Winter squash is packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that offer plenty of health benefits.
The flesh of winter squash, which varies in colour from yellow to bright orange, is an excellent source of beta-carotene, a nutrient that is converted into vitamin A in the body. Beta-carotene is also a potent antioxidant. Studies suggest that a diet high in beta-carotene may ward off certain types of cancer and heart disease.
Carotenoids, including beta-carotene, are fat-soluble which means they’re best absorbed if they’re eaten with a little bit of fat in a meal. All you need is 3 to 5 grams of oil with a meal, about one teaspoon, to boost your body’s beta-carotene absorption. Cooking also improves the availability of beta-carotene in foods.
Winter squash also gets top marks for being a good source of vitamin C, potassium, fibre and folate.
Winter squash - e.g. butternut, acorn, hubbard and spaghetti - is one group of vegetables you should be eating on a regular basis.
Nutrient information per ½ cup (125 ml) cooked winter squash (average of all varieties):
Unlike summer squash (e.g. zucchini), winter squashes arrive late in the growing season. In Canada, winter squashes are available from August through March.
While butternut squash, acorn squash and pumpkin are perhaps the most popular varieties of winter squash, a walk through your local farmers market or grocery store will reveal a much wider variety of squash that aren’t as well known – but just as delicious.
Here’s a rundown of the most popular varieties available in Canada:
Acorn squash: This squash gets its name from its acorn-like shape. Small in size with a hard, dark green shell with deep ridges, acorn squash is popular despite it being difficult to peel and cut. Acorn squash has a pale yellow flesh with a slightly sweet flavour.
Buttercup squash: Buttercup squash is round, dark green and has notable light green stripes that run down the sides. It has golden orange flesh with a slightly sweet taste. The only downfall of this variety is that it can be quite dry.
Butternut squash: Butternut squash is one of the more popular winter squash because it’s so easy to prepare. Unlike most other varieties, butternut squash has a thin shell that can easily be removed with a vegetable peeler or knife. It’s characterized by its oblong, pear shape and tan coloured shell. Inside, butternut squash has a soft orange flesh that’s great for baking.
Delicata squash: Delicata squash, also known as Bohemian squash is oblong, with cream-coloured skin and green or orange stripes running the length of it. With creamy yellow flesh, this squash tastes a bit like sweet potatoes.
Hubbard squash: Hubbard squash has orange flesh with a lovely rich flavour, although it can be a bit dry. It’s one of the least popular varieties of winter squash thanks to its large size and hard shell that’s difficult to cut through. Some grocers may pre-cut it so it’s easier to prepare.
Pumpkin: Likely the most popular variety of winter squash, especially in late October. While the large jack-o-lantern variety is great for carving, it’s too watery to cook with. Opt for the smaller sugar pumpkin for cooking and baking.
Spaghetti squash: If you’ve ever cooked a spaghetti squash, you’ll know where the name comes from. Spaghetti squash is most notable for its stringy flesh that resembles spaghetti noodles once cooked.
Turban squash: This squash is named after its shape which resembles a turban. Its beautiful shape is characterized by a bright orange base and multi-coloured stripes. This variety of squash doesn’t have the best flavour, so it’s often used for decoration rather than eating. Use it as a centerpiece or hollow out the middle for an eye-catching soup tureen.
When buying whole winter squash, choose ones that are firm and heavy for their size. Despite their hard shell, winter squash are prone to decay. Choose squash that have an intact shell and are free of moisture, nicks and bruises. You can also find pre-cut squash in the refrigerated section many grocery stores.
Winter squash have a hard external shell which means they naturally have a long shelf life. A winter squash with an intact outer shell that is stored properly will keep for up to six months.
To get the longest shelf life from a winter squash, store it in a cool, dark, dry place. The ideal temperature for storing squash is between 10°C and 15°C, which is slightly warmer than the refrigerator. Once cut, cover the flesh of a raw winter squash with plastic wrap where it will keep for two days in the fridge.
Use a heavy chef’s knife to cut through a winter squash’s hard shell. Make a shallow cut in the rind to use as a guide and to prevent the knife from slipping. Once split, scoop out the seeds and fibre from the hollow part of the squash.
For squash with a tough rind, cook the squash first, and then scrape the flesh away from the rind once it’s soft. Winter squash with a softer rind, such as butternut squash, can be peeled with a good quality vegetable peeler before cooking.
Winter squash can be baked, boiled, roasted, steamed, sautéed or microwaved. There’s an endless number of ways to enjoy them.
Winter squash is well suited for savoury dishes but also pairs well with sweet ingredients like maple syrup. Classic dishes that include winter squash include pumpkin pie, stuffed acorn squash and butternut squash soup.
Healthy ways to enjoy
- Serve whole grain muffins made with pureed winter squash. Pumpkin, acorn and butternut squash work especially well.
- Add 1/4 cup (50 ml) of baked squash puree to a morning smoothie for added nutrients and colour.
- Toss cubes of raw squash with chopped fresh ginger, canola oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Roast until brown and toss with baby spinach for a warm salad; top with toasted pistachios and dried cranberries.
- Spread pureed squash on crackers instead of butter for a nutritious, low fat alternative. Get a recipe here.
- Try grilled winter squash. Thread chunks of cut cubed squash onto a skewer, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and grill until soft.
- Like pasta? Cut calories by using baked spaghetti squash as the base of your pasta dish. Top with tomato sauce, grilled veggies and fresh basil. Click here for a recipe.
- Toss rinsed pumpkin seeds with a pinch of coarse sea salt and olive oil and bake at 325F for about 25 minutes for a nutrient-packed snack.
- Use pureed winter squash as the base for dips and spreads – it’s a low calorie alternative to mayonnaise, cream cheese and sour cream.
- Winter squashes are a distant relative of melons and cucumbers.
- Winter squash, as we know it today, is a descendent of wild squash that originated in an area between Guatemala and Mexico nearly 10,000 years ago.
- Today the leading commercial producers of winter squash include Japan, China, Turkey, Italy, Egypt and Argentina.