I have a produce problem. At the weekend farmers market, basking in the glories of the sunlit vegetables, I tend to get overambitious and buy more things than I should. By week's end, after an impromptu dinner out or a couple late nights at work, things have gone south in my fridge: The rainbow carrots that looked so bright on Saturday are bending; the once-crisp baby bok choy is sporting some sag and wrinkles. These days, I try to buy heartier produce, or what I call "pantry vegetables"—the kind of stuff that won't start wilting immediately, the vegetables I can expect to keep for at least a couple of weeks if my cooking plans get derailed. The ultimate pantry vegetables are winter squash, the bulbous, thick-skinned fruits—technically fruits, not vegetables, because they contain seeds—from the Cucurbita genus.
Perhaps you are not like me. Perhaps you buy vegetables only on the days you'll use them, or you promptly use up everything in your refrigerator. Whatever your shopping habits, winter squash is a convenience vegetable for anyone, easily worked into soups and stews, gratins and tarts, mixed with grains and salads, or on its own as a simple side dish. The thick, protective skin keeps squashes from going soft for anywhere from six weeks (for delicata) to eight months (for Hubbard).
Keep them on hand for when you've used up everything in the fridge, or are coming back from a long weekend out of town, with no time for grocery shopping. It helps that they're fairly easy to cook: You can steam them, simmer them, pressure-cook them, or sauté them. One of the best methods for cooking squash is also one of the easiest: a simple, long roasting at low heat, which concentrates the squash's flavor by evaporating moisture, converting its complex carbohydrates to sugars, then caramelizing those sugars. Spreading oil over all surfaces of the cut squash before roasting promotes even distribution of heat—and don't forget that those seeds can be roasted, too.
While that protective skin keeps winter squash from going soft, it also makes it a little harder to pick and prepare—you can't test a squash's ripeness by touch. But there are a few guidelines for picking out a good one. While bumps and discoloration on the skin are fine, you don't want to see soft spots, bruises, or mold. Choose one that feels heavy for its size, and store it in a place that is dark, dry, ventilated, and cool (cellar temperature, about 50-55°F) until you want to use it. Keep in mind that hollow squashes, like pumpkins, can look deceivingly large; they yield much less flesh than a solid squash of the same size. To slice through that thick skin, scrub it clean and use a sharp, preferably serrated, knife.
If you're browsing the farmers market you'll likely find a wide variety, from the huge, thick-skinned blue hubbard to the small, mild acorn squash. An unfamiliar, funny-shaped squash may look formidable, but all squash are pretty similar, so if you've worked with one kind of squash, working with a new one won't be all that different. Here are our favorite winter squash and how to clean, cut, and cook them.
Tan and smooth, the versatile butternut squash has sweet, nutty flesh that works well in baked, boiled, and steamed preparations, but it's particularly well suited to deep roasting. A butternut squash can keep for up to six months. Look for one that sounds hollow when you knock on it, and has a beige skin bearing no greenish cast. To cut it, use a hefty 10-inch chef's knife or a serrated knife to slice off the stem and blossom ends. Then cut it horizontally, separating the narrower top section from the bulbous bottom end. Peel it with a Y-shaped peeler, remove the seeds, and slice it into chunks. Butternut squash plays especially well with sage, as in this pressure cooker butternut squash risotto with sage and brown butter, a batch of homemade ravioli, or cubed into this simple stovetop pasta dish. Its smooth, firm flesh also makes it great in purées, such as this classic butternut squash soup or this butternut squash and cheddar dip or even this "pumpkin" pie.
A staple in the Japanese kitchen, the rich, sweet-fleshed kabocha is unpleasantly starchy unless it is cooked long enough to bring out its sugars. Kabocha is often steamed or simmered, which adds moisture to its dry flesh; try the method in this classic kabocha no nimono, a simple simmered dish made with dashi, mirin, soy sauce, and sake, which bring out the squash's nutty characteristics. Similar to the dark green kabocha is the deeply red-orange ambercup squash, which can be treated in the same way.
