Cucumbers 101: How to Buy, Store, and Cook with Them
Are you eating enough cucumbers? These days, the onetime bit player is getting its moment in the sun. Know how to pick them, distinguish the various types, and eat more of them—smashed, salted, spiced, and every which way.
Peak cucumber season is upon us, and with it the opportunity to stay cool as a cuke more often than ever. Think: Cold, creamy cucumber soups, salted cukes with lemon and hot peppers, and spicy crushed Thai cucumbers, to start. Nowadays high-quality varieties are even more widely available thanks to farmers markets, so take advantage of the summer growing season and eat more of them!
If you’re at the grocery store, avoid mushy, shriveled, or off-color cucumbers, or those with broken skin. Store in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for up to 10 days, and stash cut cukes, tightly wrapped, for up to five. (A note of caution: Cucumbers sold at supermarkets are sometimes waxed to extend their shelf life, so they should be peeled just prior to eating.)
In her forthcoming cookbook Cucumbers, Dawn Perry—the Food Director of Real Simple— breaks down some of the most commonly found varieties in addition to dishing out a few great recipes. She notes that cukes largely come in two types—those for pickling and those for slicing. Kirbys and gherkins are most popular to pickle, but the number of slicing varietals is growing by the year. You might spy Blondes, Divas, or Dashers at the market. English or “hothouse” cucumbers are the ones you’ll spy most often most grocery stores, and tend to be mostly seedless. Persian cukes are particularly crunchy, and lemon cukes are short and round.
When preparing the fruit—yep, it’s a fruit!—split it lengthwise and use a melon baller to carefully remove its seeds, or keep them intact: One of Perry’s best ideas is to simply sprinkle sliced cucumbers with flaky salt, red pepper flakes, and the juice of half a lemon or. It looks gorgeous, tastes salty, sweet, and hot at once, and if you want an extra hit of protein (my preferred variation), you can blitz a few peanuts to sprinkle on top for a riff on Thai appetizers.
Slice up cucumbers to prettify filtered water, play around with them for basil gin and tonics, puree them for soups, or smash them to dress with soy, sesame, vinegar, garlic, and cilantro for a popular Chinese dish. Perry’s book is packed with cuke-centric ideas, from panzanella to soba salad to cucumber guacamole, so it’s worth investigating when it hits shelves on July 11.
Just remember that as cucumbers mature, their seeds become more bitter; if you’ve never had a young cuke fresh from a farmer, make this the year you find one to try.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.