Cucumbers are actually fruits, not vegetables. But in the culinary world, we know cucumbers as the crunchy vegetable on crudité platters, in salads and sliced into sandwiches.
The first cucumbers originated in Western Asia, India or the Middle East. Cucumber fruit is mentioned in the legend of Gilgamesh, an Uruk king who lived around 2500 B.C. in modern day Iran. Cultivation spread next to Europe and finally cucumbers appeared in North America in the 1500s. These days, cucumbers are widely cultivated because they are easy to grow in a variety of conditions. You'll find them growing all around the world, from Canada to China to Cameroon. They're a popular greenhouse vegetable that are grown indoors alongside tomatoes.
Cucumber Health Benefits
1. Cucumbers are low in calories.
A cup of sliced cucumber has just 16 calories, making it a low-calorie snack food to crunch on. And there is value in those calories. Cucumbers are a source of vitamin K (as long as you don't peel them), the mineral molybdenum and a variety of phytonutrients (plant-based nutrients).
2. Cucumbers are high in phytonutrients.
Cucumbers contain the phytonutrients known as lignans, which are said to be protective against cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. Some of the phytonutrients in cucumbers also work as antioxidants, which are said to scavenge free radicals, harmful substances that damage DNA and contribute to the aging process.
3. Cucumbers are hydrating.
In a cup of sliced cucumber, 95% of the weight comes from water. That makes cucumbers a very hydrating vegetable, perfect for juicing or snacking on during warm summer days. In fact, cucumbers (and their salad partner — lettuce) are said to be the most hydrating vegetables on earth due to their very high moisture content. A study of post-exercise hydration found that reaching for a cucumber after finishing an intense workout may hydrate your body twice as effectively as a glass of water. It's because water-rich vegetables also provide a bit of sugar, protein, mineral salts and vitamins that are lost in exercise, helping you recover faster.
How to Add Crunchy Cucumbers to Your Diet
Do you refrigerate cucumbers? Most people do, but it turns out that they actually last longer when stored at room temperature, since they are sensitive to cool temps below 50°F (the fridge is usually held at about 38°F). If you do refrigerate them, use them within three days.
There are hundreds of varieties of cucumber, which come in a variety of colours. The edible types are classified into two main categories: slicing or pickling. Slicing cucumbers are the common vegetable that are eaten fresh and tend to be larger with a thicker skin. Pickling cucumbers are smaller with a thinner skin and best in salty brine.
Unlike most vegetables, which are equally delicious raw or cooked, cucumbers work better raw. Because of their very high water content, cooking makes them soggy and takes away their telltale crunch. If you do choose to cook cucumber, use a quick stir-fry method and cook for just 2-3 minutes to retain some toothsome crunch.
Cucumbers are the star in Greek salad, Middle Eastern tabbouleh (bulger salad with cucumber, tomato and parsley), Indian raita (yogurt and cucumber sauce) and kappa maki, the famous Japanese cucumber sushi roll. They also work well in cold soup, such as gazpacho. This culinary global diversity represents the fact that cucumbers adapt to different environments and grow well all over the world.
As an appetizer, cucumbers are a great substitute for crackers as a base. Cut them into rounds, and top with hummus, cheese or salmon mousse. You can also stack cucumbers in sandwiches or burgers, add strips to wraps or sushi rolls, or pair them with yogurt dip as a snack.
If you're buying pickled cucumbers (pickles), watch the salt content. For some brands, a single pickle may contain half of your day's sodium intake. Use pickles sparingly as a flavour-enhancing condiment, not as a snack food.
Zucchini vs. Cucumber
While in the same botanical family, cucumbers and zucchini differ mostly in their culinary usage. Cucumber is better raw, while zucchini is favored when grilled, broiled, baked, stir-fried or used in dishes such as ratatouille.
Cara Rosenbloom is a Toronto-based registered dietitian, writer and recipe developer. She's the co-author of the best-selling cookbook Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans (Whitecap, 2016) and writes a health column for the the Washington Post.
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