Kabocha's mottled green skin looks tough, but it's actually edible when cooked, so it's often left on in Japanese dishes and this recipe for roasted squash "carbonara." For purées, though, we like to remove the skin—say, if we're making a pumpkin pizza, topped with both a purée and roasted chunks of kabocha, or this extra-creamy squash lasagna.
Hubbard squashes come in a whole range of colors—they can be grayish-blue, dark green, orange, or golden. Though the squash can grow up to 20 pounds (!), the best specimens for cooking are around three or four pounds. Its dry flesh is fine-grained, orange, and sweet, and it's best baked or boiled. The thick skin on a hubbard squash can be extremely hard and difficult to peel; on the plus side, that means it can keep for a very long time (up to eight months), and makes it well suited to stuffing and baking.
Another hubbard variety is the red kuri, which is miniature compared to the blue hubbard and has a distinctive chestnut flavor and starchy texture. Its edible skin is much easier to peel than the larger Hubbards, but we take it off for purées so that they're smoother, such as for this miso squash soup topped with sesame-ginger apples.
Save the big jack-o'-lantern pumpkins for carving—they're watery and not flavorful enough for cooking and eating. The "sugar pumpkin" label indicates you've found a sweet, creamy-fleshed baking variety. Look for small, dense ones that are about four to five pounds. The skin is easier to peel than on varieties like Hubbard, so they won't keep for as long, but prep is a bit quicker. The obvious use for them is a homemade pumpkin purée for a classic smooth pumpkin pie. (Canned "pumpkin" purée is actually a mix of winter squashes, like Hubbard and butternut.) But, like other winter squash, they also work nicely in stews, stuffed and baked, or puréed into a soup, like this roasted pumpkin soup with brown butter and thyme.
One of the sweetest varieties, the small acorn squash keeps for one or two months, thanks to its thick skin. The skin can be tough to peel, but easily separates from the flesh after cooking. You can cook it skin-on, whether halved and grilled, cut into wedges and roasted, or stuffed and baked, as in this recipe for baked acorn squash with wild rice, pecan, and cranberry stuffing.
Not to be confused with the long, tan-hued butternut squash, the buttercup squash is squatter, with dark green skin. Its sweet, nutty flesh is dense and dry, and can be boiled, steamed, or worked into baked goods and casseroles. It will keep for two to four months.
Similar in flavor to the buttercup, the turban or Turk's cap squash is visually striking. It typically has a broad, deep-orange bottom and a smaller top knot with colorful streaks of orange, as well as white, yellow, or pine-green. Delicate and nutty, the turban squash keeps for two or three months, and is best baked or steamed.
The flesh of the smooth-skinned and appropriately named spaghetti squash cooks into translucent strands that have become a pasta replacement among the gluten conscious. The yellow squash's mild flavor borders on bland, so it takes to pasta-like preparations in which the flesh is doused in flavorful sauces, such as in this recipe for spaghetti squash with sausage, kale, and sun-dried tomatoes. You can make the sauce while the squash is roasting; the strands will easily pull away from the skin once it is fully cooked. Its skin is thinner than that of some other varieties, so it keeps for only two to four weeks.
Delicata Squash and Sweet Dumpling Squash
Yellow- and green-striped delicata and sweet dumpling squash are two forms of the same squash, differing only in shape—delicata is cylindrical, while sweet dumpling is squat and round. Similar to spaghetti squash, their skin is on the softer side, and they'll keep for up to a few weeks. Also called "sweet potato squash," they take well to sautéing, steaming, microwaving, baking, simmering (as in this squash and apple soup with beet and bacon), and even grilling.
A cross between the acorn squash and sweet dumpling, the small, round carnival has striped and speckled skin, and a sweet, light-orange flesh. It will work well in any recipes that call for acorn, sweet dumpling, or butternut squash, and keeps for a few weeks.