From blue to orange, smooth to bumpy and popular to obscure, diverse winter squash all provide cancer-fighting compounds and an earthy-sweet taste that makes the oncoming cold weather seem a little less dreary.
Though we often get our winter squash fill from the iconic pumpkin and butternut sort, greenmarkets and grocers alike are bursting with additional varieties, such as the Hubbard, kabocha, and turban. Each type is packed with vitamins and minerals, and almost all of them include ample beta-carotene and carotenoids, compounds that the American Institute for Cancer Research reports may help fight cancer and boost the immune system. Squash are also some of the easiest vegetables to digest. So if your digestive system feels weak from treatment, a helping of squash can be a good option.
There are two large groups of squash, summer and winter. The winter are grown to full maturity, giving them a thick, inedible skin that allows them to be stored through the winter — hence their name. Only some winter squash, such as the sweet dumpling, delicata and kabocha, have been specially bred to have thin, edible skin. Summer yellow squash and zucchini, on the other hand, can be cooked and eaten without peeling.
A rule of thumb for squash is the smaller it is the better it tastes. This is true for all types, even the summer varieties. When surveying a bundle of squash in the market or farm stand, don’t ignore the “runts” — they may be the best tasting. Look for a small flower end (opposite the stem end) of the squash. This is a trick from friends in Japan and it has proven to be a good sign of a delicious squash.
The smaller winter varieties, like acorn, delicata and dumpling, can simply be split in half, the seeds scooped out and baked whole. Most other squashes are best prepared by peeling the skin, carefully cutting the squash open with a large knife and scooping out the seeds and stringy insides. The squash can then be baked in a dish with a small amount of water at 375 degrees until tender, which can take 30 minutes to a number of hours depending on size. Enhance their sweetness with brown sugar or all-natural maple syrup, or highlight their savory taste by rubbing the flesh with cut garlic, brushing with olive oil and adding seasonings like rosemary, sage or thyme.
The stem ends of the larger squash can be tough. If the squash is too thick and hard to cut, wait to slice it open. Instead, cook it whole in the oven until it is tender, and then make the cut. This will take longer, but is safer and sometimes necessary.
Now, get cooking with this essential guide on how to prepare and enjoy a smorgasbord of healthful squash this season. Remember, this guide is just a starting point. Once you’re familiar with the myriad varieties of winter squash you’ll discover their versatility and be ready to invent some creative preparations of your own.
Cook For Your Life’s Simple Guide to Winter Squash
For Steaming and Baking
- Acorn, sweet dumpling, buttercup, delicata and spaghetti: Smaller varieties that are great as single serving sides or chopped into salads, these are best prepared using a simple cooking method.
- Acorn — Acorn squash usually have dark green skin but can be found in dark yellow and white, as well. This squash will give you a sweet, nutty and somewhat peppery taste. For a beautiful fall salad, roast acorn squash and golden beets in CFYL’s Golden Baked Vegetable Salad.
- Sweet Dumpling — These adorable squash only grow to seven ounces and have cream-colored skin with green specks. They can be eaten whole, with the skin on, and offer a sweet, mild taste similar to a sweet potato. Dumplings are perfect for baking as individual servings, and can be dished up whole for cute and easy crowd pleasers.
- Buttercup — This variety has dark green skin with lighter green or grey streaks. Once cooked, the buttercup earns its name by becoming one of the sweetest of squashes available. Sometimes the flesh can become dry, so steaming or baking with tin foil are good options.
- Delicata — Oblong and cream-colored with green stripes, this squash is so delicious that it is usually eaten simply roasted with nothing else. Similar to the buttercup, the skin is relatively thin and does not need to be removed. After baking, the flesh is sweet, smooth and, of course, delicate.
- Spaghetti — These can be yellow, green with white streaks, or ivory. When a spaghetti squash is opened it reveals stringy flesh that looks just like the pasta to which it owes its name. The noodle-like strands can be eaten with sauce on top and make a good pasta replacement for those on a gluten-free diet. Try tossing in sautéed fall vegetables and some parmesan cheese.
For Soups and Stews
- Butternut — These popular squash have a pale, tan skin and the shape of an elongated pear. The flesh has a fine texture and an earthy, sweet and nutty flavor. The long, thick necks make these among the meatier squashes you can buy. Try using butternut squash in CFYL’s Fennel-Scented Squash Soup in place of traditional pumpkin.
- Kabocha (a.k.a. kalabasa or Japanese pumpkin) — These smaller, thin-skinned pumpkins are usually blue, grey or green with lighter speckles and stripes. The gourds are versatile and equally popular for soup and roasting. Try using kabocha in CFYL’s Pumpkin Posole, a delicious take on this Mexican soup with hominy, paprika and fresh cilantro.
- Turban – This squash’s orange and golden flesh boasts a great, nutty taste after cooking. Turban squash are excellent in an autumn soup with leeks, carrots, turnips and onions — all of which are best in the fall.
Best for Pie
- Cinderella (a.k.a. fairytale or Musque de Provence) — These get their name from their resemblance to Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. The taste of Cinderellas is complex and slightly sweet. They make pies delectable enough for an evil stepmother to envy.
- Sugar pumpkin — These little pumpkins are much smaller and more delicious than the jack-o’-lantern variety impress best on the stoop. They have classic, sweet pumpkin flavor and are easy to handle. Use sugar pumpkins in CFYL’s Pumpkin Pie Custard.
- Hubbard — The blue whale of squash, these are extremely large and oddly shaped, with uneven, slate-blue skin (they also come in orange and green). Despite their outward beastliness, they are truly tender and wonderful on the inside. Hubbards are sometimes sold in pre-cut pieces at the supermarket and are always well suited for any recipe that calls for winter squash. They are slightly less sweet than other varieties, making them more versatile.
- Jarrahdale – With a Halloween-y shape, blue-gray skin and deep ribbing, these are a cross between the Cinderella and the Hubbard. They have a melon-like aroma and are also milder and less sweet than other pumpkin varieties.