Cucumbers (Cucumis) are the signature members of family Cucurbitaceae (Cucurbits), which also includes melons, gourds and squash - all "Cucumbers" to the botanist. To the agriculturist they are all "Vine Crops" and they are all fruit, but in culinary practice cucumbers are generally considered "vegetables" even though they are most often used raw.
Cucumbers are probably native to northern India and were cultivated there and in Western Asia well over 3000 years ago. They were much favored by the Romans who spread them to other parts of Europe but they didn't get to England until about the 14th century and have to be grown in hothouses there. Cucumbers arrived in the Americas in the early 16th century. When they arrived in China and Japan is uncertain but is thought to be somewhat later than their arrival in Rome.
The durable "green blimp" cucumbers we are accustomed to in the U.S. are a relatively recent development. In earlier times cucumbers were similar to the Persian and often thinner and longer.
Besides the fruits, which botanists call a "modified berry", young shoots and leaves of the vine can be cooked and eaten as greens.Using Cucumbers
There are two locations of flavor in cucumbers, the skin and the seed mass. Sample an over-ripe cucumber and you'll find the slightly yellow seed mass to have a stronger and quite distinctly cucumber flavor. Personally I don't mind that flavor, in moderation, but some people don't like it.
You'll find many sources telling you English cucumbers have more flavor than the standard garden cucumber. Peel them both and you'll find the garden cuke more flavorful, it's just that the English doesn't have to be peeled and the thick bitter skin of the garden variety does.
A better compromise is to use Persian or Japanese cucumbers which have thin non-bitter skin but enough seed mass to be more flavorful than the English. Unfortunately they don't keep and have to be used within a few of days. Kerbys are midway between in seediness, bitterness and toughness of skin and also are not waxed.
for best flavor the seed mass should be included in recipes if possible. This is not possible in cases where the liquid will bleed out and dilute the recipe - then the seeds must be scooped out. When I do this I scrape the seeds into a bowl, add some salt and eat the seed mass as a snack while I cook.
Recipes that call for seeding cukes usually presume the big "green blimps" but if you use Persians or Japanese cucumbers you probably won't have to seed them (or peel them) and flavor will be better.Varieties
Cucumber (standard issue)
- [Garden Cucumber, Market Cucumber, Green Blimp,
These cucumbers are grown on fully functional vines with both male and female flowers so they have a large seed mass and plenty of seeds. Consequently they have more real cucumber flavor than seedless varieties.
The skin is fairly tough and bitter so they are almost always peeled. Since they'll be peeled anyway growers seal them with a heavy coating of wax for longer storage - they'll last at least two weeks in the fridge. You do want to peel them because you don't know who sponsored the FDA studies certifying that wax as "edible".
Size varies widely but the photo specimen is 9-1/4 inches long, 2-3/8
inches diameter and weighed 1-1/4 pounds. A more typical supermarket size
would likely be 12 ounces to a pound but 2 pounders are often available at
produce markets. The cut one was picked quite young so
the seeds are immature and the seed mass is relatively small. When cucumbers
become over-ripe they start to yellow, the seeds start to harden and the
seed mass gets a stronger flavor.
Beijing Cucumber -
Though it looks sort of like an overgrown European cucumber with tiny white spine spots all over it, the Beijing is not "seedless". It can, in fact have a higher proportion of seed mass than a garden cucumber does, improving the flavor over seedless varieties.
The skin is very thin and they are not waxed so you don't have to peel
them, but it means they will spoil quickly so use them right away. The
larger photo specimen was 19 inches long, 2 inches diameter and weighed 1
pound 6 ounces. So far these are available in only a few of the East /
Southeast Asian markets in Los Angeles and prices are still a quite high -
about US $1.19/# while Persians can be had here for 69 cents/# and gardens
for less than 25 cents/# in season.
[Lemon Cucumber, Cucumis. sativus]
These cucumbers get their name from being about the size and shape of a lemon, and bright yellow varieties are popular in India. The photo specimens are green with whole or broken stripes, the variety grown in Southern California. They are seldom available even in Indian markets and are sold at a high price so they're more a curiosity than practical ingredient right now.
