Cucumbers are versatile in the kitchen and make a cool, refreshing summer treat. They’re also packed with nutrients that benefit skin and connective tissue. And, however you slice them, they’re delicious.
Like zucchini, watermelon and pumpkin, cucumber is a member of the squash family. Cucumbers grow in a variety of shapes and sizes, from 1-inch-long gherkins to mammoth greenhouse varieties reaching 20 inches or longer. Although there are nearly 100 varieties of cucumbers, they’re mainly classified in two categories: those eaten fresh (called slicing varieties) and small varieties cultivated for pickling.
American slicing cucumbers — bred with thick skin for longer storage and for protection during shipping — are most common in supermarkets. They’re field-grown, about 6 to 9 inches long, and have glossy, dark skin. Most other cucumbers, such as Middle Eastern, Oriental or Armenian, have thin, tender skins. In grocery stores, the most common thin-skinned cuke is the English cucumber (also called hothouse or European). Greenhouse grown, it is 12 to 24 inches long and relatively seedless. When purchasing, select firm cucumbers free of shriveled tips and soft spots. Slender cucumbers
typically have a lower sugar content than thick ones.
Water makes up 90 percent of a cucumber’s weight, which makes them good for hydrating naturally. They also contain vitamin C and caffeic acid, both of which reduce swelling and soothe skin irritations. Cucumber skin contains fiber, potassium, magnesium and silica. Silica, a vital mineral, is an essential part of healthy connective tissue and also improves skin health. A recent study concluded that when people added foods high in potassium, magnesium and fiber to their diet, their blood pressure dropped to healthier levels. Cucumbers also contain vitamin A, manganese, folic acid and iron, and they’re a good source of molybdenum, an element that may help prevent tooth enamel decay.
The best way to enjoy the delicate flavor and nutritional boost of cucumbers is to eat them raw, whether sliced, julienned, grated or juiced. But cooked cucumbers are also delicious, beautifully complementing vegetarian, poultry and fish recipes.
- Use cucumber slices the same way you would lemon or lime slices to perfume and brighten drinks.
- Create a detoxifying smoothie by juicing cucumbers with vegetables like carrots and beets.
- To make self-contained, bite-size hors d’oeuvres, slice cucumbers into 1⁄2- to 1-inch rounds, scoop out seeds using a melon baller, then fill the indentation with cheese, yogurt dip, smoked fish or vegetable relish.
- Cucumbers can be sautéed or braised for an easy side dish. To sauté, quickly cook cut cucumbers in a hot pan, lightly coated with olive oil. Stir continuously and cook for one to two minutes. To braise, cut cucumbers into desired shapes of batons, small melon balls, or thin, halved slices and slowly simmer in broth for two to three minutes.
- For a surprising main or side dish, halve cucumbers lengthwise and cut into 2-inch sections. Remove seeds, then fill with cooked meats, vegetables or seasoned breadcrumbs. Place in a covered dish with a small amount of broth and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees F.
- Uncut, unwashed cucumbers will keep for about 10 days when stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Sliced cucumbers, tightly wrapped, can be refrigerated for up to five days. Be careful not to over-chill: cucumbers can quickly turn to slush.
- Always peel cucumbers if skins are covered with a shiny wax film (waxes may contain ethyl alcohol, ethanol, soap or milk casein). Otherwise, wash, keep the skin on and enjoy its health benefits.
Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of The New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).