Posted: November 20, 2012
This is the time of year when these interesting-shaped fruit with just-as-interesting names appear at farm stands, farmers’ markets and grocery stores: delicata, acorn, buttercup, sweet dumpling, turban, butternut, hubbard, carnival, spaghetti! … and more.
Winter squash are in the Curcubitacae family, along with summer squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, melons and gourds. Winter squash originated in the area between Guatemala and Mexico and have been grown for consumption for more than 10,000 years. The flesh of these early squash was thin and of poor quality and they were first used for their seeds, which are rich in nutrients. Over many years of cultivation, the flesh improved and also became an important food source. By the time Columbus arrived in the New World, Native Americans were growing winter squash throughout Central and North America. The Spanish explorers introduced winter squash to Europe and it is now produced worldwide wherever the growing season is long enough for the fruits to mature.
So what’s the difference between summer and winter squash? Since they are all in the same family, it comes down to the time and circumstances of harvesting. Summer squash such as zucchini and yellow straightneck are best harvested while young and tender and eaten soon after harvest. They do not keep for an extended period. Winter squash are distinguished by their hard skin, which allows them to keep for months, by a firmer flesh and by hardened seeds. If harvested too early, the flesh lacks flavor and the squash does not keep well.
Winter squash that you may encounter include:
- Acorn – dark green or golden; rounded shape with ridges; golden flesh
- Butternut – beige-tan; cylindrical with an enlarged end; orange flesh
- Delicata – cream with dark green stripes; elongated; creamy flesh
- Carnival – green-yellow with orange patches; acorn squash shape; golden yellow flesh
- Spaghetti – yellow; elongated oval; cream to pale yellow flesh that looks like strands of spaghetti when cooked
- Sweet dumpling – cream with dark green stripes; teacup shaped; orange flesh
- Turban – orange-red with variegated orange/red/white/green on blossom end; orange flesh
- Hubbard – dark green, gray-green or light blue; large, rounded with a narrowed end and covered with small bumps; orange flesh
- Lakota – brilliant green & red markings; heirloom hubbard-type from the Lakota Sioux Indians
When purchasing winter squash, choose one that is heavy for its size. Avoid any with tender, cut, dented or damaged skin and any that have moldy spots. If you plan to store it, buy one with several inches of stem attached and don’t use the stem as a handle to carry it. A broken stem exposes the squash to rot.
Winter squash is a good source of beta carotene, vitamins A & C, potassium and fiber. The squash can be baked, boiled, steamed or microwaved. It can be served as a side dish and in soups, soufflés, pies, breads, as pasta filling, in risotto, or filled with a stuffing of your choice. Uses for the cooked squash are limited only by your imagination and taste. The flowers can be stuffed or battered and fried. The seeds can be roasted by spreading them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and baking 15 – 20 minutes at 170 degrees.
- To cook, cut squash in half and remove seeds and pulpy strings. Cut large squash into serving sized pieces.
- To bake, place the squash cut-side down in a foil-lined baking pan. Add about ¼ inch of water, cover and bake at 350 to 400 degrees until tender – about 15 – 20 minutes for pieces and 40 – 45 minutes for halves.
- To microwave, arrange prepared pieces or halves, cut-side up, in a microwave-safe dish. Cover and cook until tender – about 6 – 8 minutes for pieces and 7 – 10 minutes for halves. Let stand 5 minutes after removing from microwave.
- To boil or steam, peel the squash and cut into pieces. Then boil in a small amount of water until tender, or steam over boiling water until tender.
- Cooked squash can be frozen for up to 1 year.
Winter squash are very frost-sensitive both at the beginning and the end of the season. If the seeds are sown in cold soil, they will not germinate. When soil temperature reaches 65 degrees, sow seeds directly in the garden in full sun. It requires good drainage, so planting in hills is a good idea. Lightly mulch or cultivate around the plants until they begin producing their large leaves, which then act as a weed-suppressing groundcover. Provide consistent, but not over-abundant, moisture during the growing season. It takes from 75 days for bush acorn varieties to 105 days for buttercup varieties to mature.
Harvest in the fall when the rind has hardened and the vines are beginning to dry. Cut, don’t pull, them from the vines, leaving about 3 inches of stem. Don’t allow the squash to be exposed to frost or refrigeration – it causes them to rot quickly. Store at 50 – 60 degrees with good air circulation. When choosing a variety to grow, consider the space available. Winter squash are available in both bush and vine varieties. Vining types take 7 – 12 feet between hills or rows. Some of the bush varieties will even grow in a large container. Read the seed supplier description carefully to be sure the variety meets your needs.
Information on the many varieties available. (You do not have to log in, just use the search function)
Cultivation tip sheet
For nutritious fun, stop by the market and select several decorative winter squashes to make a centerpiece for dinner tonight. Afterwards, cook it to eat at other occasions.
Pauline Myers, Penn State Master Gardener, Montgomery County