Everybody loves this cucumber salad because it’s refreshingly addictive. Vegan, gluten-free, low-carb. Perfect for summer picnics because it’s easy to make. You can whip up extra spicy sauce and dress broccoli, green beans, and sugar snap peas with it.
Within weeks of arriving in Colorado, Alex and I attended a dumpling-making party. I knew this spicy garlic cucumber salad would be a hit because everybody who takes a bite finds it addictive. But I didn’t know my way around Boulder grocery stores yet, and the closest Safeway didn’t stock the Chinese vinegar or chili sauces I needed.
After reworking this classic Chinese cold dish, I want to share this evolved recipe with you. More importantly, I want to teach you how to make the cucumber salad the traditional way using “original” ingredients. Then you can try the variation if some of the exotic ingredients are harder to source.
Use this exercise to get better at experimenting with substitutions in future recipes. Let’s jump in.
How to substitute exotic ingredients
Most Chinese smashed cucumber salads call for a garlic dressing that contains some hard-to-find ingredients, including Chinese black vinegar and chili crisp oil. It is easy to buy these ingredients when you live in a big metropolitan area, such as the San Francisco Bay Area or New York City. However, it’s harder to find these ingredients in smaller towns and you may not have time to drive to the bigger Asian market a few cities over.
That’s why I’ve come up with a variation on the original garlic dressing. My variation uses common ingredients that you can find in conventional grocery stores. Experiment with the variations. You may stumble on your secret blend, which becomes your signature dressing!
|Chili crisp oil (e.g. Lao Gan Ma brand)||Red pepper flakes|
|Chinese black vinegar (Zhenjiang / Chinkiang vinegar)||Apple cider vinegar + balsamic vinegar or rice vinegar|
|Sichuan peppercorn oil*||Toasted sesame oil, olive oil|
|Fresh garlic||Garlic powder|
*Sichuan peppercorn oil is not in the original smashed cucumber salad sauce. It’s a variation inspired by my friend Kari who swears by Sichuan peppercorn oil. So you can stick to sesame oil or olive oil if you can’t find it.
What are the best cucumbers for this salad?
My favorite cucumbers for this salad are Persian cucumbers because they are seedless with thin skins and crispy flesh. If you can’t find Persian cucumbers, you can substitute with English cucumbers or Japanese cucumbers.
The best deal I’ve found for Persian cucumbers is $7 for 1.5 lb/680 g at Costco. You can buy them from Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Safeway, and other conventional grocery stores.
TIP: Inspect the cucumbers before buying them. Ensure they are firm, and the skins are satiny, not mushy, slimy, or soft. Make sure the ends aren’t shriveling up, and there are no signs of mold.
How do you smash a cucumber?
The traditional way is to hit the cucumber with the flat side of a heavy Chinese-style cleaver. Because I don’t own such a cleaver, I use the flat side of my chef’s knife to crush the cucumbers. The recipe below gives you a view into how you can crush your cucumbers to create the “smashed” texture before chopping them on the bias.
Why smashed cucumber?
Smashing cucumbers created a craggy texture with nooks and crannies that better picks up the garlic-vinegar dressing.
Alex finds he prefers his cucumbers sliced thinly like European-style cucumber salad. That’s why we often turn to the mandoline to quickly slice the cucumber into thin, uniform pieces.
WARNING: Mandolines are sharp and result in deep cuts if you accidentally run your finger over the blade. Use the guard to protect your hands.
Do you need to salt the cucumbers?
A lot of Chinese garlic cucumber recipes instruct you to sprinkle salt the cucumbers and allow them to sit for 30 minutes. You are supposed to drain the cucumbers before dressing them with the garlic sauce. The benefit to salting cucumbers is to extract the water, which cucumbers have plenty of, so that the water doesn’t dilute your dressing and create a puddle in your dish.
Personally, I prefer to skip the salting step because it feels like extra work, and I don’t mind the cucumber weeping its water after I’ve applied the dressing. It still tastes plenty flavorful to me. I spoon dressing over the smashed cucumbers and mix periodically if I feel the cucumbers could benefit from more sauce. If you’re used to salting cucumbers from European-style cucumber salads, feel free to add the extra step to your process.
Can you make a big batch of cucumber salad in advance?
Yes. This recipe can be doubled or tripled if you want to make a big batch of cucumber salad for a dinner party or a picnic to serve a dozen or more people. However, keep the dressing and cucumbers apart in separate containers. Only combine the two and toss to mix just before serving.
I recommend against making a big batch of dressed cucumber salad for your personal consumption and storing it in the fridge for a few days because it only takes 5 minutes to prepare. The cucumbers will get soggy and become pickled cucumbers if left for too long in the dressing. It’s not awful. But it may not be what you’re looking for in terms of taste or texture. Read the next section for tips on how to store the cucumber salad if you need to make it ahead of time or want to make a big batch.
How should I store the cucumber salad?
You can make extra spicy garlic dressing in advance and store it in an airtight container like a glass jar for a week in the fridge. You can smash and cut the cucumbers (or slice them) and store them in a container separately from the dressing. The cut cucumbers will stay fresh for 1 to 2 days in the fridge. Mix the cucumbers and salad dressing a few minutes before you’re ready to serve the salad.
TIP: You can use the spicy garlic sauce for other vegetables, such as blanched green beans, steamed broccoli, or sugar snap peas.
Does garlic cucumber salad freeze?
No, the cucumber’s texture changes as the cells burst from the water expanding when you freeze the cucumbers. They will be soggy after defrosting. Cucumber salad is best enjoyed fresh when its texture is crunchy and refreshing.
5-minute spicy garlic cucumber salad
- Chopping Board
- Garlic Press
- Mixing Bowl
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) vinegar, you can substitute with 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and 1/2 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon (5 g) Lao Gan Ma chili sauce, substitute with 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
- ½ teaspoon (3 ml) Sichuan peppercorn oil, substitute with 1/2 teaspoon of toasted sesame oil
- Gather the ingredients.
Smash the cucumbers
- Wash and slice the ends off the cucumbers.
- Line up the flat edge of your chef's knife along a cucumber. Push the knife into the cucumber to flatten it.
- Cut the smashed cucumber into smaller bite-sized pieces. Set aside for later.
Or slice with a mandoline
- After washing and cutting the ends off the cucumbers, run the cucumber through a mandoline to slice them thinly and uniformly. Remember to use the hand guard for protection.
Make the garlic dressing
- Peel the fresh garlic. Crush each clove with a garlic press. Put the pressed garlic into a small container with a tight lid.
- Add the salt, sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, chili sauce, and Sichuan peppercorn oil to the pressed garlic. Mix until well combined. You can seal the container with the lid and shake to mix the dressing. Stir the dressing into the cut cucumbers. Serve immediately. Enjoy your spicy garlic cucumber salad!