The summer squash family is made up of so much more than the zucchinis and yellow squashes we’re used to seeing in grocery stores year-round. When their peak season comes, local farmers markets get inundated by squashes of all sorts of fun shapes and colors and sizes, and zucchinis and yellow squashes at their very best.
All squashes belong to the family of flowering plants called Cucurbitaceae. More commonly referred to as cucurbits or gourds, these fruits — yes, we treat them like vegetables, but squashes are technically fruits — are related to cucumbers, melons, chayotes, loofahs, pumpkins, and all the hardy winter squashes and decorative gourds.
When is Summer Squash in Season?
As our colloquial naming suggests, you’ll find summer squash dominating your local farmers markets from June to August. In some warmer places, like California, they show up in May.
Outside of that timeframe, you have the grocery store varieties that are flown in from far away. Summer squashes are very mild in flavor, so I highly suggest you stick to their season and enjoy them at their peak.
We commonly refer to squashes by the time of year they’re harvested, but the proper horticultural classifications are much more complex. Summer squashes are harvested and eaten while immature; winter squashes are left to grow to maturity and are eaten when fully ripe. Some winter squashes, like Delicata and Acorn, can be picked and eaten at the immature stage, but all the varieties we call summer squash should strictly be eaten when they’re young.
What you’re looking for in any summer squash is taught, unwrinkled, unbroken skin, and fruit that feels heavy and firm. If they’re remotely slack or rubbery, move on.
Varieties of Summer Squash
Squash are native to Mexico, and were domesticated about 10,000 years ago. In the 16th century, explorers introduced the original New World cultivars to Europe and the Mediterranean, where they must have been popular among horticulturalists.
Since landing in the Old World, the original squash family has been subject to intensive breeding that yielded the varieties, and their hundreds of hybrids, we know today.
Pattypans and Crooknecks are elders. They are some of the New World cultivars that started the squash-breeding frenzy back in the 16th century. Straightneck squashes (yellow squash, zephrys, and zucchini), globe squash, lemon squash, Cocozelle, Costata Romanesco, Cousa, and avocado squash are newer breeds.
Pattypan (or Scallop) Squash
White and yellow pattypan, or scalloped, squashes were cultivated by Native Americans, with varieties dating back to pre-Columbian times. Resembling spinning tops or flying saucers, these amusingly-shaped fruits now come in many different colors — white, yellow, varying shades of green, yellow with green streaks, yellow tops with green bottoms — and range from bite-size to big.
Stick to the small side with these (I never get anything bigger than my palm). They’re all very mild in flavor, no matter what size, but the texture is nicer when they’re small.
People are often perplexed by how to cut pattypans. When they’re very small, just halve them. The bigger ones can be cut into wedges of whatever thickness you like.
Crooknecks are warty, medium-sized squashes with an oblong base and a thin, curved, swan-like neck. Their flesh is firm, with a slightly buttery flavor.
These golden heirlooms can sometimes be a little hard to find. Embrace the imperfections when choosing these: fruits with lots of warts and extra crooked necks tend to have more flavor and firmer texture.
Straightnecks: Yellow Squash, Zucchini, Zephyrs
Yellow squash and zephry squash are the result of a cross between crookneck and acorn squashes. Both are typically medium-sized, but sometimes tiny ones show up at farmers markets (and if you see those, scoop them up!).
Yellow squash are basically crooknecks without all the dramatic features. Their necks are shorter and wider and have only a subtle curve. Their skin can be completely smooth or a little bumpy, and their flesh is a little less dense. They have a lovely mild buttery flavor.
Bred in Italy, near Milan, in the 19th century, zucchini seeds came to America in the early 20th century with Italian immigrants and became one of our most commonly known and widely grown food plants. The name is the diminutive plural of zucca, the Italian word for squash.
There are many varieties within the zucchini cultivar group, most of which are hard to distinguish from each other. The majority of the group is green, though there are some new breeds of orangey-yellow zucchini.
All are cylindrical and straight. They’re sold in a lot of different sizes but stay in the extra small to medium range (max length: 6”). The smaller ones are sweet and tender, and anything beyond a medium-sized zucchini is going to have fibrous flesh and larger seeds that you won’t want to eat.
Zephyrs could win you over with their looks alone: yellow squashes that look like their bases were dipped in pale green paint. They have firm flesh, and a faint note of Acorn squash. All around dreamy.
Small pumpkin-shaped squashes that come in many sizes and colors. There are lots of different globe squashes, but some of the most notable varieties are the old heirlooms: Ronde de Nice from France, Tondo di Piacenza from Italy, Roly Poly from the Netherlands.
Globe squashes have dense flesh and very few seeds. They’re sweet and nutty, and almost meaty when they’re cooked; don’t go bigger than the size of a baseball and you’ll always be pleased. Their shape and density make them especially great for stuffing. Cut off the stem like you would with a Halloween pumpkin (of course you’re operating on a smaller scale, but you get the gist), scoop out some of the flesh, add your filling, and put the stem back on.
Bright happy yellow, smooth shiny skin, shaped just like lemons! These squashes are delightful. They taste just like yellow straightnecks, but it’s fun to play on the lemon resemblance by cutting them into wedges (I go lengthwise, but if you cut your lemons into wedges another way, by all means do it your way).
Like globe squashes, they’re also good for stuffing.
