Putting together the final touches on my Plant-based Holiday Table, I’m reminded of the many possibilities Fall and Winter squash have for cooking. This is one of my favorite times of year, as squash is one of my favorite foods to work with. Many of us know the basics: Butternut, Acorn, and Pumpkin. The last few years have really found a rejuvenation in heirloom varieties, thanks to the love from local farmers like Nichols farm at Green City Market and local Chicago chefs like Paul Virant, Stephanie Izard, and Mindy Segal. You now have an assortment of shapes, colors, and flavors to choose from. So how do you know which to get? Keep this page bookmarked as a handy guide in the market.
Green Acorn or Yellow: What’s in a Name?
First of all, I often see names used for different squash varieties repeated, swapped, or generalized. Sometimes even asking farmers, they can be at a loss for the difference between Carnival and Confetti. Take the name “kabocha” which is a general term for “squash” in Japanese, but can also refer to a specific variety at the market. At the end of the day, they’re all beautiful and offer sweet fall flavor.
A Squash Tasting: Finding your Favorite
Do a Squash tasting. Sure, wine and cheese tastings are all the rage at some holiday parties, but I’ll opt instead for a squash tasting. Roast off a few different varieties and taste to find which ones you prefer. You can even make flavor notes like “hints of butterscotch” to really impress your friends. At the very least, take pictures and label the squash so that you can remember which varieties you prefer. I save photos of foods I want to remember to an Album I cleverly call “Food I Want to Remember”.
Size, Shape, and Use: How to Choose the right Squash for the dish you want to make
Most squash are interchangeable in recipes, giving you freedom to choose what is available or on sale at your market. You do want to consider size, shape, and use, for picking the right squash for your recipe:
1) Size matters – Choose based on the number of servings you want. Especially for something like stuffed squash, think of how many people you plan on serving. Big Red Kuri and Buttercup squash are often enough to feed a family of 4. Smaller, Acorn and Confetti squash can easily be halved for 2 people. And small, slender Delicata squash make the perfect single-serving portion.
2) Weight – A squash should feel heavy for its size. In the same way you would pick a melon, a squash should feel heavier than it looks. This often means there’s more flesh on the inside, indicating the squash had a longer time on the vine to grow and develop its natural sweet flavor
3) Shape and Color – Think about the presentation. Are you making a beautiful stuffed squash where you want a round shape to hold a filling? Are you making a squash puree, where the initial shape doesn’t really matter? If you’re going to peel the squash (like for roasted squash cubes in a salad), then better to get one that’s flat and easier to peel. Butternut is my go-to for this. If you’re making a pureed soup, then you can just scoop the flesh from the shell after it cooks. In this case, the shape doesn’t really matter.
4) Can I eat the skin? This is totally up to you. The skin of most squash is edible. A few exceptions are Red Kuri, Striped squash, and some of the larger pumpkins. However, whether or not you actually want to eat the skin is debatable. Some people don’t mind chewy through Acorn squash skin while others would prefer to leave it on the plate. Either way, be sure to scrub the skin with a Vegetable brush to thoroughly remove any soil.
5) Faded flesh
Cured Squash: Why Faded Flesh Means More Flavor
I learned from Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach, that more flavor actually develops after a squash is picked. Fall squash should be picked and then “cured” by storing it for 2-3 weeks in a humid place at 75-80 degrees. This is similar to the conditions created in most car trunks from October through early November, depending on where you live. This curing allows the squash’s starches to convert to sugar. You can spot cured squash in the market because the flesh will be slightly faded.
Storing: Do NOT Refrigerate!
After curing, squash likes the cozy “cellar” temperature of about 50 degrees. This is similar to the conditions created in most car trunk from early November through early December, or place the squash on a windowsill, near a cool, well-ventilated area (just make sure it’s not over a radiator that gives off steam). The refrigerator dulls the flavor and can even cause spots on the surface.
History and Fun Facts
Squash are native to the Americas and their name comes from the Massachuset Indian word “askutasquash”. They likely first popped up in the Andes Mountains, probably in Northern Argentina, where there are still varieties you don’t find anywhere else in the world. Now, there are about 350 varieties throughout the world and food scientists continue to develop new seeds.
Much of the canned pumpkin we get is not from the same variety as the baking pumpkins we see. Actually, this comes from a variety that is a hybrid of pumpkin and butternut, which explains why it has a darker color and less stringy texture than the fresh pumpkin.
You can eat it all! Besides just the flesh, you can roast the seeds of most squash (not just pumpkin), and use stuff or saute the squash blossoms.
Hard to cut? Especially with hard-shell squash like Striped and Re Kuri, try microwaving the squash 3 minutes to soften. Then you should be able to cut through easier.
Bonus Chef’s Tip: Roasting the Seeds!
Roasting squash seeds isn’t just for pumpkins! You can roast the seeds of any of these squash. Just note that smaller squash (like delicate and some acorn) might have seeds that are too small to offer much crunch. For any other squash, though, it’s simple…
1) Scoop out the seeds
2) Remove “goop” by submerging seeds in water and letting the squash goop fall to the bottom of the bowl.
3) Place the seeds on a flat surface in a dry area for 2 days, tossing once or twice a day to get even circulation.
4) Season with your choice of: cinnamon and nutmeg, rosemary and sage, chili powder, or just salt and pepper
5) Roast at 350 for 12-15 minutes (depending on the size of the seeds), until they start to “pop!”
6) Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes.
7) Store on the counter, uncovered.
8) Enjoy easy snackin
Tips and History help from: