As any autumn stroll through a farmers market will show you, the world of winter squash is vast, diverse, and full of interesting-looking characters. All that choice can be thrilling; it can also get overwhelming, especially when trying to choose between a bunch of oddballs you don’t know.
How do they differ? Are they interchangeable? What’s the best way to use them? How do pumpkins and summer squashes and gourds fit into all of this? Why branch out when it’s so easy to spiral into confusion!?
All it takes is a little information to make this daunting situation fun, and I’ve got that for you, and plenty more (and I’m here if you want further details after reading this guide).
Season: All winter squashes are harvested in September and October, but only Cucurbita pepo species go straight to market. The others are left to cure for a few weeks.
Varieties: Most winter squash varieties can be divided into three main groups, classified by species: Cucurbita maxima (Hubbard, Red Kuri, Turban, Buttercup, Kabocha, Banana Squash); Cucurbita moschata (Butternut, Honeynut, Musquee de Provence, Long Island Cheese, and Black Futsu); and Cucurbita pepo (Acorn, Spaghetti, and Delicata, Field Pumpkins, and Decorative Gourds).
How to store: Dark, dry, and cool surroundings
Squash: A Very Simple Breakdown
All squashes and pumpkins belong to the gourd family, Cucurbitaceae, if you want to be formal.
All squashes — summer, winter, pumpkin, decorative gourd — are planted in the spring. We’ve come to call them by the times of year we eat them: Summer squash are harvested while they’re young and super tender, in the summer. Winter squash (this includes pumpkins and the non-edible gourds) are left to grow to full maturity, which they reach in the fall, and we eat them throughout the winter.
(Botanists don’t classify them this way, but this is good enough for all of us non-scientists.)
When is Winter Squash Season?
The answer is a little more complex than the name “winter squash” suggests.
Winter squash season starts in the fall. All winter squashes are harvested in September and October, but only those belonging to the Cucurbita pepo species are ready to go straight to market. The others need a few weeks of curing — which just means they’re set aside at room temperature and left alone to finish developing all their good traits (sugars, textures, flavors).
Once they’re cured, they can keep in storage for several months, and farmers bring them to market all winter long.
The Many Types of Winter Squash
The overwhelming number of winter squash varieties can be divided into three main groups, classified by species: Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, and Cucurbita pepo. Each species has various types (ie: Butternut, Acorn, Delicata), and of these types are many varieties (and the number of varieties might make your head explode).
Since I’m a stickler, I have a few notes before we really start:
- On species: There are actually five species that are grown as winter squash, but the other two — Cucurbita argyrosperma (formerly known as Cucurbita mixta), and Cucurbita ficifolia — aren’t really grown here.
- Regarding pumpkins: There are many types of pumpkins in every one of these groups, even if they don’t get special shoutouts in this guide. You can make a pie or a jack-o-lantern from any pumpkin you like, no matter the species.
With that out of the way, let’s meet our main three species and some of their standout specimens.
Cucurbita maxima: Hubbard, Red Kuri, Turban, Buttercup, Kabocha, and Banana Squash
Cucurbita maxima are the true winter squashes. Sturdy-fleshed and hard-skinned, these are all grown to full maturity and harvested in the fall, and not eaten until they’ve been cured.
These squashes store the best, thanks to their tough skins, and are the types that will see you all the way through the winter. Their flesh is thick, dense, and dry. They don’t get stringy; instead, they have a fine-grained velvety texture (a little like a russet potato got mixed into the flesh) and a distinct heft you don’t find in other types. They tend to have the most intensity of flavor.
How to swap and cook: Cucurbita maxima are very versatile, and you can easily swap almost one of the lesser-known varieties below for any recipe that calls for butternut or pumpkin. Their density makes them great for stews and other long-cook dishes, and their dry flesh makes them especially suitable for gnocchi. They also have the best seeds for snacking.
These are big and bumpy. Some Hubbards have flat-ish bottoms and are shaped like figs, others have pointy tips at both ends with pear-shaped curves in between. And when I say “big” I mean that some get up to 50 pounds!
