Reap the Harvests
Depending on the variety, cucumbers are ready for harvest 50 to 70 days from planting. The more you pick cucumbers, the longer they'll produce. After all, they do belong to the squash family, and certainly zucchini has taught us all a thing or two about letting fruits get too big. You can expect longer harvests of top-quality cukes on productive plants if you pick the fruits frequently and before they get too large.
Size matters. The size at which you harvest depends on the variety grown. For optimum taste and texture, American slicers are generally best when harvested at 6 to 8 inches long; Middle Eastern types such as 'Amira' at 4 to 6 inches; most picklers at 3 to 5 inches; and Asian varieties at 8 to 12 inches. The Middle Eastern types (also known as Mediterranean cucumbers) are shorter and have a blockier shape than American varieties. Asian varieties like 'Suyo Long' and 'Tasty Jade' are long and slender, reaching as long as 15 inches in length. The Middle Eastern types have a bit more flavor than Asian varieties, which are very mild. Both types have very tender skin.
How to harvest. Some people harvest their cukes by turning the fruit parallel to the vine with a quick snap. But unless you're skilled at making such a clean break, a pair of scissors or pruning shears might prove a better bet. Simply grasp the fruit and cut the stem 1/4 inch above it.
The bitter ends. If fruits taste bitter, no need to panic. "Bitterness concentrates in the stem end and skin and doesn't penetrate the entire fruit," says horticulturist Tracy K. Lee of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., in Warminster, Pennsylvania. "Simply peel the fruit and cut off the stem end by about an inch or two to reduce the bitterness."
The Bitter Truth
Built-in bitterness. Most cucumber plants contain compounds known as cucurbitacins ("kyew-ker-BIT-a-sins") that cause fruit to taste bitter. At low levels, you aren't likely to detect them. But high levels of cucurbitacins produce extremely bitter fruit- so bitter that eating it would cause a riot in your stomach. Cucurbitacin levels increase when a plant is under stress. Your mileage may vary. The concentration of these compounds varies from plant to plant, fruit to fruit, and even within the individual fruit itself. The ability to taste cucurbitacins also varies from person to person. Even insects have varying preferences for cucurbitacins- the compounds attract cucumber beetles but repel other insects, such as aphids and spider mites.
An antibitterness gene. Cucurbitacins are found in most cucurbits, but some cucumber varieties possess a gene that inhibits their formation. "The bi gene causes the entire plant to be bitterfree," notes Todd C. Wehner, Ph.D., professor of horticultural science and plant breeder at North Carolina State University. "Bitterfree plants always produce bitterfree fruit, even under stress conditions," he adds.
Bitterfree types. Varieties that possess the recessive bi gene include European and Dutch greenhouse cucumbers- those long, very slender, seedless specimens typically sold shrink-wrapped with plastic to protect their thin skins. 'Marketmore 97', a vining slicer variety, also has the bitterfree gene.
Burpless cucumbers. What makes a cucumber "burpless" is open to debate. Some researchers have suggested that a burpless cucumber contains less of a burp-causing compound; some say it's the seeds that cause people to burp, and therefore the English/Dutch long hothouse-type cucumbers are also burpless. Sometimes burpless is used as a marketing term for Asian varieties of cucumbers. Burpless varieties include those two categories plus varieties like 'Tasty Green', 'Sweet Success', and 'Big Burpless Hybrid'. Although burpless varieties are bred to produce fewer cucurbitacins, they don't have the gene that would make them bitterfree, so they could produce more cucurbitacins if growing conditions become unfavorable.
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