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Why are Cucumbers Bitter?

And How to Improve Them

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Cucumber (Cucumis sativus), July
Joshua McCullough/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Few things are as frustrating as tending your vegetables all season long, only to find out they are poor tasting, when you get them to the table. With cucumbers, the most frequent complaint is bitterness.

Preventing Bitter Cucumbers

Cultivated cucumbers all contain Cucurbitacin B and cucurbitacin C. These compounds are usually confined to the leaves, stems and roots of the plants. It's when they move into the fruits that we start detecting a bitter taste. Usually it is not the whole fruit that turns bitter. More commonly, the bitterness will be concentrated at the stem end and the area right under the skin.

There is still some disagreement about what causes the bitterness to spread into the fruits, but it seems to point to some type of stress.

  • Dry Conditions: Long periods of hot, dry weather can result in bitter cukes. There’s not much you can do to control the heat, but keeping your cucumbers well watered will help offset the bitterness. Give them at least an inch of water per week and mulch the area around the roots, at planting time.

  • Lean Soil: Another factor in bitter cucumbers is lean soil. Cucumbers are heavy feeders and a soil rich in organic matter will go a long way toward producing less stressed, better tasting cukes. If your soil is less than ideal, give your cucumbers a little fertilizer every 4-6 weeks.

  • Lack of Sun: Overcast areas, like the Pacific NW, have reported bitter cucumbers due to lack of sun. Again, you can't control the hours the sun will shine, but you can plant in a spot that gets as much sun as nature will allow. If it's cool and damp, as well as overcast, growing your cucumbers under cover, like a poly tunnel, will amplify the available heat and light.
So even though cucumber plants grow rather easily and you can get a prodigious harvest from a couple of plants, to get quality as well as quantity you still need to provide them with good growing conditions: plenty of sunshine, regular watering and rich soil.

Finally, look for varieties that are well suited to your area that are labeled ‛non-bitter'. Some reliable varieties are: ‛Armenian', ‛Diva', ‛Eversweet' (any variety with "sweet" in the name), ‛Improved Long Green' and ‛Lemon'.

What to Do with Bitter Cucumbers

If you find yourself with bitter cucumbers, don't automatically reach for the compost bucket. Peeling the fruit should improve the flavor. Then try a slice toward the center of the cuke and see if it is sweeter. You should be able to salvage more than enough for a salad.
Related Video
How to Pick Cucumbers
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