Alexandra Stafford shows us how to help cucumber salad live its best life.
A few weeks ago, a cucumber salad I brought to a neighborhood gathering threw me into a tizzy: It tasted bland. It looked tired. I couldn’t handle it.
I asked myself what went wrong again and again as I periodically made my way to the buffet table to give the cucumbers a toss, hoping the juices pooling at the bottom of the bowl might revive the salad. Breaking Julia Child’s cardinal rule, I apologized for my dull contribution to the dinner and continued to obsess until my husband gave me a look that said: No one cares about your cucumber salad but you.
The following morning I opened Chez Panisse Vegetables hoping to find an answer. Indeed, Alice Waters had some insight: “Cucumbers dressed in advance or used in a sauce may give up too much water and dilute the flavor of the dish. To avoid this, lightly salt the prepared cucumbers, let them sit in a strainer for 10 minutes, wrap them in a clean kitchen towel, and wring out the excess moisture.”
It made perfect sense. Like so many water-filled vegetables, cucumbers benefit from a brief salting, a simple but important step to draw out moisture and prime them to receive a dressing. So while the salad I had made promised to be great—farmers market cucumbers, basil from the garden, a flavorful dressing—it had been doomed from the get go: With all of that cucumber water, it didn’t stand a chance.
I tested Alice Waters’ method later that afternoon, salting the cucumbers before tossing them with vinegar, olive oil, and herbs. One bite calmed my restive brain and reminded me how good cucumber salads can be—and, above all, assured me my public meltdown hadn’t been in vain.
Choosing and storing your cucumbers:
This time of year, farm stands abound with both small pickling cucumbers and larger slicing cucumbers—look for cucumbers that feel firm and heavy for their size rather than spongy or soft. And because they dry out soon after they're picked, store them in a bag in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days.
Prepping your cucumbers:
Cucumbers—especially from a farmers market or a C.S.A.—tend to be dirty. Wash them well before using, and peel them if they're thick-skinned or bitter. If the seeds taste bitter, halve the cucumbers lengthwise and scoop out seeds with a spoon. (If you're cooking with English cucumbers, it's not likely you'll have to do either.)
Using your cucumbers:
- This time of year, nothing is more refreshing than a chilled soup, many of which take almost no time to whip up. Here are three great versions: yogurt soup with cucumbers and walnuts, cucumber and avocado soup with mango salsa, and white gazpacho made with cucumbers, grapes, and sherry vinegar.
- Crisp, cool salads are a good idea, too: Here’s a crunchy and creamy salad made with avocados, lime, and mint. Or try a genius salad made with smashed cucumbers hit with a wok-fried chile oil.
- Cucumbers sliced thinly and layered in a vegan nori wrap with hummus, radishes, and sprouts make a healthy but satisfying lunch.
- And of course, cucumbers are ideal for pickling. This seven-day recipe will leave you with a boatload for the summer.
- Finally, treat yourself to a hothouse cooler: a refreshing margarita flavored with cucumber juice, grapefruit, and lime.
2 cucumbers (about a pound)
1 small red onion or a few shallots
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon vinegar such as white balsamic, white wine, or rice
Fresh herbs such as basil, dill, mint, or parsley
Olive oil (optional)
Photos by Alexandra Stafford