How To: Know Your Winter Squash

At the farmers’ markets, gourds and winter squashes abound come October—suddenly and a little bit terrifyingly. They roll off the tables, weigh down our baskets, poke holes in our shopping bags, and shrivel the skin on our hands (see Butternut Squash for more on this). As if that weren’t dynamic enough, winter squash come in a bazillion varieties, so many as to make lesser cooks run for the hills, where the vegetable identification is easy.

The good news is that, in the end, most varieties of winter squash are interchangeable in terms of taste and cooking method. We’ve reverted to choosing one by size. Feeding one? That translates to a delicata. More like a hundred? An enormous butternut. Spaghetti squash is the exception; its stringy interior makes it a better sub for pasta than pumpkin.

To make matters more complicated, some of the squash varieties on that overloaded farmers’ market folding table are really only posing as vegetables. Certain varieties of decorative gourds have evolved to be totally inedible. If you cut one open, you’d find it contains oh so little meat. In elementary school, we made instruments with such gourds. Likewise, the perfectly round, enormous pumpkin you’re planning to carve for Halloween may not be your best bet for pastas and cake. Mammoth pumpkins—the ones we love for Jack O’Lanterns—are stringy and not very sweet.

As for the squashes we do love, read on to discover delicata, kabocha, Hubbord, and more. Then, salivate over what we do with our cooked squashes—quesadillas to risotto, chili to pasta. To us, squash screams “fall cooking” and that’s what we plan to do.

**Tips and Tricks**

Our Favorite Squash Varieties

Delicata: Small, sweet, and not too starchy, the delicata has a thin, ridged skin, pale yellow with lines and speckles of green. It’s an heirloom variety, which means it’s among the tastiest squash out there. What’s more, if you roast the delicata, you can even eat the skin.

Pumpkin: We all know the face of this guy. He’s got a jagged smile that’s lit from within, and big triangular eyes. But let’s not anthropomorphize: pumpkins are for eating, too. The best are sugar, pie, and baby pam pumpkins, which have smooth skin and flesh that’s not too stringy. Hack off the skin with a large knife, then quarter the pumpkin and cook as you would any old squash.

Kabocha: These squat squashes look like pumpkins dyed an earthy forest green. Kabochas are actually also known as Japanese pumpkins, as they’re both enjoyed and grown in Japan, as well as in other countries with a growing season of at least 100 days. Kabochas last a long time on the counter, actually becoming sweeter the longer they sit out (to a point).

Butternut: The little black dress of squash, what you should grab when you’re unsure of what you want (or when you’re at the crappy grocery store and not the glorious farmers’ market). Butternuts have smooth skin that makes them easy to peel with a sturdy grater. But beware! Wear gloves when peeling butternuts, as the just-peeled flesh emits a liquid that can cause contact dermatitis. Uncovered hands will become uber-dry and bright orange, then begin to peel.

Best Methods For Cooking

Steam: Steaming might be the most reliable way to get beautiful, orange, uniform cubes. It’s also the best method if you’re planning to mash your squash into puree—for baby food, perhaps, or from-scratch pumpkin pie. To steam, halve the squash and scoop out the seeds, the peel, and cube it. Set the squash in a steamer basket over an inch or two of boiling water. Cover and cook until the squash is easily pierced with a knife. You’ll want it slightly firmer for salads, softer for mashing.
Recipe: Inside-Out Ravioli Pasta

Roast: Roasting brings out a tremendous amount of flavor and sweetness. To roast, peel, seed, and cube a squash, then toss it with olive oil, salt, and perhaps a drizzle of maple syrup or sugar to bring out the sweetness. Cook on a baking sheet in one layer at 400°F for about 45 minutes, until the squash is golden and shrunken. Roasting is also a good method for squash that are tough to peel; you can halve and seed a squash, brush it with some olive oil, then roast it til it’s soft. When it cools, simply scoop the flesh out.
Recipe: Parmesan-Roasted Potatoes and Squash

Shred & Sauté: When you shred your squash into tiny little shards—which is, admittedly, a labor of love—you wind up with pieces small enough to sauté. Melt butter in a large pan, then add the shredded squash and minced garlic or thinly sliced shallots if you’d like. Slowly sauté the shreds until they’ve softened, then add salt and any other seasonings to taste. Shredded squash is divine, and, once finished cooking, ready for a variety of savory uses.
Recipe: Butternut Squash Risotto with Pecorino and Pancetta

Blanch: Boiling cubes of squash is a simple approach, not unlike steaming. With blanched squash, you can easily make a mash—as for the croquettes—and you can also add blanched cubes to almost anything: stews, pastas, grain salads, and more. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add the cubes, and cook until they’re as soft as you’d like. Drain, then shock with cold water.
Recipe: Squash and Sweet Potato Croquettes

Braise: If squash is to be part of a slow-cooked dish, like a chili, you can easily add cleaned, cubed squash to the pot and merely cook your chili/stew til it’s done. You just want to make sure not to add the squash so early as to overcook the rest of your ingredients, and yet not so late as to leave the squash itself raw. Braising is great for infusing squash with the flavor of the dish.
Recipe: Autumn Pumpkin-Brisket Chili

Posted in: Guides, How To
  • Florence

    Hi! This is really handy! I wonder if you’ve got any recipe suggestions for acorn squash too? I just bought one, but don’t know what to do with it. :)

    • BGSK

      You can really use acorn in place of any of these squashes–with the exception of spaghetti!

  • M.Ward

    This was super helpful – thanks!

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