WHAT MAKES A PERFECT CUCUMBER?

By Gail Doesken

I’m the first to say that I really like eating fresh vegetables out of the garden. But until I started experimenting with growing different kinds of cucumbers, I have to admit that I leaned heavily towards dislike when it came to cucumbers. That all changed once I spent some serious time growing and eating cucumbers of all textures, flavors, colors, sizes, and shapes, and discovered that I didn’t dislike cucumbers, I just liked some types of cucumber more than others. 

So, what makes the perfect cucumber? The answer to that question not only depends on what you like, but also on what you plan to do with the cucumber, and what conditions you will be growing it in. The good news is there is plenty of diversity to choose from. 

When you think of a cucumber what immediately comes to mind? Is it long or short, dark or light, spiny or smooth, thick-skinned, thin-skinned, seedy, or something else entirely? There are just so many possible things a cucumber can be! Knowing more about the many types of cucumbers and their best uses can help you be more aware of what you desire in a cucumber so that you can find your perfect match.

How would you describe the perfect cucumber? 

Define your search

Before we take a look at the wide variety of cucumbers to choose from, it’s helpful if we throw a few definitions out there. At Seedlinked, we talk a lot about vegetables, their types, and the varieties within each vegetable and type. So, how does a type differ from a variety, and why does it matter on your search for the perfect cucumber? 

Variety: A variety is generally defined as being a group of plants within a particular species (such as a cucumber) that share a set of particular traits differentiating them from other varieties of the same crop. To be a variety these characteristics must be distinct, uniform, stable, and reproducible. So, for example, a widely available cucumber variety is ‘Marketmore 76’. 

Type: A type is a term used to define a group of varieties that exhibit similar characteristics. For instance, within the cucumber species there are many types, some of which you are probably pretty familiar with, such as slicing or pickling cucumbers. So, for example, the ‘Marketmore 76’ cucumber variety falls within the slicer type of cucumber. While varieties are identified by distinct names, types do not experience the same consistency in nomenclature. Cucumbers are one of the many vegetables that are often identified by inconsistent type names, so watch out.  

Now let’s take a look at the different types of cucumbers out there. You’ll be one step closer to refining your search for the perfect cucumber.

Know your options

What are the cucumber types that are available to choose from and why should you care? Well, if you want to grow a cucumber that is really good for pickling, you’re probably going to want to plant a variety that falls within the pickling cucumber type. If you want a cucumber for fresh eating, there are a whole bunch of additional options out there. As you read through the types below start thinking about what you really like in a cucumber and see if this helps to begin narrowing your search.

In John Navazio’s book. The Organic Seed Grower, he identifies two basic market classes of cucumbers, the fresh and processed market types. Pickling type cucumbers (both American and European) fall into the processed class. Defining the exact fresh market types becomes less clear. In general, Navazio says that fresh market cucumbers fall broadly into the Middle Eastern Beit Alpha type, Asian type, North American slicer, and European or Dutch greenhouse types. Outside of these broad types there are many variations and regionally-specific types. 

Be aware that true cucumbers are only those found within the genus and species of Cucumis sativus, though they are closely related to other members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes watermelon (Cucumis lanatus), melon (Cucumis melo) and summer and winter squash (four other Cucurbita genera). Armenian Cucumbers, for example, are actually a member of the Cucumis melo species, but taste and are used more like regular cucumbers.

Ok, let’s jump in.

pickling cucumber

Pickling – These cucumbers are generally broader and shorter in length than a slicer, with most mature fruits somewhere around 4 inches in length. They are generally bumpy, though some may be more spiny than others. In general their flesh is drier than slicers, and they often have more or larger seeds compared to many slicer types. Within pickling types you will hear of the gherkin, which are also commonly called cornichons or baby pickles. These are most often made from small pickling cucumbers (and some people use baby cucumbers of other types to make pickles too). Don’t get confused by the Mexican Sour Gherkin, though, as it belongs to an entirely different genus, and is not a cucumber at all.

North American Slicing – The ‘Marketmore 76’ is an open pollinated classic of the slicing cucumber types. These cucumbers are generally longer than pickling types, dark colored, and relatively thick skinned. The standard cucumber found in the produce section of your general grocery store would most likely fall into this category.

Asian – These cucumbers are generally mild tasting, slender, long, deep green, and often have bumpy or ridged skin. Flavors are often sweeter, and fruits may be either curved or  straight. These are most successfully grown with trellising to keep fruits nicely formed and free of insects. Asian cucumbers are frequently marketed as “burpless” which means they have lower levels of cucurbitacin, making them less likely to become bitter (or make you burp!). 

European or Dutch Greenhouse – Cucumbers in this type have smaller undeveloped seeds and thinner skins than the traditional slicer cucumber. Like Asian cucumbers these may be marketed as “burpless” due to their sweet/mild flavors. The mild flavors and thinner skins are great for eating, and often grow best in greenhouse, hoophouse, or other protected conditions since their thin skins make them tasty snacks for insects, too. In grocery stores these cucumbers will often be found wrapped in plastic to keep the fruits from losing moisture through their thin skins. 

Middle Eastern or Beit Alpha – Sometimes called Lebanese or Persian types, these cucumbers are best-adapted to hot, dry conditions, though they may also be successful under different growing conditions. These types are generally thin skinned and nearly seedless. Often aromatic and distinctly flavored, they can make a great fresh eating cucumber.