Another Italian breed (there’s documentation of Cocozelle di Napoli dating back to the 1600’s), Cocozelle are dark green with yellow-green stripes, and have a slightly nutty flavor. Long and cylindrical with a taper toward the stem end, they can often be found with flowers still attached at the base.
A type of Cocozelle, Costata Romanesco are nutty and sweet with crisp-tender flesh; a summer squash with more than a mild flavor! Their skin is green with light speckles and prominent ribs running lengthwise, and they are often sold with blossoms attached.
They’re great raw or cooked, but their shelf-life is extra short, so make sure to eat them soon after you buy them.
Cousa (or Kousa)
Likely bred in the 19th century Middle East, these squash go by many names, but Cousa (or Kousa) seems to be the most common in American markets. These cylindrical squashes are slightly bulbous at the base and taper toward the stem. Their skin is smooth, pale green with streaky white flecks, and a little shiny.
While their skin is delicate and easily scratched, the flesh is dense inside. They’re crisp and sweet, and when eaten raw, have hints of melon and cucumber. Their dense flesh makes them another good candidate for stuffed squash recipes.
Avocado, or Korean, squash have shiny skin I can only describe as “wild parakeet green.” They’re shaped like their namesake, and their dense flesh is pale yellow with faint green at the edges (a muted version of the gradient you find in a halved avocado, just saying!). These are buttery with a pronounced nutty flavor, and very succulent when cooked.
We can’t forget the flowers! These beauties are mild in flavor, but big on visual appeal. They are extremely delicate, and wilt fast.
It’s best not to store them, but if you must, keep them in the fridge. Line a flat-bottomed container with a damp cloth, place the flowers in a single layer, and cover with an airtight lid. If you’re lucky, they’ll keep for up to two full days.
Squash blossoms are wonderful stuffed with cheese, lightly battered, and fried (what isn’t), but that might be a little too involved. Keep it simple and toss them anywhere you’d like to add a little boost: Make salads prettier, dress up a simple pasta, add some color to soup, or upgrade your quesadillas.
How to Buy and Transport Summer Squash
When it comes to summer squash of any variety, bigger is not better. As they get larger, the seeds become bitter, and the flesh unpleasantly fibrous. Stick to fruits that are small or average-sized.
A medium-sized cylindrical squash is ideal at around six inches; scalloped and globe squashes should fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. Avoid anything that’s extra-large compared to the rest of its kind on the stand.
Summer squashes are sensitive! Be mindful when you’re transporting them home. Their skin is so thin and delicate, and very easily pierced. As soon as the skin is punctured, decay begins, so do your best to keep them from getting hurt on the way home. Some varieties have dense flesh and can handle less precious care, but still, it’s best to be careful.
How to Store Summer Squash
When storing summer squash, keep them cool and dry. Store them in the crisper drawer and wash them only when you’re ready to use them. Water droplets, like punctures in the skin, promote decay.
Summer squashes, especially the peak-season local types, aren’t the best keepers. Store in the fridge for up to 5 days (max!) but aim for less. They get soft and flabby pretty quickly after they’re harvested.
How to Prep, Cook, and Swap Summer Squash
Summer squash might be the most versatile and easygoing (fruit we treat like) vegetables I know. Mild and soft, summer squashes are easy to handle and can be used in seemingly endless ways.
The one rule I’m strict about: Do not peel summer squash. Their nutrition lives mainly in the skin, so keep in on. Plus, it’s so thin and soft that there’s really no need to remove it.
Their tender flesh makes them easy to cut and chop into any shape you like — shaved into wide ribbons, cut into wedges or spears, grated, sliced into coins, halved, diced, noodle-ed, the list goes on. Certain varieties are best for certain shapes, but there’s a lot of flexibility.
Their mild flavor makes them extremely interchangeable. The main consideration to make when swapping summer squashes is the shape. If a recipe uses a squash for its specific shape, try to use something similar; no one’s going to make noodles or ribbons out of a short scalloped squash, and some squashes aren’t made to be stuffed, but if you want to make something like zucchini bread and you only have other summer squashes on hand, swap away.
Want to have zucchini noodles on hand and ready to go whenever you want? Totally doable. Turn them into noodles, however you do, and store in an airtight container. Make sure to keep them dry! dry! dry! and they’ll last in the fridge for 5-7 days.
How to Freeze Summer Squash
If you’re looking to preserve an abundance of summer squash, I don’t recommend canning. They mostly turn to mush, but if you want to have canned puree on hand, have at it.
Freezing is a better option, but with a caveat: I think grating is the best way to go. Grated summer squash can be frozen and stored for later use (especially when the use is a baked treat), but I wouldn’t recommend trying to freeze and save slices or chunks, unless you're going to use them in a casserole, soup, or other preparation where you want them to be soft. In that case, follow these instructions:
- Zucchini Fritters
- Summer Minestrone Soup
- Summer Veggie Tacos
- Summer Squash Salad
- Zucchini, Eggplant, and Tomato Gratin
- Easy Sautéed Zucchini
- Giant Sausage-Stuffed Zucchini
- Chocolate Zucchini Cake
- Zucchini Noodle Chicken Pesto Bowl
- Quick Green Curry Chicken with Zucchini Noodles
- Zucchini Noodle Chicken Pesto Bowl