Shutterstock / marekuliasz
What do butternut squash soup, acorn squash with cranberry stuffing and healthy Italian spaghetti squash have in common? They all showcase types of squash commonly available from late summer through the mid-winter months, hence the name winter squash. Winter squash differs from summer squash due to the season when it’s harvested, but it’s also generally sweeter, denser, more firm in texture and eaten after the outer skin has hardened. If you’re on a diet, winter squash is a great low-cal option, packed with complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins A, B6 and C, manganese, folate and loads of antioxidants.
While each type of winter squash is unique, the purchase and storage of all varieties is basically the same. Always choose a firm squash with no blemishes, bruises or soft spots. The skin should be dull, not glossy. The stem should be intact and the squash should feel heavy for its size. To prepare, the skin is usually removed with a knife or vegetable peeler, then the squash is cut in half and the seeds and fibers scooped out—although it can also be baked whole. One of the great advantages of winter squash is its long shelf life, if stored properly. Store it whole in a cool, dry and well-ventilated space between 45 and 50 degrees. Once cut, cover tightly with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge for up to 5 days. Baked or steamed squash can be frozen for later use in soups, like these butternut squash soup recipes, casseroles, breads, muffins and pies.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the most common varieties of winter squash. And don’t forget this handy cooking tip: You can substitute any sweet, orange-fleshed variety of winter squash for another.
Acorn squash is small and round and has a dull, dark green rind with orange markings. Avoid choosing a squash with too much orange—they tend to be tougher and more fibrous. (Golden varieties of acorn squash are also available but not as common.) The flesh is yellow-orange with a mild sweet and nutty flavor that’s perfect for baking, roasting, steaming, sauteing or even microwaving (be sure to pierce the skin first). Because of its compact size, acorn squash can be halved and stuffed for recipes like Turkey Sausage-Stuffed Acorn Squash. It’s also tasty in savory dishes like Pork Chops & Acorn Squash or sweetened up in Maple-Glazed Acorn Squash. Store acorn squash for up to one month.
Large and elongated, banana squash can weigh up to 35 pounds! The skin is orange, pink or blue when mature and the flesh is vibrant orange. Because of its size, it’s often sold in precut chunks. Considered one of the most superior, versatile types of squash, banana pairs well with rich, bold flavors, herbs, and spices such as curry, ginger and cinnamon. With proper storage, whole banana squash can last for up to six months.
This squat, compact squash is green with light green stripes and has a distinctive round ridge on the bottom. Its bright orange, somewhat dry flesh is very mild in flavor and much sweeter than most varieties. Buttercup squash is best steamed or baked, and it works well in curry dishes. The skin is inedible and can be difficult to peel, but the squash can be baked first and then the flesh scooped out for use in recipes like Buttercup Squash Coffee Cake. This squash also makes for a great variation on mashed sweet potatoes. Store whole buttercup squash for up to three months.
Not to be confused with buttercup squash, pear-shaped butternut squash has a creamy, pale orange exterior with a slim neck and a bulbous, bell-shaped bottom, which houses the seeds. Its orangey-yellow flesh tastes similar to sweet potato and isn’t stringy, making it a good choice for pureeing and using in soups like Chipotle Butternut Squash Soup. (The more orange the exterior, the riper, drier and sweeter the flesh will be.) It’s easiest to use if you cut it into two sections and handle the neck and bulb separately. The skin is fairly easy to peel, and the skin and seeds are edible. Whole butternut squash will keep for up to three months when stored properly.
This variety is a cross between an acorn squash and sweet dumpling squash, and it looks as fun as its name implies. Carnival’s decorative exterior has deep furrows and lively variegated stripes and patterns of green, orange and creamy yellow. Look for squash that still has some green on it, indicating that it’s ripe but not past its prime. The flesh is pale orange with a flavor similar to butternut squash. Carnival squash is best when roasted and added to stew, risotto, curry or pasta, or blended into soups and sauces. Store whole carnival squash for up to one month.
This squash, also known as Bohemian or sweet potato squash, is cylindrical in shape and features pale yellow skin with green stripes. Its rind is more delicate than most, making it easy to work with. When cooked, the orange flesh tastes very similar to sweet potatoes with an earthy flavor. The skin is edible, and because of its shape, it lends itself well to stuffed dishes. Delicata is most often roasted, steamed or microwaved. Store whole delicata squash for up to three months.
Large and bumpy, Hubbard squash has orange, green or grey-blue extra-hard skin with sweet-tasting orange flesh. Because of its size, it’s usually sold precut and seeded. You can peel and boil, roast, bake or steam Hubbard squash, but it’s best for mashing or pureeing and turning into pie, like this alternative to pumpkin pie. Store it whole for up to six months.
Small and squat and most commonly available with dark green skin, this Japanese variety of squash is also known as Japanese pumpkin. The sweet, bright orange flesh tastes like a cross between pumpkin and sweet potato. Mash it up and use it as a thickener for soups and stews, stuff it with figs and carrots or cut it into chunks for tempura, as it is widely used in Japan. Store whole kabocha squash for up to one month.
If you’ve been searching for a low-cal alternative to pasta, this is it. Spaghetti squash is cylindrical in shape with pale to bright yellow skin—the yellower the riper. Once cooked, you can scrape the flesh into strings similar to spaghetti noodles (with approximately 165 fewer calories and 30 fewer carbohydrates per cup), then use it as a healthy substitute in dishes like Chicken Florentine Meatballs. Whole spaghetti squash can be stored at room temperature for several weeks.
10. Sugar Pumpkin
Also called pie pumpkin, these are not the pumpkins you carve at Halloween. Like their larger counterparts, they have bright orange skin, but these are small and round with bright orange flesh. This squash has classic pumpkin flavor—puree it and make your own pumpkin pie from scratch (the texture will be a bit more fibrous than using canned pumpkin pie filling). On the savory side, sugar pumpkins are also tasty in soups and curries. Store whole sugar pumpkins for up to one month.
11. Sweet Dumpling
Small and compact with whitish-yellow skin with green striations, sweet dumping squash tastes similar to sweet potatoes or corn. You can eat the skin, and this variety is a good substitute for pumpkin or sweet potatoes. Store whole sweet dumpling squash for up to three months.
This large, decorative variety has bumpy skin that ranges from green to orange to yellow, sometimes all three in one. The blossom end features a turban-like cap, and the flesh tastes mild to sweet. Because of its mild flavor, it pairs well with a wide complement of foods—from pears to cilantro to ground beef to chicken. It’s easiest to handle if you cut the turban section off, slice both sections into cubes, then bake, roast or steam and remove the skin once cooled. Store whole turban squash for up to three months.