Jenna Stefin M.S., RDN, LDN
Winter squash comes in many varieties and is harvested in autumn for us to enjoy throughout the fall and winter. Some of the most common ones you’ll see in the store are butternut, spaghetti, acorn, kabocha, delicata and pumpkin (smaller and sweeter than carving pumpkins). These make excellent side dishes and can be used as a healthy carb on your plate this season. Some are even sweet enough to be cooked and served as a dessert.
Winter squash is rich in carotenoids, protein, vitamins C and B6, potassium, magnesium and fiber. Because this starch has a low glycemic index and plenty of fiber to help prevent blood sugar from rising after eating, squash makes a great carbohydrate substitute for patients with diabetes. Instead of mashed potatoes this winter, try mashed butternut squash or swap out noodles for spaghetti squash in your Bolognese sauce.
When choosing winter squash at the store, look for one with a firm exterior without soft spots or cracks. The skin should be matte, not shiny, and hard to pierce with a fingernail. If it sounds hollow when you knock on it, then it’s ready to eat. Winter squash may be stored for several months in a cool, dark area (not the refrigerator) but will have the best flavor if used within one month.
Squash skin is edible but some are thicker than others and can best be used to make vegetable stock. The skin of delicata and acorn squash is thin enough to be part of the meal. If you don’t wish to eat the skin of your squash and aren’t making a “squash bowl” then the skin can be peeled with a peeler or knife. Microwaving the squash for three to four minutes first will soften the skin to make peeling or slicing easier. Pierce the skin of the squash in several places with a knife before microwaving.
Once you have peeled your squash, it’s easy to slice, cube or simply cut in half for cooking. Most squash are very versatile and can be cooked in a variety of ways: steamed, boiled, baked, mashed, roasted or even microwaved. The seeds of winter squash are edible as well and make a tasty treat when roasted with your favorite seasoning.
A guide to some of the more common squash varieties in the store:
Kabocha squash has a sweet and nutty flavor. The texture of this squash is like a mixture of pumpkin and sweet potato. Use this squash as a substitute for any winter squash. It can be cooked into pie filling, roasted, steamed or added to soups.
Sugar pumpkins are smaller than their larger, Jack O’Lantern counterparts and are grown specifically to be eaten. The larger carving pumpkins don’t have much flavor and are really meant to just be decoration. Small sugar pumpkins can be cooked just like any other winter squash and are especially good in pies.
Delicata squash are small and cylindrical with green stripes running down their yellow skin. The skin of this squash is very thin and edible so no need for peeling before cooking. The flesh of delicata squash is similar to a sweet potato and these small squash make great bowls for stuffed-squash recipes. They can also be roasted, sautéed or steamed.
Spaghetti squash has a cylindrical shape and is bright yellow. When cooked and scraped out with a fork, the flesh breaks up into noodle-like strands. This squash is more savory than other varieties, so top it with some sauce or pesto and eat it like you would spaghetti.
Butternut squash is the sweetest variety of winter squash and has a pear-shaped, cream-colored body. This squash can be cooked in a variety of ways, such as sautéed, steamed, roasted and pureed into soups.
Acorn squash has thick, dark green and orange skin and is smaller with an acorn shape. The skin is edible and the flesh has a mildly sweet, nutty flavor. Enjoy this Roasted Delicata Squash Stuffed with Spicy Quinoa recipe on a cold, wintry night.