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Does 'milking' a cucumber really improve its flavour?

Our food expert solves your cooking conundrums

11 June 2020 - 00:00 By hilary biller
Natural compounds called cucurbitacins are responsible for that bitter taste some varieties of cucumbers have.
Natural compounds called cucurbitacins are responsible for that bitter taste some varieties of cucumbers have.
Image: 123RF/kenishirotie


I’ve seen a video clip on TikTok where a lady "milks" a cucumber by slicing the one end off and rubbing it against the cut side of the cucumber. The claim is that doing this removes the bitter taste of the cucumber. Is this a joke, or is there any scientific reason to do it? - Baffled, Port Elizabeth


My late father-in-law, a great cook, showed me this trick years ago. It was something he’d grown up doing. He was a fervent believer that by rubbing the two cuts sides of the cucumber together in order to release a white foamy substance — hence the term "milking" — the bitterness is removed from the gourd.

This is not something you'd need to do with an English cucumber, which is a newer breed, but rather with the more old-fashioned, smooth-skinned variety with big seeds — and it really works.

WATCH | How to milk a cucumber

What it does is remove cucurbitacins, which are compounds naturally found in the cucumber that taste bitter. These are said to be more concentrated on the ends of the cucumber. In milking it, the compounds are released and don’t spread through the gourd.

Another interesting titbit, one source claims, is that this bitterness is a self-defence mechanism that protects the cucumber from being eaten by bugs and insects.

And why are some cucumbers more bitter than others? This depends on conditions under which the cucumber is grown and the variety. In less ideal conditions, the cucumbers will naturally be more bitter. Newer varieties, like the English cucumber, are bred to be less bitter.

Strange but true.


In a cookery quandary, have a problem with a recipe, bogged down by measurement conversions, or baffled by an ingredient? For sound advice, Sunday Times Food editor Hilary Biller is at your service. Send your queries to food@sundaytimes.co.za, and if yours is selected, we'll answer it in an online article.