Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Winter Squash 101 (Plus 18 Recipes!)

Come autumn, they crowd the produce aisle like so many tough-skinned soldiers, boasting their seasonal orange and green hues like a silent, immovable army. Thrown at an enemy, they will wreak havoc untold. Made into soup, they will be your best friends forever. Or even foreva.

What I’m saying is: You may fear them. You may love them. Either way, winter squash should be in your kitchen, and eventually your stomach.

So let’s learn a little more, shall we?


Often overshadowed nutritionally by leafy greens and cruciferae, gourds pack some impressive wholesomeness of their own. Pumpkins and butternut squash are astronomically high in vitamin A, while acorn squash is a good source of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and thiamin. All varieties are virtually fat-free and comparatively low in calories, with spaghetti squash being particularly lean.


If you’ve ever purchased them pre-cubed or in the depths of summer, winter squash may seem prohibitively expensive. Happily, it is not always thus. Bought whole and in season, they’re pound-for-pound one of the most economical vegetables, ever. My local supermarket often hocks them at $0.69/lb., and will go even cheaper if they don’t think anyone is buying.


Soups, purees, risottos, quickbreads, chilis, stews, casseroles, roasted sides – oh, where to begin? There are so many wonderful options for cooking winter squash, it’s tough to choose any one to reflect upon. So here are some general notes:
  • Acorn squash, butternut squash, and pumpkin take particularly well to warm, autumn-y flavors and spices. You’ll frequently find them in recipes using maple syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg, apples, and pears, among other October-like foods.
  • Since these kinds of dishes tend to be sweet, I find kids and picky eaters tend to dig ‘em.
  • This doesn’t mean gourds don’t pair with other ingredients. You’ll find meals where they mix with ricotta, kale, pork, curry, and tomatoes, just to name a few non-fall foods.
We go into specific recipes in just a minute, but first, a word about…


Here’s the rub. While almost everything else about winter squash is praiseworthy, they can be a hideous nightmare to break down. Last night, I had to beat a sugar pumpkin ON MY KITCHEN FLOOR to get it open. Forget peeling it. After a few college tries, my brand new OXO stainless steel y-shaped peeler crumbled like the mid-‘90s Knicks.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little harsh. Slicing up a spaghetti squash isn’t all that bad. And you can buy almost any gourd pre-cubed. Heck – most recipes even ask for canned pumpkin puree, which eliminates the whole hacking process.

But if you still want to buy the pretty in-store gourds, there are a few things you can do to make the cleaving process way, way easier:
  • Halve your squash lengthwise, seed it, and roast it until the insides are easily scoopable. (50 – 90 minutes)
  • Halve your squash lengthwise, seed it, and microwave it until the insides are easily scoopable. (10-30 minutes)
  • Poke a bunch of holes in your squash, and microwave it until easily pierced with a fork. (If you should attempt this, MAKE SURE to poke many deep holes in your gourd and remain in the kitchen as it cooks. If the squash starts making noise, you risk explosion. Also, I’m not sure I would try this with a pumpkin.)
Obligatory warning: Though you’re still very much encouraged to try it, be super careful when chopping winter squash. Use a sharp knife and keep your eyes on your work at all times.

That done, let’s get to the food. Each of the following recipes has been cooked, loved, and featured on Cheap Healthy Good or in my column at Serious Eats. Enjoy!


Butternut Squash

Everyone needs more orange in their diets. And if you've ever sipped a stellar Butternut Squash Soup (like the ones listed here), you know that its namesake gourd is the way to get it. Shaped like a '70s lamp base and delicious almost any way it's prepared, butternut squash also make an excellent cudgel for defending against invading vikings.

Butternut Squash Apple Cranberry Bake
Butternut Squash Gnocchi
Butternut Squash Lasagna with Raisins and Pine Nuts
Butternut Squash and Pear Soup
Butternut Squash Risotto
Roasted Butternut Squash with Moroccan Spices
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Acorn Squash

Classically prepared with maple syrup in rings or slices, acorn squash is a squat, deep-green vegetable that resembles a particularly verdant pumpkin. Clocking in at one or two pounds, they also make excellent free weights.

