Know Your Fruits and Veggies™ : Winter Squash

By Dawn Swidorski

Food winter squashSquash is native to Central America and Mexico. Archaeological evidence suggests squash may have been first cultivated 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. They were first cultivated specifically for their seeds since early squash did not contain much flesh. Over time, squash cultivation spread throughout the Americas, and varieties with a greater quantity of sweeter-tasting flesh were developed.

Squash was one of the “Three Sisters” planted by Native Americans. The Three Sisters were the three main native crop plants: maize (corn), beans, and squash. These were usually planted together, with the cornstalk providing support for the climbing beans, and shade for the squash. The squash vines provided ground cover to limit weeds. Christopher Columbus brought squash back to Europe from the New World, and like many other Native American foods, their cultivation was introduced throughout the world by Portuguese and Spanish explorers.

Winter squash is a summer-growing annual vegetable representing several species within the genus Cucurbita and includes pumpkins and winter squash which are really edible gourds. There are many varieties with a wide range of flavors and textures. Winter squash does not look the same either. Their tough outer shells can be smooth or bumpy, thin or thick and rock hard with a wide array of colors.

Winter squash is harvested and eaten in the mature fruit stage, when the seeds within are fully mature and the skin has hardened into a tough rind. At this stage, most varieties of this fruit can be stored for use during the winter.

The most popular winter squash includes acorn, buttercup, butternut, Delicata, Hubbard and spaghetti.

Nutritional Value & Health Benefits

Winter squash is a low-calorie, good source of complex vegetable carbohydrates and dietary fiber.

It is an excellent source of vitamin A, a great source of vitamin C, potassium, dietary fiber and manganese, and a good source of folate, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin B1 (thiamin), copper, tryptophan, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B3 (niacin) and vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid).

It is also a source of iron and beta carotene. Usually, the darker the skin is, the higher the beta carotene content.

Common Types of Winter Squash

Acorn Squash

This winter squash is small and round shaped like an acorn. It’s easy to slice into halves and fill with butter. A small acorn squash weighs from 1 to 3 pounds, and has sweet, slightly fibrous flesh. Its distinct ribs run the length of its hard, blackish-green or golden-yellow skin. In addition to the dark green acorn, there are now golden and multi-colored varieties.

Available year round

Ambercup Squash

The ambercup resembles a small pumpkin with orange skin. Inside holds bright orange flesh with a dry sweet taste. Peel it, cube the flesh, roast it, and serve like cut-up sweet potatoes. Has an extraordinarily long storage life.

Available June – November.

Butternut Squash

Easily found in supermarkets. This squash has cream-colored skin and is shaped like a vase, bell or elongated pear. The deep orange-colored flesh has a sweet and nutty flavor. It weighs from 2 to 5 pounds. A deep orange flesh color indicates a sweeter squash. Butternut is a common squash used in making soup because it is not as stringy as other varieties and purees beautifully.

Available year-round – peak season lasts from early fall through winter.

Buttercup Squash

This squash has a dark-green skin, sometimes accented with lighter green streaks and a turban shape. Has a sweet and creamy orange flesh. This squash is much sweeter than other winter varieties.

Available year-round – peak season lasts from early fall through winter.

Carnival Squash

Cream colored with orange spots or pale green with dark green spots in vertical stripes. The yellow flesh is reminiscent of sweet potatoes and butternut squash and can be baked or steamed then combined with butter and fresh herbs. Also great in soups.

Available year-round – is best late summer through early fall

Delicata Squash

This is one of the tastier winter squashes, with creamy pulp reminiscent of corn and sweet potatoes and thin edible skin. The delicata squash is an heirloom variety that is enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

Available year-round – is best late summer through early fall

Fairytale Pumpkin Squash

The Fairytale Pumpkin is a very unique eating and ornamental pumpkin. It’s thick but tender, and the deep orange flesh is flavorful, sweet and firm. The distinctive Cinderella coach-like shape and warm russet color make it perfect for fall decorating too. This pumpkin is usually used for baking.

Available September – November

Hubbard Squash

The extra-hard skins make them one of the best keeping winter squashes. These are very large and irregularly shaped, with a skin that is bumpy or warty. They range from big to enormous, have a blue/gray skin, and taper at the ends. Hubbard squash is often sold in pieces because it can grow to very large sizes. The yellow flesh of these tends to be very moist and longer cooking times in the oven are needed. They are generally peeled and boiled, cut up and roasted, or cut small and steamed or sautéed. It’s perfect for pies.

