11/03/2011 01:42 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012


Does anyone actually crave a cucumber? Not often, if at all. Even the best cucumbers are reliably crunchy, watery, and rather bland, and while these aren't necessarily bad qualities, they're not particularly compelling ones either.

Which doesn't mean that cucumbers must be relegated to an eternity of playing second fiddle to lettuce in tossed salads. Cucumber's very lack of personality gives it a spongelike versatility: it soaks up whatever flavors you pair it without ever clashing, and without losing its signature crunch. (You can even combine cucumber with sweet flavors: Try throwing a peeled, seeded cucumber in a berry, melon, or mango smoothie sometime -- it fits right in, which isn't surprising when you consider that cucumber is, botanically speaking, a fruit, not a vegetable.)

Though cucumbers can vary in color, size, and shape, there are really only three main varieties widely available in the U.S. First is the common cucumber -- the "slicer" -- found in every supermarket: relatively smooth skinned, uniformly dark green, often waxed to seal in moisture. (You can eat unwaxed cucumbers without peeling, so they're preferable; waxed ones must be peeled. If you have any doubt whether a cuke is waxed or not, scrape the surface with your fingernail.) Look for firm, heavy, narrow slicers -- thicker cucumbers usually have more seeds, which are sometimes bitter and never particularly enjoyable. (If you do end up with a seedy specimen, it's beyond easy to remove them: Just cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, and then use a spoon to scrape out the seeds.)

Better, in general, are English cucumbers -- longer, slimmer, and thinner-skinned than regular slicing cucumbers. They're never waxed (they're often wrapped in plastic, however), and they generally have few or no seeds. Unfortunately, English cucumbers still aren't as common in supermarkets as slicers.

For my money, Kirby cucumbers are the best bet. These are the familiar smaller, bumpier, fatter cukes, the kind most often used for pickles. (There's a kind of cross between English and Kirbys that are sometimes called Iranian -- skinnier than English and shorter than Kirbys, they're pricey but reliably good.) This doesn't mean you can't use Kirbys raw: You can, and they're good that way. But homemade pickles -- pretty easy to make -- showcase their juicy texture and ability to suck in strong flavors. Some pickles are brined in vinegar, which keeps them good for up to a few weeks in the refrigerator (and much longer if you can them), but real kosher pickles -- my favorite kind -- are bathed only in salt water, with some garlic and dill thrown in for extra punch. This recipe requires virtually no effort, just a day or so to let the flavor develop.

If you don't have time to make pickles but want to do something more interesting than salad, try combining cucumber with avocado, peach, chiles, and lime for a quick, rough salsa that's not unlike pico de gallo. You can just chop everything, throw it in a bowl, and serve it with chips, but if you have a few extra minutes, consider salting the cucumber beforehand to improve its texture and flavor. In fact, this is a technique that always adds welcome character to our most popular bland vegetable: Toss sliced or chopped cucumber with a good sprinkling of salt, let it sit for half an hour or so, then rinse, drain, and use.