Just when fall puts a chill in the air, my small apartment’s oven heats up: it’s finally the season for baking winter squash. On my laptop, the (vegan) mouse browses its way not through cheese, but a small folder marked “Recipes,” highlighting any page with the word “squash” in it. The screen lights with dozens of listings.
Disclosure: I love squash.
But winter squash are more than just a creamed delicacy for babies, sustenance for the dental-impaired, or my personal obsession. These autumn-hued fruits (usually prepared like vegetables) are also a healthful treat, leaving you deliciously satisfied (and somewhat virtuous) during and after savoring the last golden mouthful on your spoon. In this article, we’ll look at why winter squash are worth biting into, how to choose them, and what to do with them once they’re sitting on your counter…waiting.
Welcome to the family.
Remember hot summer days filled with zucchini, zucchini, and more of the same? There’s a distinct difference between summer squash, like zucchini, and winter squash, like pumpkin.
- Thinner skin
- Higher water content
- Shorter shelf life (store uncut in the refrigerator if not using soon)
- Examples: zucchini, yellow squash, pattypan squash
- Harder, thicker rinds
- Less moist
- Longer shelf life (store uncut outside the refrigerator)
- Examples: acorn squash, butternut squash, delicata squash, kabocha squash
Of the winter squash, harvest-orange pumpkins and pale golden butternut squash are probably the two most familiar members. If this is true for you, it’s all the more reason to meet new “relatives,” such as buttercup squash, fairytale squash, and of course, Cinderella pumpkins—squash that seem to belong to tales from The Brothers Grimm. For a quick guide to the many kinds of squash and their characteristics, check out this site.
Now that you know there’s plenty of winter squash for sale, why should you care?
Winter squash are a little like the tastiest, heaviest multivitamin you’ve ever tried—with added fiber. In just one cup of the average baked winter squash, you’re consuming the following percentages of your daily values :
- Vitamin A – 214%
- Vitamin C – 32%
- Fiber – 22%
- Manganese – 19%
- Vitamin B6 – 16%
- Potassium – 14%
- Vitamin K –11%
- Folate – 10%
- Tryptophan – 9%
- Copper – 8%
- Vitamin B2 – 8%
- Omega-3 fats – 7%
- Magnesium – 6%
And the best part for those watching their waists?
- Calories – 4% (about 80 calories in a one-cup serving)
Among other reasons to enjoy winter squash, high levels of fiber also make this fruit stick better in your stomach than at your waist. That’s partly why some consider winter squash like spaghetti squash “a dieter’s dream.”  It’s more filling than many other processed carbs, with less calories.
But it’s one thing to write that butternut squash “could help reduce risk of inflammation-related disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma,”  or that it and other winter squash may help regulate blood sugar and prevent diabetes 2 (thank you, fiber)…and another matter completely to consume it. And here’s where winter squash outstrip any pill: they’re delicious.
Under the oven’s spotlight, roasting squash slowly softens into smooth submission in my oven. On the kitchen counter, more squash—varieties like red kuri and sweet potato squash, as well as familiar favorites like butternut squash—overflow the space my roommate has allotted to my seasonal madness. I can’t resist the chance to taste the subtle differences between squash varieties in a new, intriguing recipe. Or, I might simply scoop out the seeds and bake the squash, which is always exquisite.
Here are the steps to your own squash bliss:
1. Choosing winter squash.
Yes, pumpkin count as winter squash, but choosing one from the pumpkin patch is not quite the same. When you look for a winter squash for consumption, Whole Living recommends that you “Choose an unblemished fruit that feels heavy for its size with a matte, rather than glossy, skin. A shiny exterior indicates that the fruit was picked too early, and it won’t be as sweet as a fully grown squash.”  If you’re eating with the seasons, you know that the best place to buy fresh, inexpensive winter squash (and other fresh-from-the-local-fields produce) at this time of year is the farmers market.
2. Cooking with winter squash
Very little in cooking is easier than baking a squash, once you open it up. Most winter squash have tough rinds that can be difficult to cut. When opening the squash, cut it in half by using a large kitchen knife. Be careful! If you’re intimidated, start with a smaller squash of oblong shape; two easy ones to try are butternut squash and delicata squash.
- Preheat the oven to about 350 degrees F. Slice the squash in half, and you’ll discover an inner cavity filled with seeds.* Scoop them, and the strings that connect them, out of the squash.
- Line a roasting pan or baking pan with aluminum foil for easy cleanup, then place the squash cut side down in the pan. Optional: Add about ¼ inch of water to the pan to keep the squash moist.
- Spray the squash with extra virgin olive oil cooking spray (helps keep the insides from drying out), and bake for about 45 minutes, until you can easily—but not too easily—pierce the squash’s flesh with a fork. Remove the pan from the oven.
- Once cooked, store in the refrigerator for a few days, or freeze for a longer period. I always keep cooked frozen squash in the freezer; in summer, a cold slice of butternut squash can be as refreshing as a popsicle, and in winter, reheating or letting the squash defrost overnight in the refrigerator is a cinch.
* The seeds can be delicious roasted separately. Rinse off any strings or bits of squash with water, pat them dry, place them in a small bowl to mix with a drop or two of extra virgin olive oil and any flavorings (ex. salt, pepper, garlic, or cinnamon; not necessary) you choose. Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 275 degrees F (135 degrees C) for about 15 minutes, or until seeds start to pop, remove them from the oven, then cool on the baking tray before eating.
Beyond baking, stuffing squash is also a common way to enjoy them, and there are countless other options. As a squash lover for many years, I’ve come across a few outstanding recipes (below). Try them. Enjoy them. Or go on your own scavenger hunt for others.
Conclusion? Squash are in season, ridiculously healthy, and ridiculously easy to enjoy. So “squash” any qualms about trying them, ignore my bad pun, and do turn on your oven.
Your Winter Squash To-Try List.
- Sweet and Spicy Roasted Kabocha Squash
- Chili-Cocoa Mashed Acorn Squash (scroll to the end of this article to find the recipe)
- Spaghetti Squash Primavera *Use kalamata olives or your favorite vegan cheese instead of the feta cheese; I add another garlic clove.
- Crustless Pumpkin Pie (do a search for this recipe on the home website)
And always, baked squash.
________________________________________ “Squash, winter,” The George Mateljan Foundation for The World’s Healthiest Foods, accessed Nov. 9, 2012.
 “Winter Squash Wonderland,”
 “Power Foods: Butternut Squash,” Body + Soul 2008.