Classic Baked Acorn Squash
Curried Apples and Acorn Squash

Spaghetti Squash

Confession: I used to hate this stuff, believing it was merely a poor substitute for actual spaghetti. Oh, what a dummy I was. Adaptable to a plethora of different cuisines, the oblong, yellowish squash's versatility has made it a welcome meal base. It's a bit different from other winter varieties in that the flesh doesn’t come out in chunks, but as slim, pasta-like strings, making it much more fun to play with.

Spaghetti Squash Casserole
Spaghetti Squash Puttanesca
Spaghetti Squash with Ricotta, Sage, and Pine Nuts


Ah, pumpkins. Nature’s ottomans. Bright orange, ridged, and ranging in size from a few ounces to half a ton, pumpkins are sometimes dismissed by Americans as mere Halloween decorations. But anyone who’s seen one decomposing on the neighbor’s lawn knows: there’s more to pumpkins than their nigh-impenetrable exteriors. These recipes all use canned pumpkin, but roasted, pureed fresh pumpkin would substitute nicely. (Check in Monday for a Pumpkin Butter recipe, too.)

Pumpkin Bread
Pumpkin Orzo with Sage (Vegan / non-vegan)
Pumpkin Turkey Chili

Other Squashes (Buttercup, Delicata, Kabocha, etc.)

Though we only hit on a few types here, there are dozens - maybe hundreds - of winter squash varietals available in grocery stores, farmer's markets, and pick-your-owns worldwide. Kabocha and Delicata are more common gourds, but I encourage you to experiment with what's available. Roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper is always a good way to start out.

Roasted Delicata Squash with Thyme
Roasted Winter Squash and Kale
Savory Buttercup Squash Pie

And that’s a wrap. Readers, what are your favorite ways to prepare winter squash? Do you know any other ways to ease the prep process? Why is the sky blue? The comment section is ready for your good words.


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Myrnie said...

Yum! My sister made a Jamie Oliver muffin recipe last year that calls for skin-on, chunked, raw butternut squash. You whir it in the food processor and add the rest of the ingredients- they're light and so tasty! Here is her write up about it

Elizabeth said...

I've been experimenting with squashes lately because they're just so cheap right now. The other day, I had a few people over for dinner and made stuffed chicken breasts. One of the lovely ladies who came is a vegetarian, so I put the same stuffing into an acorn squash and roasted it. It turned out deliciously (and actually cost me way less than the food for everyone else....>)

j. said...

I admit, I gave up on cutting them in half first, and now just bake them, whole, until they're either done (for squash less than 5lbs) or soft enough to cut without an ax (the larger ones). Sooo much easier.

Katie Gregg said...

I make acorn squash muffins all the time. In fact, I puree about a million pounds of acorn squash each fall, just so I can whip them up year round.

Parker said...

Definitely opens my mind up to eating more dishes containing squash...

Claire said...

My brilliant tip is this: you can peel a butternut squash with a vegetable peeler. It's awesomely easy.

Autumn said...

I've always been a bit leery of squash since I was a kid after my dad used his axe to open them for mom. (she washed the axe first, that was funny)

I feel like squash is one of those foods that I know I should like and would like, maybe these recipes will help.

Jeanette said...

I was taught to cut the squash in half, microwave the halves for 2 minutes, then cut the skin off and seed it. The flesh is softened somewhat so it makes it easier to trim and cut the squash. I have some winter squash recipes I'd like to share as well:

Diane said...

Practically my favorite vegetable!
I love it in Indian curries as well as risottos, soups, etc.

Luna said...

Buttercup squash is my favorite! It is so naturally sweet and my tummy STILL remembers the butternut/buttercup squash combo mash that my momma made one night. SO good!

Heidi said...