Available year-round – peak season is early fall throughout winter.

Kabocha Squash

Refers most commonly to a squash of the buttercup type. This squash has a green, bluish-gray or a deep orange skin. The flesh is deep yellow. Kobocha Squash may be cooked whole or split lengthwise (removing seeds). It has a rich sweet flavor, and often dry and flaky when cooked. Use in any dish in which buttercup squash would work.

Available year-round.

Spaghetti Squash

Is a small, watermelon-shaped variety, ranges in size from 2 to 5 pounds or more. It has a golden-yellow, oval rind and a mild, nutlike flavor. The yellowest Spaghetti squash will be the ripest and best to eat. Those that are nearly white are not very ripe. In a departure from most vegetables the larger spaghetti squash are more flavorful than smaller ones.

When cooked, the flesh separates in strands that resemble spaghetti pasta.

To prepare spaghetti squash, cut the gourd in half lengthwise and remove the seeds, then bake, boil or microwave until tender. Once cooked, use a fork to rake out the “spaghetti-like” stringy flesh (all the way to the rind), and serve. It can actually be served as a pasta substitute with a marina sauce.

Available year-round – season early fall through winter.

Sweet Dumpling Squash

This small, mild and sweet squash resembles a miniature pumpkin with a flattened top. It has cream-colored skin with green specks. Weighing only about 7 ounces, it has sweet and tender orange flesh and is a great size for stuffing and baking as individual servings.

Available throughout the fall.

Turban Squash

Named for its shape the Turban Squash has colors ranging from bright orange, to green or white. It has golden-yellow flesh and its taste is reminiscent of hazelnuts. They often grow in unusual shapes with extravagant coloration that makes them popular as harvest ornamentals.

It is popular for centerpieces, and its top can be sliced off so it can be hollowed and filled with soup.

Available year-round – season is late summer through early fall.

How to Select and Store

Choose squash that are firm, heavy for their size and have dull, not glossy, rinds. The rind should be hard as soft rinds may indicate that the squash is watery and lacking in flavor.

Winter squash has a much longer storage life than summer squash. Depending upon the variety, it can be kept for between one week to six months.

It should be kept away from direct exposure to light and should not be subject to extreme heat or extreme cold. Place whole winter squash on top of thick pads of newspapers in a cool, dry, well-ventilated location, preferably between 45 and 55 degrees F. Check on a regular basis for rot and use within three to six months depending on variety of squash.

Refrigerate tightly wrapped cut pieces of winter squash, such as banana, and use within 5 days.

Once a squash is cooked (by steaming or baking), the flesh of the squash can be frozen until needed.

Tips for Preparing Winter Squash

Rinse winter squash under cold running water before cutting.

All varieties of winter squash require peeling for steaming except Kabocha, butternut and delicata squash. You can peel winter squash with a potato peeler or knife.

If you are baking your squash you don’t have to peel it. Cut the ends off, cut the squash in half lengthwise down the middle, scoop out the seeds and bake. Alternatively you can leave the squash whole, pierce a few times with a fork or tip of a paring knife, bake and scoop out the seeds after it has been cooked. You can peel cooked squash easily with a knife and then cut into pieces of desired size.

Squash can be baked, mashed, pureed, steamed, simmered, roasted, baked or stuffed and many varieties can replace Sweet Potatoes in most recipes. Once squash is cooked and mashed, it can be used in soups, main dishes, stews, casseroles, vegetable side dishes, even breads, muffins, custards and pies.

Roast Those Seeds!

Save those seeds that you scooped out! Seeds from winter squash can make a great snack food, and can be prepared in the same way as pumpkin seeds. Once separated from the pulp, you can place the seeds in a single layer on a cookie sheet and lightly roast them at 160-170°F (about 75°C) in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

A Few Quick Serving Ideas

  • Top puréed cooked winter squash with cinnamon and maple syrup.
  • Steam cubes of winter squash and then dress with olive oil, soy sauce, ginger and pumpkin seeds.
  • Top “strings” of spaghetti squash with pasta sauce.
  • Add cubes of winter squash to your favorite vegetable soup recipe.

Here’s a healthy tasty winter squash recipe Apple Stuffed Acorn Squash.