Make the bitter better

Cucumbers can get a bad rap for tasting bitter, and this is definitely something many people say contributes to a general dislike of cucumbers. Do beware of branding all cucumbers with your bitterness (pun intended!), as there are many things you can do to help ensure you don’t eat bitter cucumbers for dinner.

The cucurbitacin compounds found in the leaves and stems of the cucumber plant are thought to play a role in plant self defense by creating bitter tasting leaves for insect predators. Unfortunately, under certain conditions this bitterness can move into the fruits. Bitterness in cucumbers is not evenly distributed throughout the fruit, and can vary greatly between different types and individual varieties. When you do find a bitter cucumber you may be able to salvage it. Peel it and cut off the stem end, as bitter flavors are most likely to concentrate around the stem as well as the area right under the skin.

There are many other things you can do if you are trying to avoid growing bitter cucumbers. Most importantly, start by choosing a variety that is less prone to bitterness.  American slicers and pickling cucumbers types are more likely to produce bitter fruit than others, though it is important to check the specific variety you’d like to use for clearer information regarding bitter tendencies. 

Exposing cucumbers to stressful growing conditions can also cause bitterness. Do your best to mitigate stressful situations for your cucumbers such as excessive high or low temperatures, or temperature fluctuations, uneven water, dry conditions, diseases or pests, and poor soil. Some varieties are also more likely to develop bitterness when they become too large, so harvesting before cucumbers get too mature can help mitigate bitterness. Interestingly, cucurbitacin is also what attracts cucumber beetles, so choosing a variety low in cucurbitacin can help reduce this specifically adapted pest pressure.

Find your flavor

How do you describe flavor? Communicating what makes something taste good can be rather complex. To create a common language for flavor, many industries have developed what are known as flavor wheels to help provide a common descriptive language when discussing the sensory attributes of a product. The wine industry was one of the first to use the Wine Aroma Wheel in the 1980’s, and other specialty food industries such as chocolate, coffee, beer, and spirits, have since created their own adjective and color-rich tools as flavor exploration and nuance become more sought after by consumers. 

Vegetable flavors are no less complex than chocolate or wine, but flavor wheels are still a developing tool for vegetable enthusiasts, breeders, and chefs working to better understand, characterize, and select for optimum flavor. The Culinary Breeding Network has developed a beautiful winter squash flavor wheel, which is available to the public on their Etsy store, but to our knowledge, an official cucumber flavor wheel has yet to be released to the public. 

SeedLinked developed our flavor tasting trails as a fun way to discover delicious vegetables, and to learn more about what flavor characteristics are important in different vegetables. Participating in a tasting trial can also help us become more aware of how we process and describe flavor.

While we’ve yet to get as detailed as the flavor wheels, SeedLinked tasting trials can be set up to evaluate any of the following characteristics: appearance, cooked appearance, ease of preparation, likelihood to purchase (these are more related to willingness to buy or use a particular variety and less to do with flavor itself), overall flavor, sweetness, acidity, spiciness, bitterness, earthiness, aroma, flavor complexity, flavor intensity, skin thickness, and texture. While we often think of sweetness as a desirable flavor in many vegetables, there is far more to finding the perfectly balanced flavor for every crop and type. The trick is in finding the most representative and important characteristics for a given crop. 

If you’d like to try an in-person or virtual tasting trial with a group of customers or friends, you can set one up for free with SeedLinked. Email us at info@seedlinked.com to find out more. It’s simple, free, and lots of fun!

SeedLinked favorites

While cucumber perfection depends very much upon personal preference, there are also distinct trends in preference when we look at data from our collaborative trials. At this time in the growing season, SeedLinked’s 2020 cucumber trials are over half complete. And we can’t wait to share more with you when full results are in! For now, we’d love to give a sneak peek at some preliminary results. The graph below shows results from a recent tasting event for the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative’s 2020 Asian cucumber trial. In all flavor categories results are showing a favorite in the ‘Shintokiwa’ variety, though there appear to be some very close second and third place runner-ups in the ‘Suhyo’ and ‘Japanese Climbing’ varieties! 

‘Shintokiwa’ has been a favorite of mine since I first began growing it in the hot summers of California’s Central Valley a few years ago. I now grow ‘Shintokiwa’ every summer in southwest Wisconsin, and though we do battle powdery mildew in these during our humid summers, this cucumber still produces my absolute favorite slicing, or just plain grazing-in-the-garden cucumbers. I look forward to gorging on ‘Shintokiwa’ cucumbers every summer! I usually buy my seed from Turtle Tree Seed, since they originally brought this variety to North American markets from Japan, but it’s also available through other seed companies.

Another variety we’ve trialed with success in southwest Wisconsin is the ‘Corinto F1’ cucumber from Johnny’s Select Seeds. The ‘Corinto’ are a fun mix between a typical slicer and something thinner skinned. They have continued to produce for us in both cool and hot temperatures, and may be slightly more resistant to powdery mildew than the ‘Shintokiwa’.

Though we’re not officially trialing it this year, we’ve also been enjoying a new cucumber variety from Row 7 Seeds, ‘7082 Cucumber’. Technically a pickler, this cucumber has crunch, incredible balanced yet complex flavor, nice skin thickness (not too thick) and smaller seeds than the typical pickler. We hope to include this cucumber in more of our trials in the future.

To see more results from some of SeedLinked’s 2019 cucumber trials, take a look at our Recommended Varieties page. And remember, the more you grow and review varieties with SeedLinked, the easier it will be to see what grows well, and tastes delicious, too!