Zucchinis and cucumbers look the same, feel similar, and can often confuse anyone who’s just starting their culinary journey. However, knowing when to use zucchini and when to use cucumber can often mean the difference between a good meal and a great one. Know when to use zucchini vs cucumber below.
Despite the difference in name, even the most seasoned of cooks can sometimes struggle to differentiate the zucchini and the cucumber in meals.
Physically, both vegetables can look virtually identical. Both remain dark green and cylindrical when fully grown, and have no real differentiating features between the two. It can often become difficult to tell the taste apart as well. Many recipes that call upon cucumbers recommend using zucchini as a viable substitute, and vice versa.
So if they look the same, and generally taste the same, what are the real differences between a zucchini vs cucumber?
We will be breaking down the specific biological differences in the zucchini vs. cucumber debate, figuring out which vegetable is right for which meal, and hopefully setting the record straight for your next dinner or family gathering.
Fruits Or Vegetables?
Before we get into the differences between these two plants, it’s important to acknowledge that both the cucumber and the zucchini, both tend to hold a tumultuous position as a vegetable versus a fruit.
By technicality, the cucumber is a gourd, and the zucchini is summer squash. Both plants are a member of the Cucurbitaceae family of gourds, squashes, and pumpkins.
We’ll be getting more into the physical differences between the two plants later, but both the cucumber and the zucchini grow technically as fruits do—as structures designed to carry the seeds of the plant that tend to stem from the flower.
You’ll also notice that cucumbers (and for the most part, zucchinis) are widely regarded as vegetables in the culinary world. So both plants remain fruits in the strictest definition, they are referred to as vegetables for their usage and versatility in the kitchen. For that reason, we’ll be referring to both plants as vegetables moving forward.
Upon first glance, there is no discernible difference between the cucumber and the zucchini. A closer look, however, reveals that there’s more to these vegetables than a dark green complexion and a basic shape.
In regards to the shape of the vegetable, the cucumber is far more likely to be a straight cylinder than the zucchini. Zucchinis, as we know them today, are harvested, immature summer squash, and thus are more likely to be misshapen or bulbous at one end. Aside from this, zucchinis tend to hold a more crescent shape than the cucumber, which hails from the gourd subfamily.
Cucumbers are also more likely to be rough on the outside than their zucchini cousins.
Depending upon the age of the cucumber when harvested, you may notice several small aberrations or bumps along the surface of the vegetable.
These are usually referred to as prickles and pose no threat to humans when consumed. Aside from the discomfort of eating them, these spiny edges are just natural defense mechanisms.
Another element of the cucumber’s natural defense includes a cold and waxy skin. Cucumbers (especially those without aberrations) tend to be more slippery due to this reside as well.
Zucchinis, much like other summer squash, tends to lack both of these traits.
Zucchinis have tougher, stronger skin that helps protect them from the outside elements, and do not need prickles. You’ll find that holding a zucchini is far easier experience than holding a cucumber. Since the skin remains soft and dry to the touch.
When it comes to size, zucchinis can grow several times larger than cucumbers. Since they tend to be harvested far before their maturation as a plant, however. This size differential tends to fall by the wayside.
Finally, we have the issue of the interior physicality of each plant.
Cucumbers tend to be “juicier” in a sense—surrounding their seedlings with a cool and watery interior flesh. Zucchinis tend to remain whiter in color in their interior. And their flatter seeds result in a more resolute interior shape.
A Difference in Taste
Of course, no clear discussion on the zucchini vs cucumber debate. Would be complete without the difference in taste between the two vegetables. While we mentioned that several recipes allow for substitutions between the two in meals. The difference in their taste and makeup makes substation a bit of a problem.
The initial taste of a cucumber remains cool, crunchy, and wet. Cucumbers are often chosen for salads and similar cold meals due to this quality. Which is why most recipes call for cucumbers to be eaten raw.
Cooking cucumbers generally won’t change much about the flavor of the flesh inside. And can often remove much of the crunchy texture many people enjoy.
Zucchinis are very much opposite in this regard. Their white flesh and flatter seeds help zucchini with its sweet and pungent taste. This sweetness is only enhanced with heat. Which is why you will often find that zucchini is served with hot meals, soups, and even roasts.
Discoloration also occurs when grilling or frying zucchini, which can result in a brownish tint on the otherwise-green plant. Zucchini is safe to eat raw but tends to work best when highlighting a more succulent, warm meal.
When it comes to nutrition, the size, maturity, and health of the plant remain vital factors in determining the number of nutrients and minerals you can hope to gain from cucumber or zucchini. The United States Food & Drug Administration, however, provides a few clearer facts based on averages.
Cucumbers, especially when compared to similar vegetables, are often great sources of calcium.
They remain calorically light—with most cucumbers only containing 30 calories. When pickled, cucumbers retain most of these properties and are more likely to be consumed raw in this format.
Zucchinis tend to do better nutritionally when compared to the cucumber.
Zucchinis contain both vitamins C and B6. Which can work to improve eyesight, improve immune system function, and increase the rate of metabolism. Cucumbers contain both vitamin C and vitamin B6 but in far fewer quantities.
When it comes to both zucchini and cucumber, the amount of shared nutrients tends to outweigh the differing vitamins. Both vegetables are high in potassium, vitamin K, and folate. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant tend to seek out folate specifically. Which makes both zucchini and cucumber a popular choice for diets.
Generally, you can significantly increase the vitamins and minerals in your diet by introducing either cucumber or zucchini into meals. The added versatility of both vegetables can also aid in the variation of meals. This can help those who struggle to remain on a diet.
Cucumber salads or the occasional pickle can help you increase your vegetable intake. While meals like scampi or salmon plates benefit from a bit of zucchini on the side.
The important thing to note is that the continued implementation of both vegetables. Is more important than choosing one or the other. If you are pregnant or otherwise need specific nutrients, however. Then you may want to lean one way or the other.
For anyone looking to grow cucumber or zucchini at home. There are several differences in the makeup of both plants that are worth consideration before any investment is made.
Cucumbers grow on vines, and often need direction and continuous aid to ensure proper growth and cultivation. This comes in large part due to their status as a gourd. To keep your cucumber vine off of the ground and away from insects and wildlife. It’s often recommended that a trellis is used to help the plant grow upwards.
Zucchinis grow as small bushes, much like other squash and pumpkins. Aside from making sure you harvest at the right time. Upkeep on a zucchini plant will be less intensive than a cucumber plant.
No matter which plant you choose to grow. There is no clear winner or loser in the zucchini vs cucumber debate. Both plants offer a host of variations and can bring out the best in many different meals.
Choosing which plant to implement into your home will ultimately come down to your personal preferences. Those who enjoy colder meals, pickles, and salads will grow to enjoy cucumber far more than zucchini.
For those who enjoy seafood and wish to grow a simpler plant in the garden. Or those who prefer a sweeter taste in their vegetables. Zucchinis are a healthy and versatile option that’s certainly worth considering.
Zucchini Vs Cucumber
The difference between a good meal and a great one is often a better understanding of the ingredients at hand. So next time you’re told to substitute one vegetable for the other. Remember the clear differences between zucchini and cucumber.
Choose the vegetable that will best match your meal or dietary needs. Then learn when to cook and when to serve raw, and start cooking with confidence. Regardless of which plant you’ve chosen.