These cucumbers are sweeter than other varieties and do not need to be
peeled. They go well in salads but in India they are most often cooked as
an ingredient in recipes or made into pickles and chutneys.
English Cucumber -
[#4593, Hothouse Cucumber, Burpless Cucumber, Seedless Cucumber,
European Cucumber, Cucumis sativus]
This is a variety of the European Cucumber selected for large size and
straightness. This makes them more economical to shrink wrap in plastic to
extend their shelf life. The photo specimen was fairly typical at 14-1/2
inches long, 1-3/4 inches diameter at the thickest point and weighed 14
ounces. See European Cucumber for all further
European Cucumber -
[English Cucumber, Hothouse Cucumber, Burpless Cucumber, Seedless
Cucumber, Cucumis sativus]
These cucumbers are grown on vines that produce only female flowers. Since the flowers have no way to get knocked up they produce seedless fruit. Seeds are expensive because to produce them rare vines that have one or more male flowers must be found.
Growing the vines take special care and even in California they have to be grown in hothouses or screened buildings. Care must be taken that bees and other pollinating insects cannot access the flowers. Should a bee that has visited sexually functional cucumber plants outside get in, seeds will will develop.
These cucumbers are never waxed because with so thin a skin these cukes are normally not peeled. This makes them highly perishable due to dehydration and consequent rot. Southern California high volume produce markets sell them and call them "European Cucumber". Larger straighter varieties are shrink wrapped in plastic for longer shelf life so they can be shipped to distant markets and are called English Cucumbers.
The larger of the photo specimens was 13 inches long (uncurled) 1-3/4
inches diameter at the thickest point and weighed 10 ounces. Typical shrink
wrapped specimens are a little bigger but generally weigh less than a pound.
Details and Cooking.
Gherkin - True -
[West Indian Gherkin, Bur Cucumber, Gooseberry Gourd (English);
Concombre Antillais, Cornichon des Antilles, Ti-concombre, Macissis
(French); Pepino das Antilhas, Cornichão das Antillas, Machiche,
Maxixé (Portuguese); Cucumis anguria]
True Gherkins are a small non-sativa cucumber native to southern Africa from Zaire south to Botswana and naturalized in Madagascar, but are best known for cultivation in the Caribbean region. The non-bitter less spiky varieties developed in the Caribbean have been reintroduced to Africa and are now cultivated there. The plant is also grown in Brazil and other parts of South America.
In the Caribbean and South America fruit is picked quite young, as it gets bitter and more spiky when much over 1-1/2 inches long. It is generally pickled, but is also cooked as a vegetable, particularly in soups. In Africa, leaves of the bitter varieties are used as greens, and some of the non-bitter varieties are pickled.
In the U.S. this plant is grown in gardens for private use in Florida
and exists in isolated patches as weeds in several other states including
a county each in California and Texas. It is not considered an aggressive
weed and seeds are available from suppliers.
Photo © source and licensing lost.
Gherkin - Cucumber -
[Cornichon (French), Cucumis sativa]
Any tiny immature cucumber used for pickling, generally less than three inches long. Since few people have ever seen a real gherkin this naming has been a successful subterfuge.
India has become a major grower and pickler of these cucumbers taking
advantage of low labor rates but this industry is ecologically questionable
and there have been contract abuses as well. The photo specimens are from
Bulgaria with the largest measuring 2-7/8 inch long, 7/8 inch diameter and
weighing 5/8 ounce.
Gherkin - Indian
Japanese Cucumber -
Not seedless but with much fewer seeds than garden cucumbers, Japanese cucumbers are sold unwaxed. They are generally dark green with bumpy skins and may have white spine dots. They are similar to the Persian cucumber but much larger and most varieties are sturdy enough to be grown in open fields in California.. There are a number of varieties ranging up to three feet long and 2 inches in diameter but the most popular are about 8 inches long and very straight. Millions are grown in Southern California but they are rarely seen in markets because our thousands of sushi bars (most of which, to the distress of the Japanese, are run by Koreans now) consume the crop. Photo "borrowed" from Kitazawa Seed Co., Oakland CA.