They come in a range of oranges, greens, and some are a light chalky blue-green. They all have the toughest skins, so don’t bother trying to peel them before they’re cooked and be very careful when you’re cutting them! Try to do as little wrangling and cutting as possible pre-cook: put the whole thing in the oven, or halve it and put it in the oven, then scoop out the softened flesh.
These are often sold pre-cut and wrapped as giant wedges, for which we should be grateful. They take some effort, but they’re rich, sweet and very pumpkin-y (they make my favorite pumpkin pie, just saying), and worth it.
Vibrant orange-red, sometimes with yellow-green streaks, these are also sometimes called Baby Red Hubbard, and that tells you all you need to know. They’re small, usually staying under 8 pounds, and very similar to a Hubbard in terms of texture and taste (but with faint notes of chestnut). And they have a very tough skin.
Their smaller scale makes them easier to work with, but don’t bother trying to remove the skins before you cook them; take the same precautions you would with a big Hubbard.
These are wonky and lopsided and fun-looking squashes. They’re squat and round, with a bulbous base and a turban-like cap. They’re smooth-skinned and come in a mix of dark green, orange-y red, and yellow — they’ve often got all the colors on their caps.
Compared to all their character on the outside, their pale golden-yellow flesh is on the subtle side. Their flavor is mild, generally more nutty than sweet but, of course, that depends on the variety (some have more sweetness). Their flesh is floury; delicate for a squash of this species.
These come in dark green and deep orange. They stay in the small-medium size range — a big one would be about 8-inches in diameter, roughly half that in height. They’re round, bulbous and squat, and faintly ridged. They have a small turban-like cap (much less pronounced than that on a Turban squash).
When they’re cooked, buttercups of both colors are dry, but not quite as dry as other squashes of this species, and have a satiny (rather than velvety) texture. Green buttercups have orange flesh and smell faintly of cucumber when you cut into them; cooked, they taste sweet, pumpkin-y, and nutty. Orange buttercups have yellow flesh that tastes similar to a sweet potato.
Round and squat with faint ridges, Kabochas range from 1-8 pounds. Their smooth skin is dark forest-green with gray-green streaks or splotches, and it doesn’t have to be peeled (making them the easiest of this species to handle). Their flesh is golden-orange and dense, dry, and velvety.
And the taste? Buttery pumpkin with some white-fleshed sweet potato thrown in. I try not to play favorites but if I had to choose only one maxima to eat all winter, this is it.
Banana squashes are dense and meaty and can weigh up to 35 pounds. They’re long and cylindrical with round tapering tips and come in a range of muted colors: pink, blue, tan, peach with streaky yellow and green splotches. They’re dry, fragrant, sweet and earthy, and super versatile and easy to work with (even when they’re super large). Obviously, they’re very good at feeding a crowd.
Also belonging to this group are the giant pumpkins you see or hear about in competitions.
Cucurbita moschata: Butternut, Honeynut, Musquee de Provence, Long Island Cheese, and Black Futsu Squash
Cucurbita moschata are medium on the sturdiness scale as far as winter squashes go — all of their traits are just a slight step down from their maxima relatives. They have thick flesh, but it’s got more moisture, and isn’t quite as dense. Their skin is strong, but not as hard as the skin on a true winter squash; this is up to personal preference, but I find the skins on most of them don’t need to be peeled. They last through much of the winter, but don’t make it to the very end without wilting.
They might fall in the middle on the hardiness spectrum, but they’re at the top of the list when it comes to good looks. By far, moschata squashes are the handsomest squashes of all. Pretty muted colors, interesting shapes and textures — if there’s a winter squash you think is stunning, one you’d like to see in a photo or a painting, I bet it’s a moschata.
How to swap and cook: You can swap in a maxima squash for any type of moschata squash, depending on shape and size and use, of course. If you’re roasting wedges, a (maxima) Hubbard isn’t exactly going to fit the bill, but it can replace puree of any kind.
