Three of the most common winter squashes are acorn squash, delicata squash, and butternut squash. These are available in most grocery stores around Thanksgiving, as well as at year-round farmers markets. As with any vegetable, the smaller the better and the more flavourful. Squash should be firm and heavy for their size. Acorn squash are round and dark green, with some orange coloring. Butternut are long and beige, with dark orange flesh. Delicata are distinctive pale yellow squash with green stripes.
How to Prepare Winter Squash for Cooking
The most important tool in handling winter squash is a good, sharp knife. The squash needs to be cut at least in half while raw. One technique is to use a mallet on the dull end of the knife to help, but those who use this trick should take care when removing the knife from the squash. The squash should be clean before cutting, because the skin of a winter squash is edible.
Once the squash is cut, the next step is removing the seeds and pulp. Like a pumpkin, there are seeds and stringy bits in the middle that should be scraped out before cooking. The seeds, aka pepitas, can be set aside for toasting later. The squash is now ready to roast or sauté.
How to Roast Winter Squash
Roasting squash in the oven is an easy way to prepare a simple, tasty side dish. It is also a common method of preparation for squash that will go in another dish like a dessert. Acorn and butternut squash provide a natural “bowl” that is good for adding herbs or autumn spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger. A little sugar sprinkled over the squash will caramelize while roasting. When roasting cut side up, a little water should be added to the pan to avoid burning and butter or oil should be rubbed or drizzled on the squash’s flesh. The squash can also be roasted cut side down.
Winter squash should be roasted at high heat (400 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit) until very tender. If being used in a dish where it will be cooked further, such as a stew or pasta dish, the recipe may specify cooking until “just” or “almost” tender. A fork can be used to test doneness.
Finding a Place for Squash on the Thanksgiving Table
The winter squashes have slightly different tastes and can serve different functions. Butternut is the sweetest, and can be cut into cubes and roasted in a casserole dish with syrup, brown sugar and pecans for a tasty dessert or sautéed and served with other vegetables like onions and red peppers. It can be mashed for a sweet side dish, blended for a delicious velvety soup, or even used for an alternative to pumpkin pie. It can also be used in baked goods like muffins, quick breads, or cakes where pumpkin is specified.
Acorn and delicata are less sweet, and have skin that becomes crispy when roasted. They can be paired with sweet toppings like butternut, but also go well with herbs and olive oil. Acorn squash is a particularly strong candidate for stuffing and serving as a vegetarian main dish due to its shape. It also can be used as a natural bowl for soup or stew. Acorn or butternut can also be used as a serving dish for fondue as a first course. Finally, the seeds of any winter squash can be toasted and sprinkled on a thanksgiving dessert like salted caramel cake or a pie.