Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Winter squash is a misunderstood group of vegetables with an identity crisis. But the poor winter squash didn't do anything to deserve this bum rap. Many people decorate their homes with squash and pumpkins this time of year to evoke the fall season. Ask many of those same people about cooking that squash that has added to their décor, and you will get a blank stare and be asked "How? It's probably too difficult" or people will wrinkle their nose and say they "hate squash".
In my opinion, many people are missing out on one of the great fall and winter vegetables. Most people are surprised when they learn the first time how easy it is to cook winter squash. To those that say they hate squash, I argue they haven't tried enough of the dozens of flavors and textures found among winter squash.
Winter squash's identity crisis stems from the loose definition of what fruits we call squash, and what we call pumpkin. It is that same old issue rearing its ugly head again about common names. In Australia for instance, everything is referred to as a pumpkin. What we call butternut squash, they call butternut pumpkin.
Botanically speaking, winter squash, summer squash and pumpkins are all in the curcurbit family, and are different species of the genus Curcurbita. The practical difference between summer and winter squash is the maturity of the fruit and how long it can be stored before eating.
Summer squash are harvested when immature, and they have very thin skins and can only be stored for relatively short periods of time. Winter squash are harvested when mature, and their thick rinds make it possible to store them for many months without rotting. I have had winter squash last a full year in my unheated garage, and it was still perfectly fine for eating.
The difference between winter squash and pumpkin is pretty blurry. What we typically call pumpkins are cultivars of winter squash. Pumpkin is really a common name.
Many of what we call winter squash can be used interchangeably with pumpkin in recipes. For example, I've tried butternut squash pie, which tastes a whole lot like pumpkin pie. The pumpkin we buy canned to use in pie is from processing pumpkins, which are more closely related to butternut squash than the Jack o' Lantern type pumpkins we put on our front step this time of year.
If you tried to cook your Jack o' Lantern into a pie, you would have a pale, stringy, tasteless mess. There are differences in taste and texture among hundreds of cultivars of winter squash. Most are more suited to one cooking style or another, and a few are not very good to eat at all, and are better used as decoration.
Cooking a winter squash doesn't need to be difficult. The biggest issue to overcome is the hard rind. Although this hard rind is what makes winter squash able to last in storage all winter long, cutting through it can be tough.
A sharp strong butcher knife is the best tool for cutting into a winter squash. Where I often get stuck in this process is I get the knife into the squash, but can't budge it. To be safe, use a rubber mallet to hit the back of the blade near the handle to force the squash to split in half. Leaning on a big sharp knife blade with your bare hand is asking for trouble, at least in my opinion.
After cutting the squash in half, remove the seeds. I have seen recipes that skip this step, and I don't know why. Trying to remove the seeds after the squash is cooked was a great big mess the one time I did as the recipe instructed. Squash seeds can be roasted in the oven just like pumpkin seeds.
The easiest way I know to cook squash is in the microwave. Place halves cut side down in a dish containing about two tablespoons of water and microwave until the squash is tender. You can then scoop the cooked squash out of each half for use in your favorite recipe. Most people don't find it difficult once they've actually done it!
For more information on different winter squash cultivars, growing instructions, and recipes to try, check out University of Illinois Extension's "Watch Your Garden Grow" website at: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/wsquash1.html. There are also pages for many more vegetables through this website that you might be interested in knowing more about.