Real Food Encyclopedia | Winter Squash
There are so many shapes, colors and sizes of winter squash (Cucurbita moschata; Cucurbita maxima; Cucurbita pepo) that it’s a real treat to see them start to show up at the market each fall. Winter squash, like the kabocha squash for example, specifically refers to a wide variety of squash species that have matured long enough so that their skin is hard and their seeds are larger and tougher to eat. There is very little botanical difference between winter squash and summer squash — they’re both from the same plant family, Cucurbita, and both ripen on a vine — but the soft skin and thin seeds of a yellow summer squash are quite different from that kabocha.
Fun facts about winter squash:
- It is believed that Christopher Columbus brought squash to Europe.
- That canned orange stuff that so often becomes pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving? It’s most likely butternut squash.
What to look for when buying winter squash
When shopping for winter squash, look for those with 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 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 varieties you may see at the market:
- Acorn: Named for its nut-like shape, you’ll find this smaller squash in orange, yellow and green varieties, sometimes with stripes or splotches of color along its ridges. The sweet tender flesh is a favorite for stuffing or baking.
- Buttercup Squash: You’re most likely to find these green-skinned, turban-shaped squash at farmers’ markets. After baking, their buttery-sweet flesh is great for mashing.
- 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 (you don’t need to bother peeling these!), which makes cutting and cooking a snap.
- Dumpling Squash: Also known as Carnival squash, these cute little squash come in a variety of shapes and colors — white, orange and green, with and without stripes — and are often sold as decorative squash. But they can also be cooked in a variety of ways, including baking, grilling and steaming.
- Kabocha: This is the generic word in Japanese for winter squash, making it tricky because there are several kinds to choose from (including Kuri squash), but you’ll typically find green or gray-green-skinned kabocha. It’s often sold in cut-up hunks at markets because of its very tough exterior and large size. However, if you put in the effort of cooking it, you’re in for a treat; the flesh is like velvet.
- Butternut: The classic bulb-shaped, tan-skinned butternut squash are much loved for their versatility. The all-purpose squash has a thinner skin than many other cultivars, making it relatively easy to cut through, and can be baked, sautéed or used in a number of other ways.
- 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.
Sustainability of winter squash
Winter squash ranks 24 on the 2019 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.
But when grown in the right way, using regenerative practices, some cultivars (including an heirloom cousin of the butternut, the honeynut squash) can be beneficial when used in crop rotation.
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.
California leads the nation in squash production followed by Florida, Georgia and Michigan. The U.S. imports the most squash of any country in the world, with Mexico supplying 90 percent of the country’s squash imports.
Eating Winter Squash
The best way to store winter squash is in a cool, dark and dry spot, where it will hold up for at least a month, even longer depending on the variety and if your storage space is well ventilated. Store cut squash in a tightly covered container and refrigerate for up to five days.
What can’t you do with winter squash? It’s wonderful roasted, then stuffed, boiled and pureed for soup or incorporated into risotto, curried, stir-fried, gratineed, braised, used as a filling for ravioli and included in salads. And of course, you can roast the seeds.
Larger varieties like the Kabocha can be difficult to cut through, so you may need some elbow grease and good knife skills! Microwaving the squash for a few minutes first helps soften the skin, making it easier to cut through. This Japanese variety is great for soup, gratin and braising.
You can freeze raw squash for up to 6 months: Cube first, then freeze in a single layer on a rimmed sheet tray and transfer to a freezer-safe container once frozen.
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, B6 and C, potassium and fiber, for starters, and some heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well.
Top photo by Brent Hofacker/Adobe Stock.