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Cucumbers: for Cool--and "Cool"--Summer Treats
The expression "cool as a cucumber" is both figurative and literal. On a warm day, the inside of a field cucumber may be as much as 20°F cooler than the surrounding air. Perhaps that's the reason dishes made with cucumbers are so appealing on warm summer days. Now is a good time to find out all about cukes--how to select a good one, store it properly, and serve it deliciously. We'll also answer these questions: Is the cucumber a fruit or a vegetable? Will it really reduce puffiness under the eyes? Is it actually used to make facial masks?
How many different kinds of cucumber are there?
There are many, and they're grown on most continents. To simplify (and give me less to have to write), let's just focus on the three main types, which we commonly call "slicing," "seedless," and "pickling."
Slicing cucumbers: This term includes many varieties often referred to as "garden cucumbers." These are the ones you throw into your salad. If you buy these in the grocery store, they are probably waxed (so they don't lose moisture). Therefore, it's best to peel them before use. The skin is probably bitter anyway, so it's no loss in terms of taste. They are on the chubby side, generally 8-10 inches long, and contain seeds. Most require pollination.
Seedless cucumbers: These go by many different names, for example "English," "European,"
"hot house," and "'burpless." Why burpless? These cukes, which aren't really seedless but have much smaller and fewer seeds than the garden varieties, are much less likely to cause flatulence (gas). These are longer than garden cucumbers and skinnier. They have a thinner, tastier skin and are never waxed, so they don't need to be peeled. They are delicious to eat undoctored but are also commonly used in recipes such as a soup or dip. In the store, you'll commonly find them shrink-wrapped to retain moisture.
Pollination damages the quality of seedless cukes; therefore, in the U.S., they're usually grown in greenhouses. In Europe, they are often grown outdoors in areas where bees are excluded.
Pickling cucumbers: For pickling, Kirby cucumbers or gherkins are generally used. The latter is not actually a cucumber, but it's close enough to be called one. Gherkins are picked very small and usually pickled, though they are very good eaten just as they grow.
How do I select a good cucumber?
Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter offers these suggestions: "Find one that's firm, that has no soft spots. I have found that the lighter green ones have a more bitter taste."
If you want to eat the skin of a garden variety (for its nutrients), about.com says to look for unwaxed ones "in co-ops, natural food stores, and farmers markets." Dr. Cutter suggests scrubbing the waxed cuke very well if you plan to eat the skin.
What's the right way to store a cucumber for maximum shelf life?
Everyone agrees that it should be stored in the fridge in the crisper bin and not washed until ready to be used. About.com doesn't mention wrapping the garden cucumber. The seedless type should already be wrapped and should remain so until use. Here are storage suggestions from two of our Advisory Board scientists:
Dr. Cutter: "After cutting off what I need, I wrap mine in a clean paper towel (not plastic or aluminum foil) to keep it dry. The shelf life depends upon the temperature it's kept at. Too cold will cause ice crystals to form and can damage it. Use the leftovers within 2-3 days."
Dr. Allen: "I wrap it loosely in a plastic bag. Don't wrap it tightly! That will make it spoil quickly. Spoilage bacteria are naturally present, and they will cause the cucumber to get slimy faster. A whole cucumber should last at least a week. Cut up, it will spoil faster. If part of the cucumber shows signs of spoilage, you can cut 2-3 inches back from the spoiled part and use the rest."
About.com agrees with our scientists: it says that, if wrapped or waxed, uncut, and kept in the refrigerator's crisper drawer, a whole cucumber should keep for a week or two.
Jean Marie Brownson, author of the "Dinner at Home" column in the Chicago Tribune, points out that homegrown garden cucumbers are not coated in wax, so they can became mushy in a couple of days if left unwrapped. Here's her recommendation for storing cukes from your garden: "Keep cucumbers dry and wrapped in breathable plastic rather than sealed bags."
What are some popular ways to use cucumbers?
Cucumbers are inexpensive, nutritious, and low in calories, making them a perfect food, right? But, if you or the folks you feed don't like them plain, there are a lot of ways to make them more interesting. Here are just a few of the more popular methods:
- Pickle it or buy it already pickled. If you want to make your own, check out one or more of these sources for tips and recipes:
There are a lot more recipe sources online. For example, the Clemson Cooperative Extension page entitled "Pickled Cucumbers" has several recipes, including one that's low-sodium.
- Make cucumbers in vinegar. Here's one recipe: "Cucumbers in Vinegar."
- Make tzatziki sauce. What's that, you ask? Well, maybe you know it as tzadziki or tsatsiki. No? Well, it's the cucumber yogurt white sauce that a Middle Eastern restaurant gives you to put on your gyros sandwich. (If you don't know what gyros is, I give up.) If the sauce isn't identified by its Greek name, it may be called by the Turkish word "cacik.". Google has a lot of recipes for this cucumber yogurt sauce. Here's one place you can look: "Tzatziki-Cucumber Yogurt Dip." Yes, it's also good for dipping your pita bread or baby carrots.
- Make cucumber-avocado soup. There are a lot of recipes to choose from online. I heartily recommend the one my husband and I tried (from the Chicago Tribune): "Cool recipes for those it's-too-hot-to- cook days." It's a chilled soup. (Nothing has to be cooked.) I don't know if it would be as refreshing in February, but in August it was terrific.
- Throw a few cucumber slices into a cold drink. On a hot summer day, cucumber slices in icy water or iced tea are wonderful. Throw in a few cut-up strawberries to keep the cukes company.
- Don't forget diced cucumber: Add diced cucumber to your tuna or chicken salad. Be sure to serve some with gazpacho soup. Add some pieces to your smoothie for a vitamin boost.
- Give yourself a beauty treatment. Cool cucumbers placed over tired, puffy eyes make the eyes feel better and may reduce puffiness under the eyes. If you don't believe me, check out this article in the Huffington Post: "Do Cucumbers Really Help With Puffy Eyes? Pros Weigh In On This Beauty Legend." If your eyes feel fine but your skin needs perking up, make a facial mask with cucumber (or buy one readymade at a drugstore).
- Use cucumber juice to treat sunburn: Environmental Nutrition: the Newsletter of Food, Nutrition, and Health says the following: "...cucumber juice soothes irritated and swollen skin and even cools against the pain of sunburn."
Can I cook a cucumber?
Definitely. About.com suggests peeling, slicing, and sautéing them in melted butter and sprinkling them with salt and fresh herbs. This will give you a perfect, crunchy side dish to accompany fish.
Why is the cucumber classified as a fruit?
It has seeds. There are other foods considered vegetables that are really fruit, for example squash and tomato.
Who first said "cool as a cucumber"?
John Gay, the English poet, gets the credit. He wrote it in 1732.
Are you creating something delicious with a cucumber? Tell us about it. Comment below.
Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences
Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science
Chicago Tribune, Good Eating section "Dinner at Home: Cucumber Cool" by Jean Marie Brownson, July 10, 2013.
Environmental Nutrition, "Cool Cucumbers," July 2013.
huffingtonpost.com "Seedless Cucumbers: The Varieties to Look Out For"
huffingtonpost.com "Do Cucumbers Really Help With Puffy Eyes? Pros Weigh In On This Beauty Legend"
chicagotribune.com "Cool recipes for those it's-too-hot-to-cook days"
food.com "Cucumbers in Vinegar"
about.com "All About Cucumbers"
clemson.edu "Pickled Cucumbers"
europeancucumbers.com "Product Details: European Cucumbers"
wikiow.com "How to Make a Cucumber Based Facial Mask"