Walk into any grocery store this season and you’ll be overwhelmed by the furious array of “pumpkin” offerings: pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin baked goods, pumpkin drinks, pumpkin salsa, pumpkin chips, pumpkin cereal, and so much more.
But while we’re all going crazy for pumpkin-themed items (and pumpkin spice–flavored items, which generally don’t have pumpkin in them, just some combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice), many of us are ignoring the plethora of actual pumpkins and other orange squashes that fill the bins at the farmers market this time of year.
Oh sure, we may buy a jack-o’-lantern or two for carving purposes and a can of pumpkin filling for our Thanksgiving pies, but the world of winter squash is much broader than that.
For one thing, pumpkin is a nutritional powerhouse. “The bright orange color of pumpkin is a dead giveaway that pumpkin is loaded with an important antioxidant, beta-carotene,” the University of Illinois Extension program notes on its website. Beta-carotene is the precursor nutrient our bodies use to make vitamin A, and a cup of pumpkin provides enough beta-carotene to make almost twice the amount of vitamin A we need in a day. Pumpkin is low in calories—only 50 calories per cup of mashed pumpkin. That same cup has 2.7 grams of dietary fiber, more than 10 percent of your daily needs.
Pumpkins are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also encompasses melons, cucumbers, and gourds. The word pumpkin actually doesn’t have a botanical meaning—all pumpkins are winter squash. Winter squash differs from summer squash in that zucchini and other summer squash are eaten when immature. That way, the skin is more tender and the flesh has more moisture. WInter squash has had time to develop on the vine, which results in tougher skin and more concentrated flavors.
Choosing and Using a Winter Squash
- Choose ones with rinds that are dull rather than shiny. They shouldn’t have any soft spots, although lumps and bumps are common to many varieties.
- Store squash for a month or more in the fridge or pantry. If you want to store them longer, you should cure them first.
- Prep carefully! The hard rind makes winter squash hard to peel, and you should take extreme care when cutting it. To prep a winter squash, wash it first. Cover your cutting board with a kitchen towel so the squash doesn’t slide around. Then slice a thin piece off the bottom to level it. Cut the squash in half, lengthwise first; remove seeds and innards; then cut into sections. Peel or cut off the rind after slicing, which is less dangerous since you’re working with smaller pieces. I like to use a vegetable peeler because it creates less waste, but if you are good with a paring knife, you can use that.
- Cook instead of cutting. The FruitGuys’ own Heidi Lewis does away with the peeling altogether: “Simply cut in half, scoop away seeds, dot with butter or brush with oil, and bake at 425°F in the oven until fork-tender. Depending on the size, it’ll take about an hour. No need to struggle with peeling; simply scoop out the flesh of the cooked squash.”
A Who’s Who of Winter Squash, from Most Like a Pumpkin to Least
Sugar Pie Pumpkins
As Heidi Lewis notes in her profile of the sugar pie pumpkin, “While most Halloween-variety carving pumpkins are edible, their flesh is stringy and not very tasty. Behold the smaller sugar pie pumpkin varieties, which provide a sweeter and mellower flesh. These are the preferred pumpkins for baking and cooking.”
Best use: Pumpkin pie!
Nubby, homely, and delicious, the Hubbard squash is one of the largest squashes you’ll find in the market. In fact, they’re so big that they’re often sold already cut into pieces. Beneath the tough rind, you’ll find sweet and savory flesh that’s great in pies. You’ll want to mash or purée the Hubbard to avoid mealiness.
Best use: Sliced, baked, dotted with butter and mashed with a fork.
Kabocha is a squash that hails from Japan. Kabocha rinds can be green or pumpkin orange, but whatever their outer color, the insides have a sweet flavor and a refined texture that’s like a cross between a pumpkin and a sweet potato.
Best use: In Japan, it’s often breaded and fried, tempura-style.
Carnival and Sweet Dumpling Squash
These two are “personal-size” squashes with sweet, almost buttery flesh. The carnival’s orange, green, and tan flecks make it a natural for an autumn-themed centerpiece.
Best use: Halved and baked, then topped with a little maple syrup.
The acorn squash is a mild variety with yellow flesh that’s often low-priced and widely available. It’s the classic squash your mom roasted, cut in half and filled with a little butter and brown sugar.
Best use: As a vegetarian main dish, stuffed with a pilaf of your favorite grain, or topped with cheese.
Although the rumor circulating around the Internet in recent years that canned pumpkin was really butternut squash turned out to be a myth, butternut squash does have plenty to recommend it. While many squashes can be mealy or stringy, butternut is reliably smooth. It holds its shape when cooked, so while it may make a great purée, it’s also suited for uses that take advantage of its structure. And its bright-orange color cheers us up when winter’s darkness feels oppressive.
Best use: Butternut squash mac and cheese.
The long, narrow delicata squash has a secret: you don’t even have to peel it—after cooking, the skin is tender enough to eat. The flesh is on the earthy side; while the other squashes on this list can replace pumpkin in pie, delicata has a savory side that makes it best for main dishes and sides.
Best use: Slice lengthwise, remove seeds, and slice into thin half-moons. Toss with olive oil and roast in a hot oven until golden brown.
Craving a nice pasta Bolognese, but trying to avoid processed carbs? Spaghetti squash to the rescue. Cooked until tender, the flesh of a spaghetti squash can be ruffled with a fork into strands worthy of any pasta sauce. With more fiber and vitamins than wheat pastas, and far fewer calories, spaghetti squash is a win for your waistline.
Best use: To replace noodles in pasta dishes, pad Thai, mac and cheese, and more.
Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.