC in the Tigris Valley in Mesopotamia, probably using cucumbers from India. Today a number of different cucumber types are specifically cultivated for industrial and home pickling. Generally speaking, pickling cucumbers will be shorter than slicers and have a somewhat drier flesh which allows them to absorb more of what is used to pickle them.
Gherkins are one of the most (if not the most) widely pickled cucumber varieties in the world today. Believed to have originated in Central Africa and cultivated throughout the world for centuries, many different cultivars of the Gherkins are currently grown in Asia, North and South America (particularly Brazil), Europe and parts of Africa.
Most Gherkins are picked when they are 2 to 3 inches long. The skin is usually a pale green, with lighter green stripes and small bumps running the entire length. The flesh is a lighter green, drier than most slicing cucumbers, and contains many small seeds. Gherkins will usually have a firm, crunchy texture and a mild, slightly sour flavor. In some parts of the world, Gherkins are eaten raw as snacks and used in cooking applications, but they are most commonly used for pickling, often in vinegar flavored with other ingredients such as dill (for dill pickles) or sugar (for sweet pickles).
Very popular with commercial and home growers alike, the National Pickling cucumber was developed at Michigan State University in 1924 at the request of the National Pickle Packers Association. Designed to resist common cucumber diseases as well as to stand up to pickling at various stages of its grow so as to produce both small and large pickles, the National Pickling cucumber is a very high yielding plant and is today commercially cultivated throughout the US and Canada, particularly in the states of Michigan and Wisconsin. The cucumbers have a medium green often striped thin skin and white flesh with few seeds. Normally uniform in shape, they will grow to up to 6 inches, but are usually picked prior to reaching full maturity when they are 2 to 4 inches. Although primarily used for pickles, mature National Pickling cucumbers can be consumed raw, and used in most garden slicing cucumber applications.
At one time the Kirby cucumber was the most popular pickling cucumber in the United States. First released by a Philadelphia seed merchant named Norval E. Kirby in 1920, Kirby cucumbers were short and squat, usually growing to about 4 inches in length. Supplanted by the National Pickling cucumber in the mid-1930s, Kirby cucumbers are no longer commercially cultivated, and it is almost impossible to even find seeds for the variety. However, you will still often see “Kirby” pickling cucumbers sold at grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Since the 1950s, the term “Kirby cucumber” has been a catch-all phrase used in the produce industry to describe small – usually between 3 and 5 inches – cucumbers with an irregular shape and usually bumpy skin from a variety of cultivars. They will range from dark to yellowish green in color, and most varieties can also be used as slicers.
Very popular throughout Europe and particularly in France, the Cornichon (also sometimes called the Cornichon de Paris) is a very small variety of Gherkin pickling cucumber that is widely used in many French and European cuisines, and is also quite popular in Asia and North America. The Cornichon can grow up to 4 or 5 inches in length, but is normally picked when it just an inch or two long. The cucumbers are usually quite bumpy, with a medium green skin and a very light green flesh containing underdeveloped seeds. Slightly tart, fully developed Cornichons can be used as a slicing cucumber, but they are most often pickled in a mixture of vinegar and tarragon and served with pates, cold cuts or smoked meats, and a variety of cheeses.
Lemon cucumbers are believed to have originated in the Middle East or India, and have been around since the mid-16th century. They made their way to the United States in the early 1900s, and have been very popular with home gardeners ever since. Mostly commercially cultivated in Asia, Europe and South America, the Lemon is a round cucumber about the size of a tennis ball and has a thin yellowish-gold skin with some striping, a crisp pale green and yellow flesh, and edible seeds. Also known as the Garden Lemon and Apple cucumber, the Lemon is considered a burpless variety, and has a mild, slightly sweet flavor. It is mostly used fresh and often added to salads, although in India it is used in soups, some curry dishes, and in daal – a type of Indian stew made from red lentils. This cucumber is also sometimes pickled.
Salt and Pepper
A recent addition to the cucumber family, the Salt and Pepper cucumber was developed by horticulturalists at Cornell University and released to the market in 2011. Normally growing to between 3 and 5 inches, the Salt and Pepper is a short, squat cucumber with a thin white skin that turns light yellow as it matures; the skin contains many black spines – leading to the name Salt and Pepper. It has a pale green flesh and a large number of almost translucent seeds. Not commercially cultivated (as yet), they have caught on with home growers and some small farmers, and can be found in some specialty and farmers markets, particularly on the West Coast of the US. They can be used either as a slicer or for pickling.
Originating in (not surprisingly) Armenia in the 15th century and today widely cultivated throughout Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East and North America (particularly California), the Armenian cucumber isn’t really a cucumber at all: it is actually a type of muskmelon that is used as – and named – a cucumber. Also called the Yard-Long, Snake and Painted Serpent, the Armenian can grow up to 36 inches in length, but will usually be picked at between 12 and 16 inches, when it is at its most flavorful. A thin, curving vegetable with a usually light to mid-green furrowed skin and a light green flesh, it has a sweet mild flavor and a firm, crisp texture. The Armenian is very versatile and is used in raw and cooked applications, and is also quite good for pickling.