Common in the United States, cucumber actually is not native to North America. Cucumis sativus is thought to have originated in India about 3,000 years ago, before spreading to Africa and Southeast Asia and eventually the Americas in the mid-16th century.
A member of the Cucurbitaceae family, cucumber is technically a fruit, developing from the flower of the plant and containing seeds. While the seeds are edible, they become bitter as the cucumber matures, so it’s best to remove seeds from older cucumbers before eating.
Cucumbers grow in different sizes and colors, from yellow to green, and typically fall into two classifications: slicing and pickling. Generally speaking, smaller cucumbers are used for pickling and larger ones are used for slicing.
Most slicing cucumbers, such as the American slicing cucumber, are about 6 to 9 inches long; some varieties including the virtually seedless English garden cucumber can grow up to 2 feet long. The skin can be waxed after harvesting to ensure a longer shelf life. Smaller Persian and Kirby cucumbers often are used for pickling but also can be eaten raw.
Peak cucumber season is mid-summer to early fall, but dark green slicing and hothouse cucumbers are available year-round. Always wash cucumbers before use, regardless of whether the skin will be consumed. Once sliced, cucumbers should be refrigerated.
In the Kitchen: Cucumbers are known for their refreshing crunch and cool, mild flavor that makes them versatile and great for pairing with many flavors and textures. For example, cucumbers balance spicy flavors and also provide textural contrast when paired with creamy foods such as avocado or hummus. While they’re most commonly eaten raw or pickled, cucumbers can be cooked. Sauté them as a side dish or toss into a stir-fry.
Cucumbers make a delicious side or snack. Eat them sliced on their own or with a healthful dip, or add them to salads and sandwiches for crunchy texture. Incorporate diced cucumber into salsa and grated cucumber in noodle dishes. Spiralize a cucumber for a pasta replacement. Fresh cucumber also makes a great addition to green juices and refreshing smoothies. Pickled cucumbers add a satisfying sour element to dishes, sauces and even drinks.
Many people choose to remove cucumber peel because the waxy texture may be off-putting or because they’re concerned about pesticides or other residue. Proper washing or choosing a smaller cucumber with a thinner skin can alleviate these concerns.
In the Clinic: Cucumbers offer a variety of nutrients. One cup of cucumber slices (with the peel) has about 15 calories and is a good source of vitamin K. Made up of about 95 percent water, cucumbers support hydration and provide satiety.
The fermentation process when pickling cucumbers creates beneficial probiotic bacteria. However, pickled cucumbers tend to be high in sodium, so eat them in moderation.
In Quantity: Whole, uncut cucumbers can be stored up to 10 days in the refrigerator. Cucumbers are sensitive to cold temperatures, which can cause pitting and decay or make them watery, so store cucumbers near the front of the refrigerator. Cucumbers that have been sliced should be wrapped and can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days. Signs of spoilage include soft spots, sliminess and mold.
Cucumbers are generally sold by the pound or in units of 5 or 10 pounds. As with all fresh produce, clean and handle them properly to ensure food safety.
Cucumbers Growing Guide. Cornell University website. Accessed June 19, 2019.
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National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release, April 2018. United States Department of Agriculture/National Agricultural Library website. Accessed June 19, 2019.
Mukherjee P, Nema N, Maity N, Sarkar B. Phytochemical and therapeutic potential of cucumber. Fitoterapia. 2013;84:227-236.
Types of Cucumbers. Berkeley Wellness website. Published August 2, 2015. Accessed June 19, 2019.