Please Meet the Magical Cucumbers That Will Change Your Mind About Nature’s Most Boring Vegetable
How to adopt a pet watermelon gherkin—and cook and eat it
If you don’t like cucumbers, it’s probably because you’re used to those thick-skinned, waxy things at grocery stores that are more like crunchy water than anything else. It’s understandable that you don’t like those. But if you treat cucumbers like any other fruit (yes, they’re fruit!), and buy quality ones when they’re in season, you’ll find they taste a whole lot better.
While a few varieties of grocery store cucumbers are available year-round, summer is the heart of cucumber season, when the most interesting ones pop up at markets. Here’s what to look for.
Those thick-skinned and bland excuses for produce are called American Slicing cucumbers. They’re the only cucumbers with thick skins—they were bred that way so they could handle being shipped long distances and so that they’d keep longer (woof). Their varieties also have ridiculous (and maybe very American?) names like Panther, Whopper, Turbo, Daytona. If you are lucky enough to have a garden, and you want to grow cucumbers, maybe avoid growing those.
European Greenhouse cucumbers are the extra long ones you see in grocery stores that are individually wrapped in plastic. They’re mildly sweet (sometimes too mild), lightly crunchy, and thin skinned. A step up from the American slicers, for sure, but you can still do better.
Middle Eastern cucumbers, also known as Persian cucumbers, are pretty much always good. They’re cute and small and slightly ridged. They have more crunch and thinner skins than the European cucumbers. Juicy, sweet, and vegetal. These are the cucumber-iest, and best, grocery store option. I’m not alone in thinking this, chef Michael Solomonov, of Zahav (and a lot of other good places), is also a fan: “We love using Persian cucumbers. They’re firmer and have fewer seeds. You pickle them and their sweetness plays all-too perfectly with the sour brine, and generally speaking, sweet and sour is one of the most refreshing flavor combinations you can have.”
These cukes are short, thick, and warty. They vary from straight to curvy. They have a uniformly solid crunch, thinner skin than the slicers, and a light sweetness. They aren’t, however, Kirby cucumbers. The two are often confused, but the Kirby Stays Green was developed by Norval E. Kirby, and was introduced to the market in 1920, then disappeared. The name stuck around and got mixed up with the picklers.
Oriental cucumbers come in a range of colors, lengths, and flavors. They can be very mild and are sometimes very bitter. They’re long, thin, and bumpy, which is a nicer way of saying warted. There’s hardly any difference between the skin and the flesh, so there’s no reason to peel them. They’re extra crunchy and not sweet: green, earthy, and fresh are nice descriptors.
These really do look an awful lot like lemons, including the protrusion at the flower/blossom end. When they’re ripe, they’re very golden. They have a mild flavor, more sweetness than acidity. They’re crisp (but not like the Oriental cucumbers), and they’re bristly—just scrub the bristles off if you don’t want to eat them.
Possibly the cutest produce ever: they look like teeny tiny watermelons. Their skin is pleasantly thick, and they have a nice pop when you bite into them. They’re tart and citrusy, and best served raw.
I’d be remiss to not mention cornichons in a cucumber guide. They’re made from extra small (no bigger than a pinky) cucumbers that aren’t likely to be found fresh in stores or at farmers markets. But if you’re lucky enough to have a garden, you can grow them—in seed catalogs I’ve seen names like petit de Paris, cornichon de Paris, French pickling, French gherkin, and Mathilde.
“Always look for firmness,” says Jeremy Tannenbaum, who sources all of the ingredients for Gramercy Tavern and knows a thing or two about picking produce (he’ll go through over 2,000 pounds of cucumbers this summer). Avoid any that are shriveled, have soft spots, or are turning yellow (which means they’re overmature and not their best). You’re also better off not buying the cucumbers that are waxed because they’re mostly flavorless and you can’t eat their skins.
Store all of them loosely wrapped in the fridge. If they’re tightly sealed and can’t breathe, they’ll get slimy pretty quickly (unless they’re waxed, but we’ve already gone over why you shouldn’t be buying those).
How to Cook With Them
Cucumbers are cool and mild and aren’t exactly considered an exciting ingredient. So to inject some life into them, I asked some professionals if they had any interesting ideas, and got way more than I was expecting.
Think about their different parts: “One important thing across the board is that the skins, flesh, and watery seed-pulp center all taste and act differently,” says Jon Lavelle of New York’s Maialino. “This makes it really interesting to play with each of those parts.”
He likes to use the skins of (unwaxed!) cucumbers to make a “a pleasantly green and surprisingly flavorful cucumber oil.” Blend some peels with a neutral oil and strain.
Lavelle also likes to char their skins: At Maialino, they blister the skins with a torch until the skins are mostly black (for the home cook, this could easily be done on a hot grill) and then slice them thinly. “The burnt skin lends a smokiness to them that works well with that slightly bitter iodine thing they have going on, and balances the sweetness that some cucumbers have.”
Pair them with seafood: Lavelle particularly likes them with seafood “especially richer or more aggressive fish.” And Solomonov agrees: “At Abe Fisher, we dice lightly pickled Persians with sugar, salt and sweet onions to make a salad with pickled mackerel.”
Or other rich things: Solomonov thinks they’re particularly stellar paired with lightly battered, crispy fried onion rings for added crunch, which they do at Abe Fisher. And don’t forget dairy: “It’s nothing new that cucumbers play well with dairy, especially acidic dairy,” says Lavelle, and he suggests mixing their juice into strained yogurt seasoned with salt and lemon.
Mess with their textures: Another cool idea from Jon Lavelle: “Playing with the texture and composition of the cucumber can do a lot to change how it tastes.” A few tricks for getting other textures out of them: “charring or even warming slightly makes the texture a little softer and denser. Freezing and thawing is another cool way to concentrate flavor and get a soft, supple texture.”
Do more with their juice: Juicing cucumbers, with or without the skin and using that juice raw is “a pretty obvious choice,” says Lavelle. He suggests using that juice in a cold broth with fish, or emulsified into a vinaigrette, “but cooking that juice down can yield really cool results, too.”
Mix up the traditional cucumber salad: Cucumbers, tomatoes, and a light dressing—it’s a classic for a reason, but adding a few unexpected ingredients can go a long way. Lavelle says “it’s fun to play on that seafood connection and add things like seaweed or, especially, blanched sea beans.”
Chef Norberto Piattoni, of Metta in Brooklyn, is partial to a salad of cucumber, tomato, doughnut peaches, ice plant (an edible succulent), and celery juice. “Very refreshing!!!” he says.
Grate them: Rachel Yang, the woman behind Seattle’s Joule, Revel, and Trove restaurants, and Portland’s Revelry, and author of the forthcoming My Rice Bowl, suggests grating cucumber and making an extra refreshing condiment to have on hand. “Mixed with a little vinegar or lemon juice and salt, it’s perfect to serve with cold soba or udon for hot summer days.”
And salsa them: John Karangis, Executive Chef at Union Square Events, gave me this brilliant idea when I bugged him while he was shopping at Union Square Greenmarket. And I love his take on it: bright and refreshing but full flavored. The perfect taste of summer.