One of my favorite things about fall is the abundance of winter squashes and all the delicious recipes one can make with them. Unlike their summer cousins, zucchini and yellow crookneck, winter squashes can be stored for two to three months if handled and kept properly without significant loss to quality. They lend themselves to cold weather dishes beautifully, too, whether roasted, sautéed, cubed and added to soups and stews, or mashed.
The most readily available squash in grocery stores are sugar pumpkins, butternut, acorn, and spaghetti varieties, but don’t limit yourself to the ones that are familiar- experiment with different varieties and have fun. It’s almost impossible to go wrong with a nice winter squash. Many of the lesser known varieties can be found at farmers’ markets.
Harvesting and Storing Winter Squash
In order to store them for months, be sure to select the ones that are blemish or bruise free. They should also have an intact peduncle (stem) of about 1-inch for squash and 3 to 4 inches for sugar pumpkins. If any are missing their peduncle, make sure to use them quickly. The concave area at the top of the squash where the stem used to be makes them susceptible to molds and fungus.
If you’re harvesting from your own garden, don’t handle or harvest the squash while they’re wet and don’t let the harvested fruit get wet. Cut the fruit from the vine (allowing appropriate stem length on the fruit) using kitchen or pruning shears, brush off any blossom still clinging to the end and any dirt chunks that might be stuck to them. Space them far enough apart that each fruit gets adequate air flow around it. The best temperature for curing is warm days between 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If you think nighttime temperatures are going to dip below 40 degrees or so, move your squash indoors to finish curing. Frost can sweeten the fruit, but it can also dramatically reduce storage life.
Curing the squash gets rid of excess water which creates several benefits:
- During the curing process, the skin hardens and creates a protective layer
- It concentrates the sugars in the fruit making it sweeter
- It reduces the chances of rot
A harder skin also helps to slow moisture loss (respiration) during storage which helps preserve the quality of the fruit from both an aesthetic and nutritional perspective.
Once your fruit has cured, check them again for any signs of blemishes or bruises and to make sure the stems are still securely attached. Set aside any that aren’t in perfect condition and use those first or can them using the pressure canning method. Squash store best at around 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit and at about 50 to 70% relative humidity. Cooler temperatures, like those in your refrigerator, can cause chilling injuries to the fruit and shorten storage life just like a frost does. Higher temps or higher humidity can encourage mold and mildew growth.
Don’t wash the squash! If there are still dirt chunks stuck to the squash, use a soft rag to gently wipe them away. Always make sure your squash is dry before storing it. Carefully stack your squash to avoid bruising or breaking the stems, and don’t stack more than about three feet high. Any higher and the weight of the squash on the top will squish the squash on the bottom. I don’t have a root cellar at my house here in California, but since I live above the snowline in the Sierras, my outbuildings can get too cold to store them in without damage. We use wood heat in the main living area of the house and I’ve found that a back bedroom, with the door shut to keep the heat from the woodstove out, stays at just the right temperature. Also, if you’ve put up fresh apples, don’t store them with your squash. The ethylene gas that apples give off makes everything else ripen (read: rot) faster.
I have a confession to make: cutting open hard squashes scares the beejebus out of me. I’m always afraid I’m going to lose my grip and slice my fingers clean off. Yes, I know I can get a very nice Japanese cleaver like the one shown here, but I already own a vintage cleaver and many nice knives. Don’t laugh- my solution is a hatchet. Yes, the same hatchet I use to make kindling. It makes an inelegant cut, but pretty isn’t what I’m after. I just want to cut the dang thing in half (or pieces) and get it in my belly. If company is coming over, I use my vintage cleaver, a sturdy and thick cutting board to rest everything on, and a kitchen mallet like the one shown here. I give the squash a firm whack with the cleaver first to se the blade and then use the mallet to hammer the cleaver through the squash the rest of the way.
Five Delicious Butternut Squash Recipes
This is especially helpful when I have several imperfect squashes that need to be canned instead of going into winter storage. According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation the only way to safely can winter squashes is to cube them and use a pressure canner. However, there are many recipes that one can make and either freeze the finished product or can it. One of my favorites is a Butternut soup base recipe found here. This recipe for Pickled Butternut is surprisingly good when warmed and mashed and spread over cold roast beef.
This recipe, for Hearty Chicken Stew with Butternut and Quinoa, can be doubled and the leftover frozen for later use.
Acorn Squash with Kale and Sausage makes a beautiful presentation for dinner parties while still providing a filling entrée.
Going meatless and gluten-free? This recipe for Spaghetti Squash Alfredo Boats is just the ticket for cold winter nights. Sweet Dumpling squash, with their small size, make the perfect serving for a side dish. Stuffed with mushrooms, wild rice, and apple sausage, they pair perfectly with this recipe for Grilled Venison Loin from my favorite game chef, Hank Shaw, over at the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. Trying to sneak more veggies into a picky eater’s diet? The Spaghetti Squash is for you! Once boiled or baked, this squash has a stringy, mild-flavored flesh that is very much like the pasta it’s named for. Top with marinara sauce and some grated parmesan cheese and your kids will eat it up.
The Blue Hubbard squash has the longest storage life of all the squashes. This beauty can weigh 15 to 40 (FORTY!) pounds and has a sweet, fine-grained, golden flesh. These are excellent simply roasted with apples, nuts, butter and maple syrup or honey. To prepare, start by cutting the Hubbard in half and scooping out the guts. Core and chop four or five apples and about one cup or so of nuts (I like pecans, but walnuts and almonds work just as well). Combine the chopped apples and nuts with about ¾ C maple syrup or homey and about a half a cup melted butter (save a little melted butter to brush the squash with). Feel free to play with the amount of the ingredients until you find the ratio you like. Place the halved squash in a baking dish with about ½ inch or so of water in the bottom of it. Scoop the Apple and nut mixture into the center of the cut squash, brush the cut side with melted butter, and cover with foil and cook at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 45 minutes. The meat of the squash should be tender when done like a baked potato.
Winter squashes come in a variety of sizes, textures, and flavors and if stored properly, make an excellent winter food store. They’re easy to incorporate into dishes or make excellent entrees. Check out your local farmers’ market to see their wonderful variety.
by Ruby Burks