What Is Winter Squash, Exactly?
Hardy winter squashes have a special place in our hearts and on our holiday tables (naturally, the two are linked), but they signify the start of fall well before turkey is even a glimmer in our eye.
The winter squash family is vast—acorn, butternut, delicata, turban, red kuri, and kabocha squash are but a few of the more well-known varieties (and pumpkins are squash too!)—but what they all have in common is a hard, dense texture that makes them great for storing…and sometimes difficult to hack into.
Here’s a nifty trick to make cutting winter squash easier:
8-Inch Chef's Knife, $89 from Made In
You'll still want a good, sharp knife.
Many winter squashes have vibrant orange or red flesh beneath their skin, which can range from butternut’s unassuming beige to delicata’s striped green and yellow to kabocha’s bright flame hue, but their shapes and sizes vary widely. Their flavors vary too, but are generally naturally sweet to some degree; certain varieties are nuttier than others, or earthier. When cooked, their flesh can be silky-smooth or a little dry and crumbly—or stringy (in a good way), when it comes to spaghetti squash.
They all take a fair amount of time to cook and are very rarely eaten raw, though you can in fact eat thinly shaved butternut squash without cooking it. And some varieties of winter squash with thinner skins like acorn and delicata can be left unpeeled before roasting them, as in this Easy Fall Sheet Pan Dinner recipe:
All of these dense winter squash varieties are related to summer squash like zucchini and crookneck, but the warm weather specimens are all much softer and more tender with thinner skins (so you can pretty much eat all of them raw if you like).
Read more about the differences between summer squash and winter squash.
The Best Winter Squash Recipes
From a puréed soup of roasted butternut with a tangy undercurrent of Granny Smith apple, to a salad of roasted delicata slices, we find ourselves eating a diversity of squash varieties in an array of preparations. Here are 11 we make all season:
The simplest, and in some ways, the most satisfying, winter squash dish of all. Acorn squash are split, scooped, and filled with a simple mix of butter and light or dark brown sugar—two things that enhance the earthy flavor of squash without stepping on it. Get our Easy Roasted Acorn Squash recipe.
And if you want to take the natural next step, stuff it; our Roasted Acorn Squash with Wild Rice Stuffing recipe boasts a mix of nutty-tasting wild rice, pecans, and dried cranberries that can stand in as the center of a holiday meal, or exist beautifully as sides to a meat or poultry dish. But you can also stuff them with practically anything you have in your fridge and pantry.
A two-part recipe that marries two natural partners, our Roasted Butternut Squash with Pears recipe is worth the work (which isn’t really that bad, anyway). You start by roasting cubes of butternut squash with rosemary. Separately, sauté firm pears like Bosc, with onions. Combine the two, and you end up with a delicious side dish that works for Thanksgiving dinner or a simple supper of pork chops or roasted chicken.
Appetizers are easy in summer, when ripe cherry tomatoes and basil seem to make everything taste better. This fall and winter pickup hors d’oeuvre is different: cubes of sweet, roasted butternut squash wrapped with everybody’s favorite, bacon, and toothpicked. Get our Bacon-Wrapped Squash Bites recipe.
Molasses-like saba and salty, umami-rich ricotta salata transform thin slices of sweet roasted delicata squash. Toss with leaves of baby spinach, roasted pumpkin seeds, shallot, sherry vinegar, and olive oil. Get our Roasted Delicata Squash Salad recipe.
Related Reading: 9 Fall Salads That Put a Fresh Spin on Autumn Produce
Butternut squash soup is everywhere during the holidays, but this one’s different, a perfect mix of easy and delicious. Instead of having to awkwardly peel a butternut squash and scrape out the seeds, you roast it, which makes peeling and scraping a cinch, even as it gives the eventual soup rich toasty flavor. Get our Roasted Butternut Squash Soup recipe. Or try using a sugar pumpkin to make a similar Roasted Pumpkin Soup recipe.
While luscious pureed squash soups are always welcome, sometimes we want a bit more texture. Our Slow Cooker Root Vegetable Stew recipe provides that with tender chunks of potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and pumpkin or squash, not to mention chickpeas, golden raisins, and spinach. Use a mushroom broth for a vegan soup with deep umami notes, or standard veggie stock. The cinnamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, and saffron add tons of flavor either way.
Cubes of roasted butternut squash show up in all kinds of fall meals, from salad to stuffing, but cooking the cubes in a pan sauce makes them just as tender without the caramelization, letting their natural sweetness shine. It’s a particularly lovely partner to fresh pasta, which is easier to make at home than you might think. If you want to go with store-bought, seek out any shape of fresh pasta rather than dried pappardelle, as the silky, light texture is key to this dish. Get our Pappardelle Pasta with Butternut Squash recipe.
While most winter squashes look pretty much the same inside, spaghetti squash breaks the mold. Once cooked, its pale golden-yellow flesh separates into long strands—which explains why it’s often used as a gluten-free pasta stand-in. Get our Roasted Spaghetti Squash recipe for a basic recipe that you could consider a lower-carb, GF version of cacio e pepe. (Or if you’re looking for more ideas on how to enjoy it, turn the roasted strands into our Cheesy Spaghetti Squash Gratin or crispy Spaghetti Squash Cakes.)
Kabocha has particularly sweet flesh that turns almost fluffy when cooked; it’s a favorite of many Chowhounds. The natural sugars are a perfect match with the spicy flavors in our Thai Red Curry with Kabocha Squash recipe, but you can use butternut in this dish too. (For a totally unexpected way to showcase this superstar squash, try our Kabocha Squash Scotch Egg recipe too.)
This rustic yet elegant gratin is bound to upstage anything else on the table, but you honestly don’t need anything else beyond a salad if you’re after a hearty vegetarian meal. The savory walnut- and thyme-studded breadcrumb streusel bakes into a crisp topping over the creamy layers of squash and celeriac. Get our Celery Root and Squash Gratin recipe.
Hasselback potatoes have nothing on hasselback squash, but this stunner is more than a pretty face. The ridges crisp up in the oven and trap the toppings (maple syrup, red pepper flakes, walnuts, pomegranate seeds, and flaky sea salt), for a gorgeous and delicious dish that could be the centerpiece of a plant-based Thanksgiving but is easy enough to make on any Sunday evening. Get our Maple Hasselback Butternut Squash recipe.
12. Pumpkin Gnocchi
Like we said, pumpkins are technically squash, but we devoted an entire article just to the best pumpkin recipe ideas already. Still, our Pumpkin Gnocchi recipe with Crème Fraîche Sage Sauce deserves to make this list because it’s basically fall on a plate. You can make your own pumpkin puree for extra credit, but that’s totally optional—and now you have one more reason to keep a can or two in your pantry at all times.
Related Reading: 15 Ways to use Fall Pantry Staples Morning, Noon & Night
Related Video: These Mini Pumpkin Baked Eggs with Butternut Squash Hash Are the Ultimate Fall Breakfast
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