Farmers markets and fruit stands are full to the brim with a beautiful selection of winter squash. Although they make a beautiful fall display for the porch or walkway, they are also pretty darn tasty to eat. With care and proper technique, a variety of the hard-skinned squashes can be kept for months into winter and can be enjoyed as a soup or side dish for a holiday meal.
What is a winter squash? There are several species of squashes that are called ‘winter squash’, all from the genus ‘Cucurbita’. Unlike their fair weather cousins, these squash are harvested mature when the seeds have fully formed and the skin has created a tough outer shell. This is what gives the squash the ability to be stored for months before use. The trick to a long storage life is ‘curing’ the fruit for 10-14 days in a warm (not hot) and dry location directly after harvest. The curing allows for the fruit to lose a bit of its excess water which causes the flesh to sweeten due to a concentration of sugars, slows the fruit’s respiration rate which leads to a lengthened shelf life, and reduces the risk of rot. The skin on the fruit will harden during this process as well, creating the classic shell on the outside of the squash.
Not all varieties of winter squash should be cured before use. Acorn squash flesh becomes stringy after being cured and is better to be put into cold storage at 55 F or lower (but above freezing) directly after harvest. Same goes for Deilcatas, which are best kept between 45-55 F but can be stored at room temperature for up to 10 days before being turned into dinner.
The most common varieties of winter squash that should be cured prior to storage include Spaghetti Squash, Butternuts, Buttercups and Blue Hubbards. In addition to curing, proper harvest is the key to long storage. Fruits should be cut from the plant to avoid breaking off the stem. A broken stem leaves an open wound in the skin where rot will likely occur first. Those fruits with missing stems should be consumed first as they have the shortest shelf life. Secondly, only harvest undamaged, fully mature fruits for storage. The color of the fruit should be fully developed. Under-ripe fruits can still be eaten and should be the first ones that make it onto the dinner plate. Third, harvests fruits before frost whenever possible. A light frost will lessen the shelf life slightly but a hard frost will damage the skin and make long term storage impossible. Happy Gardening!