I tend to buy huge hard squash - what can I say, I'm a sucker for a Hubbard. Roasting them whole is not an option (hello, gigantic!) so here's what I do:

Dampen a kitchen towel, lay it on your counter (for traction) and lay the squash on it's flattest side. Take the tip of your chef's knife and pierce the skin as far as you can. Then use a hammer to tap the knife, alternating between the end of the handle and the back of the blade. Go slowly - you won't need much force. When you reach one side, spin it around and go the other direction. Once it is in two pieces, lay each cut side down and repeat. The towel keeps the squash from slipping and the use of a hammer and knife keep your fingers out of harms way. I'm a very small woman and I can divide and conquer a 10 pound squash in five minutes.

Though... that axe idea sounds pretty good ;)

Steff said...

Butternut can be peeled with a really sharp potato peeler, it just takes a few layers to get all the white bit off.
For tougher squash, I often slice or chunk it with a sharp chef's knife (making a point to run it over a sharpening steel a dozen times first), then cut the peel off the individual pieces with the same knife.
I want to try pumpkin in more creative ways, I've never done anything with it other than pie. If I treat it just like any other squash, will it taste any good?

AmandaLP said...

When I worked in Bed-Stuy, Melanie's (on Fulton and Nostrand) had AMAZING curry pumpkin. The women would laugh at me because I would always get the same thing (curry chicken and curry pumpkin.)

I have not been able to find a good curry pumpkin recipe. I found many that were soups, but this was like a side dish, about the consistency of the canned pumpkin stuff.

Otherwise when I can wrestle with the butternut squash, I love the Hungry girl butternut squash fries :)

Kim said...

I bought a dandy new Y-shaped vegetable peeler last winter specifically for peeling butternut squash and it works like a dream. My old "wand" style peeler is utterly useless on butternut. I think the Y shape results in better leverage. For butchering really big squash (you know, the ones eligible for their own zip code), I pull out my trebuchet:
It works best if you can position it so the squash lands on hard pavement ;-)

I like to toss cubes of roasted squash with roasted Brussels sprouts, season with cayenne, white pepper, and salt, and toss well to thoroughly distribute seasonings. Then I top with chopped toasted hazelnuts. It's a flavor combo made in heaven. An actual choir of angels appears over the eater's head when this medley hits said eater's taste buds.

I also like to toss cubes of roasted squash with salad greens, paper-thin red onion slices, dried cranberries, crumbled goat cheese, homemade pumpernickel croutons, and a simple homemade honey-dijon vinaigrette. Sometimes I throw in cubed roasted beets, too.

I think winter squash pairs well with parsnips which is another favorite of mine. Sometimes I steam them and mash them together with butter and a smidgen of nutmeg. Sometimes I just toss roasted chunks together. Roasted carrots, beets, rutabaga, or apples occasionally sneak in there, too, and I may throw in a fresh herb if I have one on hand like thyme, marjoram, savory, oregano, chervil, or chives.

I need to try baking some squash muffins. Many thanks to fellow commenters who linked recipes!

Anonymous said...

We grew more than 100 sugar pumpkins, spaghetti squashes and butternut squashes in our garden last fall, and I'm pretty sure we've eaten them in every possible permutation. Our favorites: pumpkin puree with chicken stock, spicy sausage, sage, evap milk and parmesan over pasta; butternut squash cubes as a calabaza replacement in garbanzos guisados (a Puerto Rican stew with chickpeas, green olives, ham over white rice and topped with avo). Sneak leftover squash puree into cheesy dishes like mac and cheese; no one will notice!

Anonymous said...

Butternut squash can also stand in for mashed potatoes. If you boil cubed butternut instead of baking/roasting, it is much less sweet and almost indistinguishable from potatoes. Butter, milk, salt and mash as usual. Awesome with swiss steak from the dutch oven.

sarah said...

Oh, I just love winter squash as well. I made a savoury winter squash bread pudding recently--a lovely dinner dish. Squash scones and grating squash into a risotto are delicious too. Lots of great ideas here!