In Season: Cucumbers
Ever wonder where “cool as a cucumber” came from? Perhaps it's because this member of the gourd family is always a few degrees cooler on the inside than its surroundings. Cool, crispy cucumbers are hitting the markets now -- find out how we love to use them.
Cucumbers ( Cucumis sativus, Cucurbitaceae) belong to the gourd family, which includes squash and melons. Now grown all over the world, cukes are thought to have originated in either India or Thailand.
Cucumbers are classified based on whether they’re good for slicing (a.k.a. eating fresh) or for pickling. American slicing cucumbers are short and thick, and their tough skin contains a chemical used by the plants to protect themselves from pests. That’s what gives cucumbers their bitter taste. Common varieties in the Northeast include Encore, Raider, Speedway, Thunder and Striker. Hothouse are very long (about a foot) and have fewer seeds, a thinner skin and are wrapped in plastic -- which means there's so no wax coating or peeling necessary.
The American pickling cucumber has thin skin, which makes it easier for the brine to flavor up the entire veggie. Common varieties include Kirby and Earlipik 14. Kirby cukes are short and have a bumpy yellow or green skin. They can be used for both slicing and pickling.
Cucumber seeds and skin are edible, though you may not always want to use them. Peel cucumbers if they have waxed skin or if the skin has a bitter flavor. As cucumbers mature, the seeds grow larger and become more bitter -- to remove the seeds, cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the pulpy center with a spoon. Although you can find cucumbers at your market year-round, the peak season is from May through August.
Each medium cucumber contains 96 percent water and around 40 calories. Cucumbers are are very low in sodium, with only 6 milligrams, and a good source of vitamin C, magnesium and potassium -- more than 10 percent of your daily needs of each! One cucumber also provides more than 60 percent of your daily vitamin K needs.
Of course you can chomp on fresh cucumbers dipped in hummus, low fat dressings or homemade salsa. They give salads a crunch that’s cool and refreshing during the summer months. To create the perfect cucumber salad, remove the excess water so it doesn’t get too soupy. I like to lay the cucumber slices flat on a cookie tray lined with paper towels. Then sprinkle with salt (about 1 teaspoon per cuke) and let stand one hour. Squeeze out the juice by grabbing handfuls of cucumbers or wrap in a clean kitchen towel (it’s a good tension-releaser too). Cold cucumber soup and beverages are other ways to enjoy this cool fruit as is sauteing in a teaspoon of oil.
Shopping Tip: Choose fresh cucumbers that are firm and green with no signs of bruising or discoloration. Avoid those that are mushy, shriveled, discolored or without their skin intact. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to one week. Wash and scrub gently before use.
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio »