What’s The Difference Between Cucumbers and Pickles?

Oh, the age-old question… What came first, the cucumber or the pickle? We’re joking, of course. However, haven’t you ever wondered about pickles and cucumbers? They look oddly similar. Almost like pickles are baby cucumbers, right?

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This article is going to explore the differences between pickles and cucumbers. The title of ‘Cucumbers Vs Pickles’ makes it sound like they will be having an epic battle to the deaths.

In some ways, they will be, because we will be figuring out along the way which came first. For that, there can only be one winner….can’t there?

We suggest you keep on reading to find out everything there is to know about cucumbers vs pickles. To adequately do justice to each of these glorious greens we will first explore each of them separately. 

Cucumbers: A Biography 

These joyous green foods have been a staple of our diets for as long as each of us has been alive.

No salad, no sub, no sandwich, and no facial is complete without them. They are renowned for their benefits for our bodies, as well as our skin and eyes.

They are popular worldwide and are renowned for their refreshing taste, cooling properties, and distinctive crisp crunchiness. They are a member of the gourd family, like pumpkins, squash, and marrow.

Widely cultivated, they are a vine-growing plant of the Cucurbitaceae family. Cucumbers are called so because of their shape. They are a cucumiform shape which means long, cylindrical, and with tapered ends. 

Cucumbers are 95% water, which accounts for their refreshing taste and texture. The flavor of them is hard to explain. Many people find it comparable to melon, especially in scent. It is fresh and not too overpowering on the inside.

The rind which is edible has a more bitter taste and has been known to cause indigestion in some consumers of it. This bitter taste can be put down to the cucurbitacins in the rind which is a deterrent against herbivore animals.

 In terms of nutrition and calories, cucumbers score very low, with 100 grams of cucumber coming to just 16 calories. This makes it a very popular choice with dieters. The only notable nutrition that can be gained from it is vitamin K.

However, put with other ingredients in a salad or dipped into homemade hummus, they can prove a delicious and healthy snack. 

They are typically enjoyed raw, in a salad or sandwich as we mentioned above. They are not usually cooked, but they can be cooked in many recipes. They are a staple in so many different cuisines around the world.

They are a staple in raita which is an Indian dip, often brought as an accompaniment to curries and other spicy foods as a way of cooling the mouth down after spicy foods. It is also used in the Greek dip known as tzatziki.  

It was first cultivated in India, explaining why it is so popular to use in their side dishes and dips. It is thought to have been cultivated there over 3000 years ago. It is likely that it was introduced to the rest of the world by the Roman Empire or the Greeks.

The first records of it coming to Europe are from the 9th century, in France. The cultivation of cucumbers is thought to have come to North America far later.

They were first brought to Haiti in the very late 15th century by Christoper Columbus, and then they were found in Montreal (although it wasn’t yet known as Montreal at the time) in 1535. 

Cucumbers these days are a very popular food item. They are known as a vegetable but are a botanical berry. They are often grouped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and other fruits and vegetables that are associated with salads and are eaten raw. 

Now, here comes the interesting part. There are three main varieties of cucumber: slicing, burpless (also known as seedless), and pickling. Yes, that’s right! Pickling cucumbers are a thing. All types of cucumber can be pickled.

However, some are bred especially for this to achieve smaller dimensions, making them perfect to fit in the jars that we know and love.

There are all sorts of pickles, as you probably know. Gherkins and cornichons are particularly popular. To explore this a little more we are going to dedicate the whole of the next section to pickles, giving them the recognition they deserve. 

Pickles: A biography 

So the secret’s out, pickles are a type of cucumber. Of the many varieties of cucumber, the pickling cucumber is just one of them. Any type of cucumber can be pickled, of course.

However, pickling cucumbers were purposely cultivated to make them smaller and thinner. To make pickling cucumbers pickles something must be done to them.

Typically they are left to ferment in pickling vinegar over a period of time, sometimes on their own or other times with added ingredients such as salt, sugar, dill, garlic, and other herbs or spices. They may also be left to ferment in brine (saltwater) rather than vinegar.

These different types of pickles should be explored separately to get a better understanding of the differences between them. 

Brined pickles

Brined pickles ferment naturally. The process encourages the growth of Lactobacillus bacteria which is naturally found in the cucumber. This ferments the cucumber giving it a sour taste.

However, nowadays, many commercially grown and harvested cucumbers purposely have this bacteria removed, and so the bringing process is typically done by introducing the cucumbers to foods that are already fermented with this bacteria such as sauerkraut, yogurt, or sourdough bread.

This process is a very traditional way, and the process varies depending on where in the world it is practiced. Commonly, the pickles are placed in the water with the fermenting agent if one is needed, and then any spices and other ingredients are added.

They are often held down with sterilized stones too so the ickles do not float up but stay down in the water. The container they are in (a barrel, a ceramic container, or glass container) is then covered with a breathable material so that it is not kept airtight for several days.

The amount of salt in the water determines how sour the fermented pickles will be. 

Gherkins and Bread-and-butter pickles (sliced)

Although these are two different types of pickles in terms of variety, we wanted to explore them together in the same section because the way in which they are pickled is very similar.

Both of these typically use vinegar to ferment them, rather than brine.

The naturally acidic flavors of pickling vinegar give them their distinctive taste. Both of them often include salt and/or sugar to enhance the flavors of the pickles. Bread-and-butter pickles are made using sliced cucumbers.

They are fermented with vinegar, salt, and often a high percentage of sugar to give them that sweet and tangy taste that is so recognizable. These are the sorts of pickles that are usually found in burgers and are the ones that get left in our refrigerators for what feels like years and years. 

Gherkins are also known as baby pickles. They are small cucumbers, made especially for picking.

They were first thought to have been cultivated for the workers on The Great Wall of China who needed something easy to snack on. They typically have rough, bumpy skin. 

Related to gherkins are cornichons. These tiny little pickles are usually made with sugar and tarragon in the vinegar to give them their distinctive flavor. 

Now that you have explored the different types of pickled cucumbers a little more, we are sure you can see how they differ from cucumbers. Typically cucumbers are eaten fresh (except for if they get cooked).

Cucumbers on the other hand are not. They are fermented over a period of time, during which they tend to lose some of their distinctive crunch. They are not soft, per se, but certainly more tender than their fresh counterparts. 

Like cucumber, pickles are typically low in calories, and they don’t tend to have much in the way of nutritional value either. However, the added extras used in the pickling process such as salt and sugar can make them more unhealthy than cucumbers.

The extra sugar adds calories and the salt increases the sodium content. That being said, the presence of Lactobacillus bacteria is thought to be healthy as it is prebiotic. In small amounts, they can make for a delicious snack that is relatively low in calories. 

Pickles are enjoyed on their own all around the world. In Japan, they are often used in festivals. They are served on cocktail sticks and are called stick pickles. In America, they are a staple of lots of people’s diets. They are popular in sandwiches and subs.

They are one of the main ingredients in many burgers. Deep fried pickles are a popular food in the US, too, particularly in the south. across the rest of the world they are also popular.

In Britain, they are often sold in fish and chip restaurants (along with pickled onions and pickled eggs).

They are popular in other Asian countries as well as Japan too. Hungary has its own version of the pickle which they make by adding bread to the mixture to help it ferment. 

Pickles are also used in a variety of food recipes. In the US they are sometimes used in deviled eggs, especially by those in the Southern states. In Eastern Europe and Russia, there are popular soup dishes that are made with pickles and meat along with other ingredients. 

So, what’s the difference between them? Can cucumbers and pickles really fight it out? 

Cucumbers Vs Pickles was our title, but now we guess you can see that it is hard to pit them against each other.

This is because the pickle is a type of cucumber. Cucumbers have been cultivated to make smaller and thinner varieties that are perfect for pickling.

These pickling cucumbers are known as baby cucumbers. You can get them even smaller again in the form of gherkins or cornichons. These are called baby pickles.

Y’see, they’re like a little green family! All cucumbers can be pickled, for example, sliced cucumbers can be left to ferment in vinegar to brine to create the bread-and-butter pickles that we have today (also called sandwich or burger pickles here in the US).

The reason they were cultivated to be smaller, though, is because it makes the pickling process easier, as well as being easier for people to eat them whole if they wish. 

One of the main differences between cucumbers and pickles is the taste. Cucumbers are eaten fresh and raw. They are renowned for the plain but refreshing taste that is similar to melon thanks to their very high water content.

Pickles on the other hand have a very distinctive flavor that can be altered slightly depending on what ingredients are used to pickle them and whether any added extras are also present.

For example, a sweet sliced pickle will taste very different from a dill pickle. Likewise, a french cornichon that has been flavored with tarragon is likely to taste different from the sour pickles that are made in Eastern Europe. 

In terms of nutrition, both pickles and cucumbers are rather similar. Whilst cucumbers may be slightly lower in calories than pickles thanks to the added extras used in the pickling process such as sugar, they are both very low calorie foods.