Butternut squashes are the most familiar of the moschata group, but some other standouts are:
Slightly darker, miniature personal-size butternuts. These are an heirloom type that are much like the butternut, but with super concentrated flavors — heavy on the sweetness, in the most delightful way. The caramelized bits on roasted Honeynuts are like candy. If you like shaved raw butternut squash salads, try using one of these some time.
Musquee de Provence
Squat, round, and ridged with smooth skin that comes in various shades of burnt sienna, sometimes kissed with green. This type of squash has thick walls of deep orange flesh that’s fragrant and tender. It’s earthy and sweet with an almost spicy note and doesn’t get stringy when it’s cooked. These range from 15-20 pounds.
Long Island Cheese
Similar in shape to the Musquee de Provence, but with more relaxed ridging, a paler color palette (these are more in the nude color range), and they’re about half the size (ranging from 5-10 pounds). Their golden flesh is dense and creamy when cooked, with a gentle earthy pumpkin-y sweetness.
These are round and blocky, very ridged and bumpy, and are a swoon-worthy dusty clay orange color. Black Futsu are incredibly charming small-ish squashes (ranging from 3-5 pounds) that are as delicious as they are interesting-looking. Their skin is soft, so no need to remove it; their flesh is creamy, with faintly velvety texture. Their flavor is a mix of chestnut and pumpkin (heavy on the chestnut).
Fun fact: these are a pitch-dark green when they’re harvested, and they change color as they cure and become ready to eat.
Cucurbita pepo: Acorn, Spaghetti, and Delicata Squash, Field Pumpkins, and Decorative Gourds
Cucurbita pepo have stems that are pentagonal and prickly, which you might have noticed at some point on a summer squash (zucchinis and pretty much every other gourd we eat as summer squash are pepos). The mildly prickly stem is the only aggressive thing about a pepo: these are the most delicate of the winter squashes. They have softer skins, milder flavors, and shorter shelf lives than the rest.
Pepo types are the first winter squashes you’ll see in the season, and they don’t last very far into the winter. They would more accurately be called fall squashes because they’re ripe and ready to be eaten at harvest; no curing required, but no curing means they can’t keep in storage for several months like the sturdier winter squashes.
Acorn, Spaghetti, Delicata, the common field pumpkin, and most of the decorative gourds are pepos. If you’re a fan of these, get on them when you see them, because they aren’t going to be available as long as the rest.
How to swap and cook: The pepo types aren’t good swaps for any of the sturdier types. Their flesh is less dense, more watery, and their flavors are more mild — they won’t stand up well to some of the ways we cook meatier squashes, and soups or sauces made from these will be lacking in flavor and have a wimpy mouthfeel.
If you want to swap one pepo type for another pepo type, though, like swapping an acorn for a delicata or dumpling, go for it.
These come in green and yellow and white, and some have a bit of all three colors. They are, yes, acorn-shaped, with deep ridges running from stem to tip and smooth, firm skin. The flesh is spongy and succulent, the flavors are mildly nutty and earthy. In taste and texture, they’re like summer squash that’s been beefed up with a bit of buttercup or kabocha.
Delicatas are the top celebrity of this species. These small-medium squashes are cylindrical and narrow with rounded ends, and thin yellow skin with green or orange stripes. They’re cute, and they won’t weigh you down on the way home from shopping, and they require very little effort on the part of the cook. Their skins are thin and their flesh is tender, making them easy to slice into, and simply roasted delicatas are so satisfying that you hardly ever need to do anything else to them — any extra treatment is a fun and luxurious bonus.
The thing about these is you have to get good ones: At their best, they’re sweet and rich; and other times they’re bland and kind of stringy. Make sure you’re choosing delicatas that feel firm and heavy for their size.
