Cuke Rebuke: Lessons of a Reluctant Pickle Puss

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bitter cucumbers make for a bitter pickleTaking one for the team: a real-life reenactment of what happens when a happy man consumes a bitter pickle.

Bitter Cucumbers: What Gives?

I may be a lot of things, but bitter is not one of them, or so I thought. Last week, I pried open my first jar of homemade pickles, eager to taste the fruits of my gardening and canning labors. Brined, sealed, delivered, they were awful, so horribly bitter that I lost control of all facial muscles, only to be consumed by an involuntary pinched-face lip-lock. Behold, a pickle puss was born. When I could finally dislodge my jaw and spit out the acrid bits, I grabbed the closest clean dish towel (now that took some looking) and wiped my tongue in between bursts of “blech…blech…blech!”

Happier times for an unsuspecting pickle maker. Who knew that within that gleaming Ball jar stewed a gaggle of gag-inducing gherkins.

Why So Bitter?

Once I got my face back to full working order, I went to the Internet for answers, to search the awesome repositories of agricultural research and scientific findings; and this is what I found. Bitter cucumbers contain elevated amounts of a compound called cucurbitacin, which is produced when cucumber plants are stressed and growing conditions less than optimal.
The many faces of bitter

I hate to waste food even when inedible, so I decided to play with my food instead. (Artwork entitled: Mr Cucumberhead sours on the idea.)

Don’t Stress Out Your Cucumbers…

Happy pickles come from happy cucumbers–cucumbers grown in conditions that promote fast growth and vine health. According to Peaceful Valley Organics (link to full article), this can be achieved by proper:

  • Watering
  • Mulching
  • Temperature regulation (cool summers seem to be a problem)
  • Weeding
  • Sunlight
  • Soil conditions

If the idea of cucumber stress stresses you out, consider another option: growing cucumbers with a naturally occurring gene that inhibits the production of cucurbitacin no matter what the growing conditions.

Naturally Non-Bitter Cucumbers

Here’s a list of suggested bitter-free varieties compiled from the links below: Ashley, Camilla, Carmen, Cool Breeze, County Fair, Diva, Early Russian, Eversweet, Green Knight, Improved Long Green, Lemon, Saticoy, Stimora, Sunnybrook, Summer Dance, Sweet Slice, Sweet Success, Tanja, Tasty Green, and Wautoma.

While I love the variety I grew this year, Homemade Pickle, I must pay closer attention to watering and temperature control if I want to harvest bitter-free cucumbers next year. And as I learned, a bitter cucumber makes for a bitter pickle.

Everything you ever wanted to know about bitter cucumbers, but were afraid to ask:

Here’s some more  great info:

18 COMMENTS

  1. You have my sympathy. Very few of the Sassy hybrid cucumber that I grew were edible. No pickles for me this year. However, the chickens didn’t seem to care if they were bitter; they ate every one and wanted more!

  2. Didn’t you sneak a taste of the cucumbers before you pickled them? Could of saved you a lot of time, not to mention we might have seen that wonderful picture several weeks earlier;-)

  3. We canned pickles for the first time this summer. I told my husband that if he is alive and kicking three days after sampling the first jar, I will then try a pickle.

  4. Luckily for me and many others that your pickles turned out to be sour pusses; we would have lost out on the fine art of your experience, however bitter. Other peoples’ forays into wisdom are easier to bare than our own. I half-way remember the title of a fantastic book that I read in the early 80’s called the ” Incredible Lightness of Being” (that’snit)nand it was about many things, but experience and learning from life still rings true as one of the messages. Somehow the pickle face and the art brought that back to me from the shadows of a past life. Keep on puckering Tom!!!

  5. I’m sorry to hear about your awful pickles. I can appreciate that feeling of culinary disappointment – it reminds me of the batch of cherry jam that can out tough and rubbery. I do like the way you played with your food however – and then into the compost the pickles went?

    • Renae, I haven’t seen you in over two years, you must either sit for me for your pickle portrait or email me a photo. Of course, I would have to use sweet cucumbers.

  6. Just for future planting… my lemon cukes pickled GREAT. Super dill, crunchy, no bitterness. I sliced them like chips so they can pop right into a sandwich and I’ve gotten rave reviews. Plus lemon cucumbers just look so cute! Good luck next year!!

    • Karen, that is a great tip. I just had a lemon cuke pickle at a friend’s house. Wow, just like you described. Next year I go lemon-fresh cucumbers!

  7. Thanks for letting us all know about your unpleasant experiance with your pickle even thought its quite funny in a crual way, now every body knows how not to pickle cucumbers and wont have to be put through the loss of facial muscles

  8. Dear Tom,

    I am so sorry about your unfortunate experience!

    Regular cucumber varieties will become bitter when exposed to hot dry conditions. Cucumber-melon varieties have always solved this problem for me. In my experience, Carosello and Armenian cucumbers are always bitter-free and burpless (don’t cause indigestion). They also tend to grow faster as the summer wears on.

    Some of these varieties that I have grown, such as the Carosello Massafra, the light Leccese and the Painted Serpent are both bitter-free and beautiful!

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