Real Food Encyclopedia | Zucchini and Summer Squash
Fresh, juicy and ubiquitous in gardens and markets from July to September, zucchini and other summer squash (Cucurbita pepo) are part of the extensive Cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumber, pumpkin, watermelon and winter squash. In fact, many winter and summer squash belong to the same species — C. pepo — so “summer squash” is a culinary distinction and not a biological one. Summer squash — like zucchini, crookneck, straightneck and pattypan — are eaten when they are immature and tender-skinned, while winter squash varieties are left to develop tougher skins that keep well into the colder months of the year.
In spite of the Italian name, zucchini and other squash are native to the Americas, where they were a key component of indigenous diets. Archeologists have located seeds in Mexican caves that suggest that C. pepo was first cultivated about 10,000 years ago.
The word squash originally comes from the Narragansett nation, who called it askutasquash, meaning raw or uncooked — many summer squash are still enjoyed raw in salads. The Spanish, who brought them back to Europe, called summer squashes calabacitas, which is still widely used in Latin America. Once in Europe, the Italians coined the big-boned relatives as zucca and its more petite kin as zucchini, a name which gained popularity in the U.S. from Italian immigrants. In France, it became known as courge and courgette, which is how they’re referred to in the U.K.
Fun facts about zucchini and summer squash:
- There are two Guinness World Records for zucchini: British gardener Bernard Lavery has remained the heavyweight champ since 1990 when he presented his 64 1/2 – pound zucchini.
- For length strength, the record was set in 2014 by Giovanni Batista Scozzafava of Niagara Falls, Canada for his 8 feet, 3.3 inch-long garden monstrosity.
What to look for when buying zucchini and summer squash
For most recipes, choose zucchini and summer squash that are small, firm, and unbruised. Later in the season, it’s common to find large, overgrown zucchini at the market for low prices, but these tend to be watery and less flavorful. However, they can be used for making stuffed zucchini.
Sustainability of zucchini and summer squash
Summer squash is vulnerable to several diseases and insect pests, so many growers use pesticides to protect their crops. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, zucchini and other summer squash rank 28 out of 48, meaning they tend to be low on potentially harmful pesticide residues. If you’re concerned about chemical use, buy certified organic squash. You can also ask growers about their pest management and chemical use if you’re buying your produce at the farmers’ market.
There are several varieties of squash which have been genetically modified to resist viruses, but they make up a very small percentage of zucchini grown in the U.S. As of January 2022, all bioengineered foods sold outside of restaurants must be labeled, so these zucchini are identifiable by the presence of the bioengineered label or a QR code that provides more information about the food. Another sure way to avoid genetically modified foods is to choose organic zucchini, as GMOs are not allowed under the organic label.
Zucchini and other summer squash are available from the summer through the fall. Because of its high water content (95 percent), they are highly perishable. While summer squash grown in warmer regions of the world is available year-round in supermarkets, it is best enjoyed in season for peak flavor and texture.
Eating zucchini and summer squash
Keep zucchini refrigerated until ready to use. They should be used within two or three days of purchase. Zucchini does not age well; they get mushy, moldy or both.
Zucchini and other summer squash have a mild, fresh taste that nicely offsets stronger flavors. Grilled or sauteed zucchini pairs well with garlic, tomatoes, leafy herbs, olives, roasted peppers, onions and various cheeses. Thinly sliced summer squash can also be enjoyed raw in salads. Roasted and paired with other summer vegetables, summer squash is the base of a traditional provençal ratatouille.
During the summer, squash blossoms are often available at farmers’ markets. Lightly battered and fried or stuffed with ricotta, these bright yellow flowers make an exciting appetizer. Zucchini has a sweet side, too. You can swap out shredded carrot for zucchini in a loaf cake or muffins.
Adding grated zucchini into a chocolate cake adds moisture and lift without contributing any obvious vegetable taste.
Zucchini goes bad quickly. To keep it around a little longer (about three months), cut it into 1/2-inch pieces, blanch and freeze. You can also slice it into thin rounds and dehydrate zucchini, or pickle it.
Like its cousin, the watermelon, zucchini is low in calories — 1 cup of raw zucchini is just 21 calories. A rich source of potassium, vitamins B-2, B-6 and C, zucchini also offers a substantial amount of fiber.