Neither of them has much in terms of nutritional value except for vitamin K. as we have already explored though. Depending on the fermentation process, the pickles you eat may provide you with a form of prebiotic due to the presence of Lactobacillus. 

Both of them would fall under the category of ‘fruit’ as opposed to a vegetable which is the term that is most often applied to it. The reason for its status as fruit is because it is technically a botanical berry.

Although a pickle seems as far from fruit as you could think, it is still a member of the same family as the cucumber, because it is, after all, a cucumber! 

Another difference between them is their shelf life. A cucumber that is picked from the garden or bought in a store does not have a particularly long shelf life, especially when it has been cut. It can go bad quickly, leaving you with a soggy pile of brown mush in your refrigerator.

Pickles on the other hand are often jarred or canned. Unopened they can last for months, even years. When they have been opened they must be kept in the refrigerator where they can still last for anywhere between 5 days to a couple of weeks depending on the type. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are pickles or cucumbers healthier?

Despite the fact that pickles begin their lives as cucumbers, their nutritional content differs slightly from slicing cucumbers. While pickles generally offer more vitamins and fiber than cucumber, they also contain sugar and sodium, which subsequently lowers their nutritional value.

That being said, cucumbers and dill pickles are both low in calories. A cup of sliced cucumber contains 16 calories, while the same serving of dill pickles contains 19. Sweet pickles, however, are higher in calories at 139 calories per cup thanks to their sugar content.

Generally speaking, cucumbers are considered healthier in comparison to pickles because they’re naturally low in sugar and sodium. While a cup of sliced cucumber contains just 1.7 grams of naturally occurring sugar and 2 milligrams of sodium or less than 1% of your daily sodium limit, dill pickles contain 1,356 milligrams of sodium per serving, or 59% of your daily limit.

Why can I eat pickles but not cucumbers?

The answer to this question is likely because despite the fact pickles start out as cucumbers, the pickling process changes the composition of the cucumber through the salt, spices, and vinegar that they are jarred in. So despite the fact you might think they’re similar, they are different.

If you find that cucumbers upset your stomach, but pickles don’t, it is because the compound that bothers you has most likely been destroyed or changed to the point that it no longer upsets your stomach. For instance, cucumbers contain a chemical called cucurbitacins, which some people can be sensitive to. The usual symptoms of a sensitivity to this chemical can include an upset stomach, gas, and nausea. That being said, the pickling process destroys this chemical, therefore removing what could be upsetting your stomach. If you think you could have a stomach sensitivity, you could benefit from seeing a dietician. 

What is the difference between cucumbers and pickling cucumbers?

The main difference between cucumbers and pickling cucumbers is that the pickling cucumbers are primarily grown for jarring whilst the slicing cucumbers are grown for fresh eating.

Generally speaking, cucumbers that are primarily used for processing or pickling are shorter and stouter (so they can easily fit in a jar) and have more spines as well as drier flesh that allows them to soak up more of the vinegar that they're pickled in. 

While slicing cucumbers can also be used for pickling, you are likely to find that you might get a softer pickle as opposed to the delicious crunchy texture pickling cucumbers are renowned for. Which cucumbers you pickle is a personal preference, but as pickling cucumbers are grown for that very purpose, they’re the best suited for it.

Final word 

We joked at the start about the age-old question “what came first, the pickle or the cucumber?”. Whilst we were indeed joking, we are sure you can now answer this for yourselves. Clearly, it was the cucumber that came first. In fact, it came to be over 3000 years ago.

It is unclear of the exact origins of pickles, one theory is that they were invented for workers on The Great Wall of China, however, there does not seem to be any proof of this.

While they have similarities, especially since they are practically the same thing, they do also have profound differences such as taste, size, and shelf life. They both also have different uses. So are pickles cucumbers? Pickles are made from cucumbers. The pickled cucumber are made from cucumber varieties that lead to sweet pickles, kosher dill, and fresh dill pickles. Homemade pickles are amazing. So is a pickle a cucumber? the answer is yes. The pickle recipe to turn a cucumber variety into a pickle includes pickle brine, a jar, pickling spice, and a fresh cucumber. You'll have a nice sweet pickle, sour pickle. I'm a big fan of a homemade dill pickle. I'll share my best dill pickle recipe. It's a crunchy pickle and can be classified with kosher dill pickles.

What is certain though is that both are delicious in their own right. Now excuse us whilst we go and hunt out a burger with extra pickles…. 

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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