Article written by Joyce Starr
The most popular winter squash next to pumpkins, is butternut squash. But when it comes to winter squash, gardeners have a wealth of selections to choose from. The squash family is huge.
All types of winter squash belong in the Cucurbitaceae family, the same family as cucumbers, watermelon and summer squash. With over 975 species in 98 genera, winter squash is a versatile, long-lasting staple food that comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. Due to their unique forms and blend of fall colors, many people use them for seasonal autumn decorations, however, these colorful squash also make delicious and varied table-fare.
The Squash Cucurbitaceae Family
The Cucurbitaceae family ranks among the highest of plant families for number and percentage of species used as human food.1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cucurbitaceae
Consider the watermelon versus the cucamelon, also known as the Mexican Gherkin. Both are in the cucurbitaceae family, and you can certainly see the resemblance here, where the cucamelon looks like a miniature watermelon! 2)https://www.gardensall.com/cucamelon-an-exotic-vegetable/
But back to the winter squash cousins of the cucurbitaceae family tree.
Differences Between Summer Squash and Winter Squash
- Harvestable and ready to eat in the immature stage throughout the summer
- Tender edible skin
- Longer to ripen
- Must be fully ripe when picked,
- Must be cured before storing
- Once cured, these are heartier, lasts longer, stores better
- Thick inedible skin or gourd-like husks
- Can grow in cooler weather
Due to their tasty nature, many culinary uses, and longer shelf life, winter squash is well worth the wait.
When to Harvest Winter Squash
To get an idea of when you can expect to harvest your bounty of winter squash, look at the seed packet of the variety planted. Due to variations by type and growing zone, growing instructions on seed packets is the best way to plan your crops based of how many days the particular squash takes to ripen from the time of planting.
Planting dates can also give a general idea of when the squash is ready for harvesting. Sowing of winter squash seeds generally takes place in late summer, making the squash ready for harvesting sometime in October through November.
If your growing season is short, select varieties that don’t require 100 days or more to ripen.
Another way to tell if the squash is ready for harvesting is by checking the color and thickness of skin. Winter squash ready for harvesting achieves its deepest coloration and thickest skin when it’s ready.
Winter squash is ready if a scratch from your fingernail cannot puncture the skin.
Despite the name, winter squash is a warm-season crop. When Old Man Winter comes knocking, you won’t want to leave the squash on the vine or they can prematurely decay while stored. When outside temperature dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a week or rainy conditions persist, it’s time to harvest the squash.
If the season’s first frost snuck up on you and hit your crops before you could harvest, you can still harvest and ripen the squash off the vine. To ripen squash, simply clean thoroughly and place in a warm spot in the sun.
As long as pumpkins have started to turn color, they will ripen off the vine in the right conditions. Ideally, winter squash should ripen in the sun with temperatures in the 70’s-80’s by day and no less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit by night.3)https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/2906/2906-1344/2906-1344.html But if you don’t have a sunny window or greenhouse, you might try a radiant water heater in a well ventilated spot.
Listed below are some popular winter squash varieties, their basic descriptions and typical days to harvest:
Favorite Winter Squash to Grow
- Buttercup: Dark green skin and turban-shaped bottom, deep-orange and stringless flesh, generally weighing between 3- to 5-pounds and 90 days to maturity.
- Neck: Tan skin resembling large, yellow summer squash in shape, up to 15-pounds, orange-fleshed, and 120 days to maturity.
- Waltham Butternut: Light tan, smooth skin, bottle-shaped, deep-orange flesh, up to 5-pounds, with taste improving with storage, and 82 to 105 days to maturity.
- Tuffy: Acorn-type with blackish-green skin with thick ridges, yellow flesh, up to 2-pounds, and 90 days to maturity.
- Golden Hubbard: Orange, wrinkled skin, orange flesh, up to 12-pounds, and 90 days to maturity.
- Spaghetti: Light yellow skin and flesh that pulls into spaghetti-like strands, oblong-shaped weighing up to 5-pounds, and 88 to 110 days to maturity.
- Turks Cap: Multicolored skin with colors of red, orange, green and yellow with distinctive button end, orange flesh, weighing 4- to 10-pounds, and 100 days to maturity.
- Ambercup: Bright orange skin and orange stringless flesh, pumpkin-shaped, buttercup/kabocha-type, weighing 3-pounds, good storage, and matures in 100 days.
How to Harvest Winter Squash
After you have determined your winter squash is ripe, it’s time to harvest your tasty bounty. Use hand pruners and cut the squash from the vine. Do not pull them off. If possible, allow several inches of the stem attached to the squash. Handle the ripe squash carefully, avoiding cutting or bruising the outer skin. As you harvest the ripe fruits, avoid damage by not piling them on top of each other.
