As the cooler months settle in and the leaves change color and fall, you may notice the appearance of certain seasonal fruits and veggies. Root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and turnips appear in surplus at grocery stores and markets. But probably most noticeable are pumpkins and other winter squash.
While botanically speaking, these vegetables may differ, one thing they have in common is their classification as “winter food.” They’re easy to store in colder months, especially when many home gardens are dormant (unless you live in Zone 11 — looking at you, Hawaii and southern Florida).
Winter squashes, in particular, are popular choices once cooler weather approaches, often showing up during the holiday season. But their tough skin and seedy interior can often seem intimidating. The thought of cooking winter squash (or simply cutting winter squash!) may be enough to make you think twice about that butternut squash recipe.
But there’s no need to groan when you see a gourd. In this article, we’ll share our top tips to choose, store, prepare, and cook these wintery squashes, along with seven winter squash recipes.
Is a Pumpkin a Squash or a Gourd? And Is a Gourd a Squash?
If a pumpkin is a squash, and a gourd is a pumpkin, does that mean a squash is also a gourd? The answer is yes… well, sort of.
Squash, gourds, and pumpkins are the same in that they are all part of the Cucurbitaceae family (pronounced q-curb-eh-tacy). All gourds are squash, but not all squash are necessarily gourds, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden.
You see, it’s a bit complicated and probably more than you need (or want) to know. However, just to avoid any confusion, squash is the edible type of Cucurbitaceae fruit.
Gourds are the decorative types of Cucurbitaceae, and most are purely ornamental in nature.
Pumpkin can fall into either category, playing the role of the scary jack-o’-lantern perching on your doorstep, or offering up nutrition in the form of pumpkin soup.
There are over 900 species in the Cucurbitaceae family. And according to The Modern Farmer, there are also hundreds of winter squash varieties.
Winter Squash Varieties
Although they’re all slightly different in shape, color, flavor, and texture, these seasonal vegetables… err, fruits… all pack a nutritious punch. They’re loaded with carotenoids, like beta-carotene, which your body converts to vitamin A. And winter squashes are also rich sources of vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and fiber, making them the perfect addition to soups to help fight against those nasty winter colds.
To learn more about squash’s nutritional superpowers, check out the Top Health Benefits of Squash + How to Prepare and Eat It.
The main types of winter squash you’re likely to encounter are:
One of the most common and versatile of the winter squash varieties, butternut squash provides over 100% of the RDA for vitamin A in just one cooked cup! You can also use it in place of sweet potatoes as its texture and flavor are quite similar. Or make the Cheesy Cauliflower Squash Sauce below to see how it can lend an ultrarich and creamy texture to recipes.
Delicata squash may be one of the least intimidating of all the winter squashes due to the ease of cutting through its thin skin and softer flesh. It’s similar to butternut squash (and, really, all of the squash varieties) in that it’s powered with vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. Its boat-like shape and ability to keep form after cooking make it an ideal vessel for stuffing with vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
Recognizable for its often hunter-green hue and nut-like shape, acorn squash can transform into a bowl for all of your plant-based creations. From soups to grains to sautéed vegetables (umami mushrooms, in particular, pair nicely), stuffed acorn squash is one of my favorite winter foods.
Its mellow flavor and familiar noodle shape make spaghetti squash a fun and nutritious substitute for traditional spaghetti dishes. Consider mixing with pasta sauces you know and love, like marinara, pesto, and (cashew) bechamel, for a fiber- and beta-carotene-rich pasta dish.
Transforming into buttery, nutty, sweet goodness, similar to sweet potato or pumpkin, kabocha squash is succulent in risotto, soups, and stews. Its outer shell can be pretty tough to cut, so you may want to microwave it for a few minutes before cooking. P.S. Kabocha squash seeds are rich in zinc! Harvest, clean, and roast them for a crunchy, nutritious snack.
The vibrant orange color of sugar pie pumpkins is a clue that they’re chock-full of vitamin A, potassium, and vitamin C. And their sweet name clues you in to their culinary application; they’re an ideal addition to your winter desserts!
It’s possible that, if you’ve ever walked by a Hubbard squash, you didn’t pay it much attention due to its thick leathery skin and heavy weight (ranging from 5–15 pounds!). It may look intimidating, but its dense flesh offers a rich flavor that blends into a creamy, dreamy, thick soup. To get past that seriously tough skin, try cooking it first to soften the skin before removing it to get to the delectable nutrient-dense flesh.
How to Choose and Store Winter Squash
When searching for that perfect edible winter squash, you’ll need to pick one up and examine it. It should be heavy and firm, without soft spots, moldy patches, or cut or punctured skin.
The shape should also be distinctive to its variety. Acorn squash looks like an acorn; banana squash looks like a banana; spaghetti squash looks like… well the inside does, anyway. Look for a well-shaped squash with tough skin (much tougher than the delicate thin-skinned summer squash).
You may be wondering if winter squash skin is edible. It is indeed! However, it can be tough to chew. Therefore, depending on the strength of your choppers and the tenacity of your digestive system, you may want to peel it. Cooking the squash can soften its skin, making it easier to peel.
Actually, let’s take a moment of gratitude for that resilient skin, as this lovely attribute gives winter squash its long shelf life. Depending on the type of squash and how it’s stored, many can last about 2–6 months. To take advantage of that stellar shelf life, store winter squash in a cool dark place (a basement works well, but don’t forget about it!). Cooked and cut squash can also be stored in the refrigerator for 3–4 days in an airtight container or in the freezer for up to four months.
