Most cucumbers sold in the supermarket are small to medium size, even though they can grow much bigger, so why aren't more larger sized cucumbers sold? Is it because the flavour of the cucumber decreases as the fruit gets bigger?
Burpless cucumber variety (image above)
The truth is, yes, sometimes older and larger cucumbers can taste awful but this isn't always the case; in fact, most cucumbers left to grow to full-size taste fine.
However, there are some important points to take note of with respect to SIZE when growing cucumbers and they are:
- Variety – The type of cucumber grown can play an important role in when it should be picked for eating. Some varieties of cucumber are meant specifically for pickling whole and need to be picked when young/small typically under 10 cm (4 inches). Often these "pickling cucumbers" are extra crispy and dense when small so they make excellent specimens for fermenting/pickling, however, if left to grow bigger they become increasingly bitter until practically inedible! A good example is the small white pickling cucumber, which is beautiful and novel to grow but taste awful when left to grow larger than finger length.
- Skin – As a cucumber grows bigger the skin becomes tougher and although this doesn't necessarily affect the taste it can make them less appealing to chew. Depending on the variety (as some cucumbers are naturally larger, longer, and different in shape than others) it's often best to pick them younger rather than left to fully mature. Of course, there's the option of removing the skin either fully or partially and just eating the flesh instead.
- Seeds – Just like the skin, as a cucumber matures to full size so does its seed and for some people, large cucumber seeds can be unpleasant to eat. Again, if seeds are a problem it's a pretty simple process to scoop them out before serving.
- Flesh – The flesh can get softer and a little drier as a cucumber gets larger; although, this is not usually as big of an issue as some other cucurbits such as squash, for example, can become rather "grainy" as they go oversize. Nevertheless, most varieties of cucumber will hold flesh structure well enough to be pleasant to eat even when fully matured.
So, supermarkets and grocers stock younger/smaller cucumbers mainly for the reasons above and also because the smaller fruit lasts longer on the shelf and transport better.
For the backyard grower (like myself) I would recommend trying as many different types of cucumbers as you can including the "pick small only" varieties, even if they do taste horrible when slightly bigger than a USB stick. I have written a more in-depth article on cucumber growing and different varieties here (includes a video).
Commercially grown varieties are limited for commercial reasons and that's the beauty of growing your own – no rules!
Having said that, it does make sense to grow varieties that don't become bitter as they mature, particularly if you are not going to pickle them.
At the end of the day, any type of cucumber can be effectively pickled when picked small anyway, therefore, for most urban farmers it's prudent to grow varieties that can be pickled when small and still be good to eat when big.
One final word of advice, if you do use a big, mature, homegrown cucumber be sure to ALWAYS taste a little piece before serving it in your chopped salad to the extended family or at a dinner party because it could be rather embarrassing if it's the awful bitter variety!
Here's the video on why some cucumbers are bitter