Real Food Encyclopedia | Cucumbers
A native of India, the cucumber is among the oldest domesticated plants, referenced in literature and art from antiquity. Along with caper buds, figs, grapes and honey, wild cucumbers are mentioned in “Gilgamesh,” one of the earliest surviving works of literature from around 3,000 BCE The cucumber (or its wild ancestor) also makes appearances in the Bible: The Israelites reminisce about it amongst the food they ate as slaves in Numbers 11:5 and it’s also mentioned in the Book of Isaiah.
In first century CE, the cucumber was a favorite of the Roman emperor Tiberius, who had greenhouses constructed to satisfy his year-round cucumber cravings. Fast forward 700 or so years, and the cucumber continued to be prized among the ruling class. Medieval emperor Charlemagne insisted that the cucumber be planted in all the gardens of his many estates.
According to legend, Christopher Columbus brought cucumber seeds from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola during one of his major oceanic voyages in the late 1400s, the beginning of its travels throughout the Americas.
Fun Facts about Cucumbers:
- The cucumber tree, an ornamental deciduous North American native, is a member of the magnolia family, not cucumis, and is named for its fruit, which resemble cucumbers when unripe.
- From the 16th to 19th century, the cucumber aroused great suspicion among Britons who dubbed it “cow-cumber” for its thick, bitter skin and reputation for causing indigestion, food considered only fit for cows.
- The expression “cool as a cucumber” is older than we may think; it was coined by 18th century British poet John Gay in his comic ballad “A New Song for New Similes.”
What to Look for When Buying Cucumbers
There are several different types of cucumbers in the marketplace with varying availability, depending on where you shop.
The supermarket produce aisle is home to the American slicing cucumber. Available year-round, it tends to be heavily waxed and lacking in flavor. More recently, the American slicer shares space with the burpless/seedless cultivar, also sold as the hothouse or English cucumber. Long and sometimes curvy, sometimes with a nipply end, this thinner-skinned, self-pollinating cuke is often wrapped in plastic to maintain freshness.
The choices get more interesting at local coops, ethnic and farmers’ markets, and roadside farm stands. Here’s where you’ll find Asian and Middle Eastern slicers, the short, stubby and slightly warty pickling cucumbers, as well as a slew of heirloom varieties, including the lemon cucumber. You might also come across the Armenian cucumber, a close relative to the muskmelon (C. melo var. flexuosus) and the gherkin, a pickling cucumber native to Africa (C. anguria).
Since the cucumber is mostly water (about 96 percent water by weight), its cell walls quickly break down and turn the fruit into mush. Regardless of cultivar, a cucumber fit for eating should be firm with no signs of mushiness and no discoloration. For unwaxed cucumbers, head straight for the farmers’ market where you might even be lucky enough to find Mexican Sour Gherkins: cucumbers that resemble teeny tiny watermelons.
Sustainability of Cucumbers
Pesticides and Cucumbers
The conventional American slicing cucumber is ranks in the middle of the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, a list the group created to spotlight the produce with the highest pesticide load. Because it’s highly perishable, commercially grown cucumbers are coated with a food-grade wax or resin, to prolong shelf life and retain moisture. The coating can be vegetable, shellac or petroleum based. When shopping, look for labels indicating the type of wax applied, but the question of safety remains.
When the air is good and warm, the cucumber thrives; it is a summer item through and through. In fact, the cucumber dislikes even the slightest dip in temperature below 70 degrees F.
Georgia is the top cucumber producing state, followed by Florida, North Carolina and California. In 2012, the US imported more than 1 billion pounds of cucumbers from Mexico.
The cucumber is temperature sensitive — too hot and it turns to mush; too cold, and it will shrivel up. Keep refrigerated and use within a few days. If your crisper drawer runs cold, wrap the fruit in a dish towel.
Cooking with Cucumbers
Cucumbers can be prepared in a variety of ways. Try turning them into a drink by adding a few seeded cucumbers into the blender, along with your favorite herbs, as a gateway to beverage bliss. This agua fresca, flavored with ginger, lime and sweetened with a simple syrup, would be perfect for a hot summer day.
Cucumber is also a great addition to gazpacho, which keeps well in the refrigerator for days and is one of the best things to take the edge off a sweltering day.
Mild thing that she is, the cucumber is an amiable playmate of vinaigrettes and all kinds of sauces. A favorite hot-weather last-minute supper is a sliced cucumbers tossed with sesame oil, soy sauce, lime, chili flakes and chopped fresh cilantro. Serve with brown rice and a fried egg for a quick Asian-inspired rice bowl.
Thirsty? Eat a cucumber. Although a respectable source of potassium and Vitamin C, the cucumber is a superb thirst quencher. The cucumber is also rich in lignans, a type of phytoestrogen with anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. (Other lignan-rich plants are: flax seed, sesame seed and oat bran.) Lignans continue to be studied for their link to lowering the risk of hormone-related cancers.