You've Been Prepping Cucumbers Wrong Your Whole Life

When the sun is high and the days are hot, cucumbers are a crisp, juicy, refreshing addition to our plates, and fun fact (via PreGel): cucumbers are fruits, and both cucumbers and melons are members of the cucurbitaceae, or gourd family. But like many gourds, cucumbers can be a bit bland and flavorless, and while their presence is demanded in any self-respecting salad, the question in the backs of many home cooks' minds may as well be, "What are we going to do about the cucumbers then?"

Cooking sites like Food & Wine may have found the answer by taking a leaf out of Momofuku executive chef Joshua Pinsky's book on how to tame wayward vegetables. "Cucumbers are friendly, crisp, and sweet," Pinsky says. "There's always been a place for them at Momofuku, whether on a pork bun or with Noodle Bar's spicy cucumber salad."

But even he admits cucumbers are pretty boring, and don't add a lot of flavor to any dish they're added to. His solution: salt 'em until they're ready to play ball with other ingredients.

How to salt a cucumber

The New York Times' food guru Mark Bittman prepares the cucumbers for his salad with scallops by peeling the cucumbers if their skins have been waxed, cutting them in half lengthwise, scooping out the seeds, salting them, and then leaving them to drain for about half an hour in a colander. If you're not sure if your cuke is waxed or not, says you can tell when a cucumber has been coated with edible wax because it will have a high-glossy sheen... whereas unwaxed cucumbers will look a dull green. Waxing is meant to keep the cucumber from drying out from the time it is picked to the time it reaches your chopping board. 

Once the cucumber has given up some of its liquid, Bittman recommends rinsing it and draining it one more time before further dividing the cucumber into quarter-inch thick slices.

It's at this stage that chefs like Bittman and Pinsky reckon the cucumbers are ready to play the starring or supporting role in any salad, without compromising flavor by weeping into the dressing. Pinsky is big on his restaurant's Cucumber and Oregano Salad; Slate swears that pre-salting cucumbers turns them into the perfect canvas for a refreshing tzatziki. No matter what you decide to use them on, we're betting that salting cucumbers means they won't turn your salad into a swimming pool.

Salting cucumbers is important if you want to use them in a thick creamy dressing

Salting is an especially important step if you're preparing your cucumbers so they go into a creamy salad like the Greek yogurt-based tzatziki. Slate also suggests starting that particular dish with a firm, unwaxed cucumber. But if your supermarket really doesn't offer you a choice, you can get rid of the wax by using a fruit and vegetable wash to scrub the layer off. You can then half-peel the cucumber and then slicing it in half lengthwise.

It is also best to de-seed the cucumber if you plan to have it sit around for a while, since the seeds are liable to make the tasty gourd soggy. Once the cucumbers have been prepped for your salad, you lay slices in a strainer or colander and throw in a huge pinch of salt, and leave it to sit — in this instance, for around 20 minutes. There is no need to worry about just how much, salt to use because most of it will drain away anyway as the cucumber gives up its liquid.

Cucumbers may not need more than 1/4 teaspoon of salt

If you don't want to go through the whole process of halving and de-seeding the cucumber, its perfectly acceptable for you to slice them across so you get discs instead of spears. Culinary Hill chef Meggan Hill says salting these cucumber rounds means layering slices at the bottom of your colander, sprinkling about a quarter teaspoon of salt on them, and then adding another layer of cucumber over the first layer before adding more salt. 

Don't forget to set the strainer on a bowl so that the drained cucumber juice has someplace other than the kitchen countertop to go. You can also choose to put the colander and bowl in the fridge so the salt has the chance to do its thing. Once the cucumbers are ready (after an hour or so), use a clean paper towel to press the excess salt away, and your cucumbers are ready to go.