Use hand pruners to cut the squash from the vine.
If some of your harvest has the stems pulled off, becomes cut or bruised, or suffered frost damage, it’s best to use these as soon as possible. Winter squash suffering these types of damage will not store well and will quickly deteriorate.
Curing Winter Squash for Storage
To keep your harvested winter squash healthy for the months to come, it’s important to store them properly. Before tucking them away for storage, you will want to cure them. Lay the squash in a single row, leaving several inches between each one. Place them in a warm area where temperatures range in the mid-eighties and allow them to dry for a few days. This allows any skin abrasion injuries during harvesting to heal over, which prolongs their life in storage.
How to Store Winter Squash
Once the winter squash has cured for several days, it’s now time to store them through winter. Different types of squash have different lengths of time they will last in storage, so keep this in mind when selecting one to use. Here’s some information on typical storage times for common squash varieties.
How Long Can Squash be Stored?
Winter squash can be stored from one to six months. Here are some general guidelines:
Up to 6 Months
- Sweet Meats
For the best results in storing winter squash, lay them out singly with several inches of space between each, allowing proper circulation of air. Packing the squash too close to each other leads to rot. Lay the stored squash in a bed of straw, which helps keep them dry. Paper products like paper bags and newspaper has a tendency to retain moisture, which leads to rot.
Store the winter squash off the ground and on a shelf in a cool and dry area with temperatures between ranging between 50- to 55-degrees Fahrenheit. An attic, root cellar or garage works well.
Store squash on a bed of straw, loosely spaced.
Avoid storing the winter squash in the same location where you are storing fruits like apples or pears. These fruits release ethylene gas, which speeds up decay and shortens the storage life of the squash. Check the stored squash each week and remove any that show signs of softening.
Do not store winter squash near fruits.
Recipes & Nutritional Information
Besides being tasty, winter squash is quite good for you and fits well into many recipes. It is rich in dietary fiber, potassium, folic acid and Vitamin A. In addition, it’s also low in calories, sodium and fat, if you don’t add additional fat or sodium when preparing.
Use spices to pump up the flavor. Try adding cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, ginger, garlic, black pepper or Italian seasoning to enhance the flavor. Sweeten mashed squash by using orange juice, honey, brown sugar or maple syrup. Squash has a natural sweetness that works well in pies, bread, pancakes and cakes. What’s not to love?
Prepping Winter Squash for Freezing – Blanching
Blanched and prepared winter squash keeps in the freezer for up to a year. You then have a supply ready to use in your favorite recipes.
- Select winter squash that is fully ripe and without moldy or sunken areas.
- Cut the squash into small sections. Remove the seeds and peel off the skin.
- Steam or boil squash pieces and cook until the pieces are fork tender.
- Remove the softened squash from the pot and place in a large mixing bowl.
- Using a potato masher or electric mixer, mash the cooked squash until you’ve removed most of the lumps and the mixture resembles a puree.
- Cool the mixture by placing the bowl on top of another container filled with crushed ice. Stir the squash mixture until cool.
- Place the prepared squash into freezer bags, making sure to allow a 1-inch space at the top of the bag. Seal the bag and pop into the freezer. (Recommend that you smooth and flatten the bag’s ingredients so that it freezes flat rather than lumpy and bulky).
Winter Squash Nut Bread Recipe (Serves 12)
This recipe gives a new spin to nut bread and makes a scrumptious addition to holiday meals or enjoyed anytime throughout the year.
- 3/4 cup of Squash puree
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 cup flour (for gluten-free, substitute your favorite GF flour)*
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans
- 1/2 cup raisins (optional)
Our favorite gluten free flour options:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large bowl, beat together eggs, vegetable oil, sugar, and squash puree.
- In a medium bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and cinnamon.
- Fold the dry ingredients into the squash mixture, stirring just enough to moisten the dry ingredients.
- Stir in the pecans and raisins.
- Transfer the mixture into a greased 9” x 5” loaf pan.
- Bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center pulls out clean.
Cornell University: Winter Squash4)http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/scene11f1.html
Cornell University: Vegetable Varieties for Gardens – Winter Squash5)http://vegvariety.cce.cornell.edu/main/showVarieties.php?searchCriteria=winter+squash&searchIn=0&crop_id=0&sortBy=overallrating&order=DESC
Oregon State University: Store Winter Squash and Pumpkins 6)http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/node/1065
University of Illinois Extension: Winter Squash7)https://extension.illinois.edu/veggies/wsquash.cfm
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: Winter Squash8)http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/food-technology/nutrition/winter-squash/
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