There are an incredible amount of winter squash varieties and thankfully there seems to be several varieties that grow well in most every growing zone. Here in northwest Montana, I pick types that tend to mature in 90 days or less. Squashes like Sweet Meat, Lower Salmon River, and Buttercup. No matter where you live or even if you don't have a garden fall is a great time to find some winter squash to add to your winter pantry stores. Winter squash is relatively inexpensive if you have to buy it and it is most definitely in season about now. Harvesting, Storing, and Using Winter Squash is easy, no matter the home and pantry set-up and has some seriously tasty results.
Harvesting Winter Squash
Winter squash should be harvested when the rind is hard and can not be pierced with your fingernail. It should also be harvested before a frost. If the squash isn't cured before a frost, bring it inside with several inches of stem still attached to help it continue to ripen and cure. There are various methods for curing squash, such as exposing it to high temperatures and high humidity, which might be good but also not possible for every home gardener. I've always had good luck with keeping it simple and bringing the squash with stem attached into the house for curing and storage.
Buying Winter Squash
If you don't have a garden or had trouble with winter squash, fall is a great time to take advantage of good prices on winter squash. Look for local sales for the freshest quality and most likely the best prices. Look for squash with the stem attached, as we'll discuss, it's the best for long term storage. Pick squash that is free from large blemishes, cuts, scars or bad spots otherwise they simply won't last long in cold storage. However, if you find a really good deal on some squash that is a little soft, see below for some freezing and dehydrating ideas.
Storing Winter Squash
Always store winter squash with a bit of the stem attached. Keeping the stem attached means that the squash will keep for a longer period of time in storage. If a stem falls off one or two, use those up before the ones with the stems still attached. Ideally, winter squash should be kept in a root cellar with a temperature in the 50-55 degree Fahrenheit range. That being said, they do really well in an unheated guest bedroom too. That's exactly how I store them at our house, not having a root cellar. I keep them spread out on old blankets on the floor and we keep the door closed so that the heat from the woodstove doesn't warm the room. I've had very good luck using this method, keeping squash in good shape for 6 months and up.
If you have some that need to be used up quickly, winter squash can be pressure-canned in chunks. It is not safe to can the pureed squash at home – chunks, only. The cooked puree can be frozen, however. Which is what I do once I cook up a large squash – I bag the puree in 1 or 2 cup portions and freeze for use in soup, smoothies, and baked goods. Winter squash can also be dehydrated by peeling, cutting into chunks, and blanching before putting into a dehydrator to dry until brittle. A good pumpkin pie leather is a nice treat for the lunch box too.
Using Winter Squash
Every recipe for winter squash is pretty much interchangeable in my opinion. Pumpkin pie can just easily be made with Buttercup squash than it can pumpkin. That delicious looking Butternut Squash Soup can be made with Hubbard Squash. The flavors are subtly different but not enough for anyone to complain or notice most of the time. Butternuts and other smooth sided squash are easier to peel than say ridged acorn squash, which would come in handy when wanting something peeled & chunked into soup or casserole. If you're roasting to eat it pureed or for use in baked goods, the rind doesn't matter as much, because you're just going to scoop the cooked insides out of the shell when it's cooked and soft anyway.
Did you know you can use pureed squash as a fat replacement in baked goods? In certain instances, you absolutely can. Substitute pureed winter squash for vegetable oil in quick breads or cakes. Use a 1-to-1 replacement (if the recipe calls for 1 cup Oil, use 1 Cup pureed squash). The recipe will in my experience turn out just fine, the only difference maybe that length of cooking time might increase, just test for doneness with a toothpick. The flavor of squash will be slightly there but not so much that anyone would notice behind the other sugar and flavors of your bread or cake. I don't suggest substituting pureed squash for butter or other fat that is creamed as in cookies but for those muffins or other items with liquid fat it works great.
So stock up now on these beautiful winter squashes and use them all winter long for sweet and savory recipes alike.
What's your favorite way to eat up winter squash?