Kirby Cucumber -
[Liberty Cucumber, Pickle, Cucumus sativus]
You can't pickle a waxed cucumber so these are never waxed. That means you can eat them skins-on but also they will spoil quickly - even in the fridge they'll start getting slimy in just a few days. Peeled they have a little less flavor than the Green Blimps because the seed mass is so immature - they're often picked so young they look almost "seedless".
These vary greatly in size depending on how young they're picked. The largest of the photo specimens was 5-1/4 inches long, 2 inches in diameter and weighed 7-3/8 ounces. The smallest was 3-1/2 inches long, 1-3/8 inch diameter at the big end and weighed 1-3/4 ounces.
The skin is a bit tougher than that of the seedless varieties (though
not bitter) so for some uses you may wish to peel them, or they may be
partially peeled to decorative effect. They do well in salads and for
cooking.as well as for pickling.
Mediterranean Cucumber -
A mostly seedless cucumber normally sold unwaxed, so you can eat them skin-on. It's much shorter and straighter than the European Cucumber but has a much better flavor because the seed mass is proportionally larger - despite having no seeds to speak of. They're generally about 6 inches long, 1-1/4 inches in diameter and weighed about 3 oz.
Some of the hassles of growing European cucumbers apply as well to the Mediterranean - they need special handling of the vine and are generally grown in hothouses even in California. They're too small to be efficiently shrink wrapped so they're probably not available in many areas. Here in Southern California, produce markets have big heaps of them, often priced as low as 2012 US $0.69 or $0.79 per pound and they sell very well.
Peking Cucumber - See Beijing Cucumber.
Persian Cucumber -
A mostly seedless cucumber normally sold unwaxed, so you can eat them skin-on. In Southern California produce markets Persians alternate with Mediterranean cucumbers, though I'm not sure they don't just change the sign now and then, or perhaps different growers use alternate names - they look and taste pretty much the same. The last batch I bought labeled "Persian" averaged 5-1/4 inches long, 1-1/8 inches in diameter and weighed about 2 oz.
The hassles of growing Mediterranean cucumbers apply
as well to the Persian - they need special handling of the vine and are most
often grown in hothouses even in California. They're too small to be
efficiently shrink wrapped so they're probably not available in all areas.
Pickle - [Cucumis sativus]
"Quick pickles" are made with cucumbers, a vinegar brine and spices. Natural
pickles are made by packing cucumbers with water and salt to naturally
ferment and make their own sourness. They are then cleaned up and processed
with spices and other ingredients depending on what style pickle you're making.
Wild Cucumber - California
- [Cucamonga Manroot, Marah macrocarpus: California
Manroot, Marah fabaceus: other Marah species |
also Echinocystis lobata]
These perennial cucumbers are quite different from Cucumis cucumbers in the way the fruit functions. Rather than fleshy, the fruit is spiny and dry. When ripe it dries completely and splits at the end to spill the large seeds out. The fruit is not eaten and some say the unripe seeds may be "mind altering" but I haven't tried to find out. California Manroot is found over most of the state while Cucamonga Manroot is found over most or Southern California down to Baja.
All parts of the plant are bitter but the leaves have reportedly been used as a vegetable. The root tubers can weigh well over 200 pounds and were crushed by Native Americans for a toxin to stun fish with, so you probably don't want to try eating those. A soap-like substance has been extracted from the roots.
I have lots of these on my property in La Crescenta, CA, but growth
and fruiting are very dependent on early spring rainfall. The photo,
showing foliage, an unripe fruit, a just opened fruit with seeds, and a
drying empty pod was taken during 2008, a very good year for these. This
year, 2014, there was very little foliage and no fruit.
Wild Cucumber - Other
Health & Nutrition
Cucumbers are largely water and eaten at an early stage where their seeds are immature and haven't developed much protein. They aren't nutrition powerhouses but they do have a broad range of vitamins and minerals in significant amounts and they are very low in calories and fat.
Way back in the early '70s I used to get a nutritional publication from one of Ralph Nader's organizations. Ralph was saying pickles should be taken off the market because of their cost / nutritional content ratio was so low. The vitamin C content is degraded by pickling but some other nutrients may become more available - but I really don't think people are eating pickles for their nutritional value, Ralph. They eat them for taste.Links