A long, green, cylinder-shaped member of the gourd family with edible seeds surrounded by mild, crisp flesh. Used for making pickles and usually eaten raw. Cucumbers have been cultivated for thousands of years.
The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is a widely cultivated plant in the gourd family Cucurbitaceae. It is a creeping vine which bears cylindrical edible fruit when ripe. There are three main varieties of cucumber: “slicing”, “pickling”, and “burpless”. Within these varieties, several different cultivars have emerged. The cucumber is originally from Indian subcontinent but is now grown on most continents. Many different varieties are traded on the global market.
In human cultivation, the varieties of cucumbers are classified into three main varieties: “slicing”, “pickling”, and “burpless”.
Cucumbers which are grown to be eaten fresh are called slicing cucumbers. They are mainly eaten in the unripe green form, since the ripe yellow form normally becomes bitter and sour. Slicers grown commercially for the North American market are generally longer, smoother, more uniform in color, and have a much tougher skin. Slicers in other countries are smaller and have a thinner, more delicate skin. Smaller slicing cucumbers can also be pickled.
Cucumbers can be pickled for flavor and longer shelf-life. Although any cucumber can be pickled, commercial pickles are made from cucumbers specially bred for uniformity of length-to-diameter ratio and lack of voids in the flesh. Those cucumbers intended for pickling, called picklers, grow to about 7 centimeters (3 in) to 10 centimeters (4 in) long and 2.5 centimeters (1 in) wide. As compared to slicers, picklers tend to be shorter, thicker, less regularly shaped, and have bumpy skin with tiny white or black-dotted spines. They are never waxed. Color can vary from creamy yellow to pale or dark green. Pickling cucumbers are sometimes sold fresh as “Kirby” or “Liberty” cucumbers. The pickling process removes or degrades much of the nutrient content, especially that of vitamin C. Pickled cucumbers are soaked in brine or a combination of vinegar and brine, although not vinegar alone, often along with various spices. Pickled cucumbers are called “pickles” in the US or “gherkins” or “wallies” in the UK, the latter name being more common in the north of England, where it refers to the large vinegar-pickled cucumbers commonly sold in fish and chip shops. (Although the gherkin is of the same species as the cucumber, it is of a completely different cultivar.)
Burpless cucumbers are sweeter and have a thinner skin than other varieties of cucumber, and are reputed to be easy to digest and to have a pleasant taste. They can grow as long as 2 feet (0.61 m). They are nearly seedless, and have a delicate skin. Most commonly grown in greenhouses, these parthenocarpic cucumbers are often found in grocery markets, shrink-wrapped in plastic. They are sometimes marketed as seedless or burpless, because the seeds and skin of other varieties of cucumbers are said to give some people gas.
Several varietals exist and are sold commercially:
- Lebanese cucumbers are small, smooth-skinned and mild, yet with a distinct flavor and aroma. Like the English cucumber, Lebanese cucumbers are nearly seedless.
- East Asian cucumbers are mild, slender, deep green, and have a bumpy, ridged skin. They can be used for slicing, salads, pickling, etc., and are available year-round. They are usually burpless as well.
- Persian cucumber, which are mini, seedless, and slightly sweet, are available from Canada during the summer, and all year-round in the US. Easy to cut and peel, it is on average 4–7 in. long. They are commonly eaten chopped up in plain yogurt with mint or sliced thin and long with salt and lemon juice. Vines are parthenocarpic, requiring no pollinators for fruit set.
- Beit Alpha cucumbers are small, sweet parthenocarpic cucumbers adapted to the dry climate of the Middle East.
- Apple cucumbers are short, round cucumbers grown in New Zealand and parts of Europe, known for their light yellow-green color and mildly sweet flavor. When mature, the fruit may grow tiny spines, and contains numerous edible green seeds. The fruit is usually eaten raw, with skin.
- Schälgurken are eaten in Germany. Their thick skins are peeled and then they braised or fried, often with minced meat or dill. They are often known by the term ‘Schmorgurken’.
- Dosakai is a yellow cucumber available in parts of India. These fruits are generally spherical in shape. It is commonly cooked as curry, added in sambar or soup, daal and also in making dosa-aavakaaya (Indian pickle) and chutney; it is also grown and available through farms in Central California.
- Kekiri is a smooth skinned cucumber, relatively hard, and not used for salads. It is cooked as spicy curry. It is found in dry zone of Sri Lanka. It becomes orange colored when the fruit is matured.
- In May 2008, British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s unveiled the ‘c-thru-cumber’, a thin-skinned variety which reportedly does not require peeling.
- Armenian cucumbers (also known as yard long cucumbers) are fruits produced by the plant Cucumis melo var. flexuosus. This is not the same species as the common cucumber (Cucumis sativus) although it is closely related. Armenian cucumbers have very long, ribbed fruit with a thin skin that does not require peeling, but are actually an immature melon. This is the variety sold in Middle Eastern markets as “pickled wild cucumber”. In North America, the term “wild cucumber” also refers to plants in the genus Marah.
There appears to be variability in the human olfactory response to cucumbers, with the majority of people reporting a mild, almost watery flavor or a light melon taste, while a small but vocal minority report a highly repugnant taste, some say almost perfume-like. Cucumbers vary in bitterness, even from the same plant. This bitter taste is attributed to the chemical compound Cucurbitacin C. Cucurbitacin is poisonous to livestock, especially sheep.