How to Prepare Winter Squash
If you’re worried about pesticides on your produce, you’ll be happy to know that no winter squash varieties made the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list. However, they are in the “Middle 19,” which means winter squashes still contain a moderate amount of pesticides.
It’s always recommended that you wash the skin of fruits and vegetables before consuming them, especially when they contain pesticides. But to learn the best way to wash fresh produce, visit How to Wash Vegetables and Fruits to Remove Pesticides.
Okay, on to the part you’ve been waiting for — how to cut those awkwardly-shaped, wobbly cucurbits.
First, you’ll need a sturdy cutting board that doesn’t move around when you use it. (I’m a big fan of cutting boards made of wood rather than chemical-y plastic or slippery glass).
Next, you’ll need a sharp knife, as the rind of winter squash can be quite tough. There are different ways to cut squash depending on the variety, size, and culinary application. For most, start by cutting off the ends and scooping out the seeds (save the seeds for snacking!). If you’re more of a visual learner, watch the video below to see how to cut acorn and other winter squash varieties.
How to Use Winter Squash
Once you’ve been able to cut through the squash’s dense skin (to where the mineral-dense and protein-rich seeds live), you’ll feel like you’ve won the Winter Olympics! Before you celebrate, it’s time to create a scrumptious dish with the golden goods you’ve found inside.
Here are some ways you can use that hard-earned winter squash:
- Hollowed out and stuffed
- Cubed and included in soups, stews, chilies, curries, salads, and grain bowls
- Pureed in soups, sauces, and mashes or as an ingredient in baked goods
- Cubed, sliced, or cut into rings and roasted in the oven as a side dish
- Spaghetti squash can stand in for noodles in pasta dishes
- Cubed or mashed in casseroles
- Sliced into small pieces and dehydrated into squash “chips”
Winter Squash Recipes
Winter squashes come in many varieties, but one thing they share in common (other than nutrition, of course) is the variety of ways you can use this humble family of plants!
From soups to casseroles to sides and more, you’ll be amazed at the delightful culinary creations that winter squash can achieve.
We have two words for you — practically drinkable! That perfectly describes this cheesy, creamy sauce that’s not made with cheese or cream at all. It’s made from plants! Cauliflower and butternut squash give this sauce a creamy texture, and nutritional yeast gives it a cheesy flavor.
Getting creative with squash has never been easier! With so much versatility, flavor, and nutrition, we wouldn’t be surprised if you whip up a batch of this cheese sauce once a week.
Savor the comforting goodness of our Creamy Pumpkin Soup as it wraps you in a blanket of soothing warmth. Whether enjoyed with autumnal pumpkin or your favorite winter gourds, this soup offers warm and comforting flavors as well as nutrition that will leave you longing for more. Plus, the aroma of cumin, cinnamon, and nutmeg will fill your kitchen with the scent of pure comfort, which is perfect when you need a pick-me-up on a frosty winter night.
As fall transitions into winter, the bounty of butternut squash is plentiful, and what better way to use that harvest than to whip up an Autumn Farro Salad with Butternut Squash and Kale? Hearty farro and wintery kale are the perfect pairing with creamy butternut squash (or your favorite winter squash). Topped with pecans and dried cranberries, this salad is festive, full of deep winter colors, and packed with plenty of plant-based nutrition. This winter squash recipe is the type of meal you’ll look forward to enjoying time and time again!
Roasted Parmesan Acorn Squash is a great way to breathe new life into your favorite winter squash. Sliced acorn squash is coated in nutty walnut parmesan, creating a crispy and nutty outside and a cooked and creamy center. These squash slices are great as an accompaniment to your favorite cozy winter meal. But we think they make a delicious and craveable snack, too!
There’s no shortage of cozy plant-based goodness with this Creamy Spaghetti Squash Bake. Using spaghetti squash for the base of this winter squash recipe is a great way to prepare this winter casserole favorite. Baked together with creamy cashew cheese, savory tempeh, and wholesome greens, you’ve got a wonderfully wholesome comfort dish that’s ready in under an hour.
If you thought plant-based chili couldn’t get any more delicious, then wait until you try our Bean Chili in Delicata Squash Boats. This hearty dish is a fun and tasty way to add “boat”-loads of nutrition to your plate.
If delicata squash is new to you, you’re in for a treat! Similar to the sweet and creamy flesh of sweet potato, delicata squash takes on a slight caramel flavor when roasted. Stuffing the halves with hearty and savory bean chili makes for a mouthwatering flavor contrast.
What’s more, you get a cozy winter meal that is packed with protein, fiber, and phytonutrients galore!
Get ready to spice up your life with these Chipotle-Rubbed Butternut Squash Steaks. Chipotle offers the ideal amount of heat, zest, and liveliness to your favorite winter squash. Enjoy these squash steaks as the centerpiece of your meal, or top your favorite salad or grain bowl with them for a delightfully bold flavor and unique touch.
Warm Up with Winter Squash
Now that you know how to select, cut, and prepare winter squash — and how to pronounce Cucurbitaceae! — you should be feeling pretty confident to start a winter squash wonderland in your kitchen!
With their culinary versatility and nutritional excellence, don’t shy away from trying a range of squash varieties prepared in different ways.
From roasted on their own to blended into a sauce to tossed into soup, enjoy the versatility of this festive winter food. Whether you’re craving a comforting soup, a hearty side dish, or a plant-based twist on a family recipe, the world of squash awaits with endless winter squash recipes to elevate your seasonal fare.
Tell us in the comments:
- Which varieties of winter squash have you tried?
- How do you plan to use winter squash in recipes this season?
- What’s your favorite type of winter squash, and why?
Featured Image: iStock.com/HadelProductions