Winter squash & pie pumpkins grow during the summer and are harvested before the first fall frost. There are abundant varieties, shapes, and sizes, most of which are handled in the same basic way. Some varieties (such as Delicata) are best used relatively soon after harvest, while others (such as Butternut) have flavor that will improve with storage and are best eaten later in the winter. Most winter squash plants are unwieldy, sprawling monsters that are susceptible to pests and disease. They’re risky: in some years we put in a considerable amount of effort without much to show for it, so we don’t allocate all that much growing area to them.
One of the things that frustrates us about winter squash is that ripeness and quality can be hard to judge. Vine-ripened squash that are properly cured and eaten after an appropriate amount of storage time for the variety can be scrumptiously delicious, but we’ll be the first to admit that achieving perfection in every squash that leaves the farm is very difficult. See below for tips on how to make the most of any squash.
HANDLING & STORAGE
Winter squash are shelf-stable in moderately cool locations, but don’t refrigerate. They’ll do just fine on your kitchen counter, but we recommend cooking them within a week or two. If you detect signs of mold or rot, trim those out and cook the rest ASAP. In most cases, the rest of the squash can be salvaged if problem spots are caught early.
IN THE KITCHEN
In our opinion, what to do with any given squash depends on how good it tastes. How good it tastes is hard to determine until it has been cooked (though aroma of the uncooked flesh can be good indicator, once you’ve cut into it). So, we generally bake squash without having a specific recipe in mind. After baking, we taste. If extraordinary, eat plain. If pretty darn good, eat with some sorghum/maple syrup/brown sugar and raisins/nuts, or maybe in a soup that relies on a good tasting squash. If so-so, use as an ingredient where other flavors will shine. For savory dishes, garlic and sage go well with squash and can perk up a mediocre one. Mediocre ones are also quite acceptable for baked goods, such as pumpkin pie/custard, pumpkin bread, or other pumpkin-pie-spiced sweets; use pureed winter squash in any recipe that calls for canned pumpkin. If really bad (bitter, for example), we send it to the pigs/chickens, but those are usually only the really questionable ones that we try very hard not to distribute.
To bake squash:
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
- Cut the squash in half, and scoop out the seeds. -OR- If the squash is large and difficult to cut (as is often the case with butternuts), bake it whole. If baking whole, prick the skin of whole squash in several places with a fork before baking, and scoop the seeds out after the squash has been cooked. -OR- For big butternuts, cut through the thinner skin of the bulbous end to access the seed cavity (see photo), then scoop out the seeds. The small piece will cook faster than the big piece, but the cut is less dangerous than slicing through the thick flesh of a big, solid butternut.
- Place the squash (cut-side down, if applicable, or as shown in photo for butternut) in a rimmed baking pan (preferably metal) with some water.
- Bake the squash, checking about every 20 or 30 minutes for done-ness; total cooking time will depend on size & flesh thickness. Test by poking with a fork. If the squash is soft, it is done. Add more water to the pan if needed, but don’t add cold water to a hot Pyrex pan (we say with experience)!
- Cooked squash will last for about a week in the refrigerator. Freeze for longer storage.
Baked squash has a multitude of uses:
– use in any recipe that calls for “canned pumpkin”
– mixed with nuts, dried fruit, cinnamon, and/or sugar as a dessert or side
– as a base for thick, creamy soups
– as an addition to pasta sauces
Other squash uses:
– Leek and squash lasagna: involves grated, not baked squash; takes a bit of effort, but yummy! Another note on this recipe: increasing the butter to a more normal roux ratio will speed things up considerably.
– Pumpkin/squash seeds are edible if roasted and hulled.
Cooked winter squash freezes well; just pack the soft flesh into freezer containers, then defrost in the refrigerator a day or two before use.