Real Food Encyclopedia | Winter Squash

Between the reappearance of fall favorites like kale and turnips and the delightful abundance of the season’s apples at the farmers’ market, it’s fair to say we can be rather distracted at the market in the fall. But the different colors, shapes, textures and flavors of all types of winter squash bring lots of variety to the fall table!

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Fun Facts about Winter Squash:

  • It is believed that Christopher Columbus brought squash to Europe.
  • That orange stuff in the can that we’ve all used for pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving at some point? It’s most likely butternut squash.

What to Look for When Buying Winter Squash

No blemishes or soft spots – both are signs that rotting is underway. The squash should make a hollow sound when tapped. If the stem is still attached, it too should be firm and intact.

There are dozens of cultivars of winter squash to choose from, and as cooks and eaters become more interested in local produce, there are more on offer at farmers’ markets and through CSAs, and even at your local grocery store, every year.

Here are some of the more interesting (and delicious!) varieties you may see at the market:

  • Delicata: An oblong, mini football-looking cultivar, yellow or orange and sometimes with stripes, which tastes like a cross between sweet potato, corn and squash. It’s also one of the most thin-skinned winter varieties, which makes cutting and cooking a snap.
  • Kabocha: This is the generic word in Japanese for winter squash, making it tricky because there are several kinds to choose from (including Kuri), but it’s typically green or gray-green on the outside and often sold in cut-up hunks at markets because of its very tough exterior and large size. However, you’re in for a treat; the flesh is like velvet.
  • Butternut: Butternut is versatile, all purpose and its skin is thinner than many other cultivars, making it relatively easy to cut through.
  • Spaghetti: Also known as “vegetable spaghetti,” this light yellow cultivar looks like a football and is lovely roasted whole. Why spaghetti? When you rake over the cooked flesh with a fork, the resulting strands resemble pasta.

And the botanical difference between winter squash and summer squash? Very little. They’re both from the same plant family, cucurbita, and both ripen on a vine, but look and act like they’re from different tribes. Zucchini and the summer varieties have tender skin and almost nonexistent seeds and can be eaten raw. Winter varieties boast tougher skins, larger seeds and a flesh that needs to be cooked.

Sustainability of Winter Squash

Winter squash ranks 25 on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which means it’s got a relatively high pesticide load. We recommend that you buy organic whenever possible and shop locally so you can ask questions about how the squash was grown

Winter Squash Seasonality

Don’t let the word “winter” fool you: Winter squash is harvested in autumn before a hard frost and stored for later. When most people had root cellars, they would harvest the squash in the fall and store it through the cold season, hence the name.

In the four-season parts of the country, winter squash has its heyday in the late summer through the end of fall. At year-round farmers’ markets, it will likely share the spotlight with hardy cruciferous vegetables and frost-resistant greens like kale and collards in the winter months.

Winter Squash and Geography

Squash is most likely native to Guatemala and Mexico and surrounding areas dating to 10,000 years ago. According to cookbook author and Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy, calabaza is one of the earliest known foods to be domesticated in pre-Columbian Mexico. However, it may have been the seeds that were sought after, not the flesh, which would make sense, given the central role pumpkin seeds (pepitas) play in moles and other sauces throughout Mexico, particularly in the Yucatan.

Along with corn and beans, squash was one of the “three sisters” crops planted by native Americans. The word squash comes from the Narranganesett word “askutasquash,” translated as “green thing eaten raw.”

Eating Winter Squash

Storing Winter Squash

If storing in the refrigerator, keep in a paper versus plastic bag, as plastic creates moisture. Kept in a cool, dark and dry spot, winter squash should hold up for at least a month, and even longer if your storage space is well ventilated. If you’ve got a leftover hunk of raw squash, resist the urge to wrap it in plastic and store unwrapped in the refrigerator.

Cooking with Winter Squash

What can’t you do with winter squash? It’s wonderful roasted, then stuffed (recipe below), boiled & pureed for soup or incorporated into risotto, curried, stir-fried, gratinéed, braised, used as a filling for ravioli … and of course you can roast the seeds. Larger varieties like the Kabocha can be impenetrable and may need some elbow grease and good knife skills! When these tougher-skinned varieties need a little encouragement, try banging your squash a few times on the floor, which usually yields an opening for a knife.

Winter Squash Nutrition

That beautiful orange and yellow flesh is also the source of uber-powerful disease-fighting antioxidants that protect against cataracts and stroke, for starters. It’s rich in Vitamin A, B-6, C, potassium and fiber, for starters, and some heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well.