Culinary Arts

What’s the Difference Between Summer Squash and Winter Squash Varieties? Plus 3 Ways to Cook Squash

Written by MasterClass

Apr 13, 2019 • 6 min read

Think of squash, and words like bountiful come to mind. Or maybe you imagine cornucopias spilling forth with bright orange gourds hard as gems or sprawling vines soaking in the summer sun, hiding pale yellow and green treasures beneath their prickly soft leaves.

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What Is Squash?

Squash refers to five domesticated species within the greater Cucurbita genus that hails from the Andes and Mesoamerica. The fruits, which vary in size, shape, and color, contain a thick, fibrous flesh and edible rind. They grow on vines and most can be stored at length after harvesting.

What Is the Difference Between Winter and Summer Squash?

Summer squash varieties are harvested while young, when their soft rinds are completely edible. “Summer” refers to their short shelf life, though many summer squashes are harvested from June through August. Winter squash varieties are harvested in the early months of autumn (anytime before temperatures dip and bring frost) and feature firm exterior skin that extend their shelf life throughout the winter, only some of which are edible.

12 Types of Winter Squash

Whether dark green or orange flesh, varieties of winter squash run the gamut.

  • Butternut: As the sweetest variety of winter squash, pear-shaped butternuts are worth every bit of their notoriously tough-to-peel prep. Roast them in half so you don’t have to bother removing the skin or break it down into smaller sections first, then peel the skin off.
  • Acorn: Featuring a mild nutty flavor and glossy dark green edible skin, acorn squash have a deep cup, perfect for stuffing with whole grains or a few pats of butter and a teaspoon of brown sugar.
  • Delicata: Small, oblong delicatas also go by the name “sweet potato squash,” and are immediately recognizable for their yellow skin with green stripes. The seeds are easy to remove and the skin is edible, adding a nice crackling chew when roasted.
  • Kabocha: With a deep green skin and sweet, dark orange flesh similar to that of a pumpkin or sweet potato, kabocha squash is a Japanese variety sometimes referred to as the “Japanese pumpkin” in the United States.
  • Sweet Dumpling: Adorable, pint-sized, and streaked with bright orange, sweet dumplings have a sweetness not unlike peak-season corn. Thanks to their size, they work especially well for single-serving preparations.
  • Hubbard: Hubbards are the zeppelins of the squash realm: large in size with a hard, bumpy exterior that ranges from pale seafoam green to dark bluish gray. The flavor of Hubbard squash is often compared to pumpkin. They make fantastic hearty soups, and work equally well in baked goods like pies or muffins.
  • Buttercup: With deep blue-green skin and pale white stripes, buttercup squash is much like a thin-skinned pumpkin: firm, sweet flesh, and roastable seeds.
  • Red Kuri: Red kuri squash hails from Hokkaido, and looks a bit like a swollen acorn missing its cap or a rusty-red chestnut. Just like a chestnut, it’s flavors deepen with a good roast.
  • Spaghetti: This delicate, pale yellow squash has a stringy, loose flesh and mild flavor often used to mimic noodles or angel hair pasta. Learn more about spaghetti squash here.
  • Turban: A squash that looks just like it sounds, heirloom Turban squash features a puffed top. It might look intimidating to chop,
  • Carnival Banana: Pinkish gold banana squash can get quite long, up to three feet. It’s earthy, slightly sweet flavor is a good match for recipes featuring butternut squash or kabocha: it’s got a close-textured, smooth flesh that’s great for roasting down to a caramel-y spread.
  • Sweet Pumpkin: Also known as sugar pumpkins and closely related to the equally versatile Long Island cheese pumpkin, sweet pumpkins are smaller and sweeter than the jack-o’-lantern carving variety, with flesh that’s a perfect candidate for a smooth, velvety—you guessed it—pumpkin pie.

6 Types of Summer Squash

Popular varieties of summer squash include:

  • Green zucchini: The most recognizable of the bunch also goes by the name “Black Beauty” for its dark green skin.
  • Yellow zucchini: Similar in taste and size to the green zucchini, but with a brilliant goldenrod skin and green stem top.
  • Crookneck (yellow or straightneck squash): With a slightly higher water content than conventional zucchini, crookneck squash are swollen and round on one end that tapers into a curved, swan-like neck on the other.
  • Chayote (mirliton squash): Chayotes have light green skin and a pear shape, with a more fibrous texture than zucchini. They’re especially good raw, with a mild flavor that feels like a cross between an Armenian cucumber and a squash.
  • Pattypan squash: The flying saucers of the squash universe, pale, scallop-edged pattypans fit in the palm of your hand.
  • Eight ball zucchini: Think traditional zucchini, but round! Exceptionally good for stuffing or roasting in wide discs.

What Are the Health Benefits of Squash?

Though squash is mostly composed of water, their flesh is rich in vitamins C and B6. Their edible seeds pack a bit more nutritional value: pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, in particular contain protein and vitamins E and B, as well as oils that can be extracted and used for cooking.

How to Pick a Ripe Squash

  • From the ground: If you’re growing them at home, summer squash can be picked to your preference. Young squash have a lower water content before their seeds come in, and their flavors are more grassy and concentrated. The bigger you go—think prize-winning heavyweight zucchini—the more watered down the taste. If harvesting winter squash, wait until the skin hardens and becomes rich in color. If you can easily poke through the skin with your fingernail, it’s too soon.
  • At the grocery store or farmers’ market: Look for unblemished skin, with few cracks and a matte exterior. Ripe winter squashes look full, feel heavy, and have dried out stems. If you’re looking for summer squash, choose those with firm, taut texture. You want to start with crisp flesh, not squishy!

How to Cook With Squash Seeds

Most winter squash seeds, like pepitas, can be roasted at a low temperature in the oven at 300°F for about 40 minutes or so, until lightly crisp, then tossed with salt and pepper for a snack or ganish. Alternatively, pipián is a type of Mexican mole that utilizes ground squash seeds instead of chocolate.

What to Serve With Winter Squash

What can’t you serve with winter squash? Whether you go sweet or savory with a hint of spicy heat, versatile winter squash suits most culinary needs. Simmer it down with stock and seasonal fruits like pear and blend it into a creamy soup, roast it in wedges and drizzle it with chili honey as a side dish, or tuck thin cooked slices into grilled cheese sandwiches with caramelized onions.

3 Ways to Prepare Squash

Squash recipes call for a variety of preparations depending on your desired effect and whether or not the skin is edible.

  • Cook Squash in the Oven. For varieties with a tougher skin, roasting in the oven is a great way to soften and transform the woody interior to a creamy and lightly sweet consistency. Cut squash in half, scoop out the seeds, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast cut-side down at 400°F until a knife inserts easily into the outer skin, about 30–60 minutes depending on the variety. Remove from oven and let cool.
  • Microwave Squash. More delicate varieties like spaghetti squash, acorn squash, or delicata can be cooked in the microwave. Lay cut and cored squash cut-side down in a microwave-safe dish, then cook on high for 5 minutes at a time, until completely soft and cooked through.
  • Make Squash on the Stovetop. Summer squash can be roasted to a soft, almost custardy effect, but a quick sauté on the stove top is also a good way to achieve a similar texture. Simply slice squash into wheels, half-moons, or quarters, then cook in 1–2 teaspoons of olive oil over medium heat until lightly browned and tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Find Chef Thomas Keller’s recipe for oven-roasted zucchini here.