The name alone! Sugar Dumpling squashes are small, round and ridged, and look like they’re shrugging their shoulders above their stems. They have pale yellow skin, sometimes with splashes of gold or orange, and green stripes racing through the ridges. These are adorable decor while they’re hanging out in your kitchen waiting to be cooked. Their golden flesh is light and tender, similar to acorn squash in texture. True to their name, these are sweet little squashes.
Oblong and cylindrical with smooth skin, spaghetti squash range from 4-8 pounds and have smooth skin in various shades of yellow and orange. They could easily be mistaken for a mysterious melon if you saw them on display without a sign; nothing about them particularly screams “winter squash.”
No matter the differences in color on the outside, all spaghetti squash have pale, kind of translucent flesh that separates into stringy strands and resembles pasta. They’re very mild in flavor, so they pair well with pretty much whatever you want to put on them. They’re tender and crunchy, but you can cook the crunch out of them if you go for too long.
How to Pick a Good Winter Squash
Grocery stores will have some type of winter squash in stock all year long, but those are flown in from faraway places (hello, carbon footprint) and do you ever really want to eat one of those when it’s warm and sunny out? Me neither.
So, for the best winter squash experience, wait until they’re in season and go for locally grown, either at your grocery store or a farmers market. If you want a wide range of varieties to choose from, you’ll find it at the farmers market.
No matter what type you’re shopping for, the same rules apply. You want a squash with a stem attached; bonus points if the stem is covered or tape. This helps keep a squash from losing moisture, and it keeps the squashes from damaging each other with their stems when they’re piled up, and it means that your farmer is super thoughtful.
A good winter squash will have a hard rind: a tender rind is a sign of an unripe squash, which means it’ll be flavorless, a wrinkly rind is a sign of decay. A good squash should feel firm (no sponginess when squeezed!) and heavy for its size (which indicates a thick wall of flesh). Avoid any with punctures or soft spots.
How to Store a Winter Squash
In ideal conditions, the cured winter squashes will keep for several months; the delicate types will last for several weeks. Winter squashes like dark, dry, and cool surroundings (40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact). Unless you have a root cellar, do your best by keeping them out of direct light and at room temperature (and away from any heat sources in your house). Warmer temps just mean shorter storage time, so don’t worry if you’re only trying to hang on to your supply for a week or two.
I know most of us average home cooks are only buying a few at a time, but for anyone who have the space and the inclination, it’s a good idea not to pile them up on each other if you’re going to keep a large amount for a long period of time — if one in your bunch goes bad, it’ll spread its rot to the others it’s touching.
Once a squash is cut, store it in the fridge for 4-5 days. Wrapped in plastic is what’s usually recommended, but we’re all working to quit our use of plastics, yes? So I’ve come to keep them in a sealed container and it’s working just fine.
Winter Squash Recipes
Here are some great ways to put the maxima and moschata types to use. They’re pretty much interchangeable, just keep in mind the sizes, shapes, and intended uses and swap within reason.
- Pumpkin Ginger Nut Muffins
- Gluten-Free Pumpkin Muffins
- Roasted Butternut Squash Kale Saute
- Curried Butternut Squash Soup
- Breakfast Casserole with Butternut Squash and Kale
- Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup
- Harvest Salad with Miso-Maple Roasted Butternut Squash
- Spicy Lamb Stew with Butternut Squash
If a recipe just calls for some roasted squash to be added, say, on a salad, it’ll be fine to use squash of any species. Here are some recipes to get you inspired to cook these kinds of winter squashes:
- Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Sausage and Kale
- Cheesy Spaghetti Squash Casserole
- Roasted Winter Squash with Cilantro Chimichurri
- Maple Glazed Roasted Delicata Squash and Brussels Sprouts
- Classic Baked Acorn Squash
How to Freeze Winter Squash
Cooked and pureed, or raw and cubed, squash will keep in the freezer for a year. If you’re freezing puree, pack it into a freezer container, leaving headspace for it to expand without the container exploding (about 1/2 inch), seal it up and freeze. For raw cubes: put them in a freezer bag, get as much air out as possible, seal and freeze.