The term winter squash is a bit of a contradiction. They are actually harvested in the late summer or early fall, then cured or "hardened off" in open air to toughen their exterior. This allows these hardy vegetables to keep well through the cold winter months for which they're named. Winter squash was introduced to early European settlers by Native Americans.
Naturally low in fat and calories, the winter squash family delivers significant nutritional benefits. Most varieties are rich in vitamins C and A (in the form of beta-carotene), antioxidants that help prevent cancer, heart disease and some eye problems. That is why color is important--the darker the squash, the more beta-carotene and other nutrients it contains. Winter squash is also a good source of iron and riboflavin as well.
Winter squash varieties come in many sizes and shapes, but all have hard outer rinds that surround a sweet, golden yellow to an orange flesh. There are several varieties but some of the most popular include:
Shaped like its namesake, this small, dark green, orange, or cream-colored squash has a ribbed rind and a moist yellow or orange interior that is loaded with fiber. This squash is a good source of dietary fiber and potassium, as well as smaller amounts of vitamins C and B, magnesium and manganese. Cut it in half for roasting and acorn squash can be used as a natural bowl for fillings, such as apples, currants, and chestnuts.
This is one of the most common winter squash varieties. It has a long bell-shape and a thin smooth, butterscotch-colored skin. Its smooth, thin skin makes it easier to peel than many other squash varieties. The long thick neck provides the most abundant flesh which is dense and creamy and has a sweet and nutty taste. This squash pairs well with a variety of flavors, including smoky bacon, cinnamon, and balsamic vinegar. It also has the highest doses of vitamins A and C.
Also called sweet potato squash because of its creamy flavor and texture, Delicata squash resembles a giant, fat cucumber. It has a pale yellow skin and dark green pinstripes. Popular in the early 1900s, this heirloom variety is enjoying renewed favor. It tastes similar to sweet potatoes and butternut squash. And, yes the skin is edible as well (no peeling necessary).
One of the largest winter varieties, Hubbard squash typically weighs 8 to 20 pounds and range in color from orange to grayish blue. Hidden beneath the hard, bumpy skin is a delicious yellow flesh that’s both savory and sweet. The flesh is high in sugar but sometimes mealy, which means it is best pureed as a pie filling or mashed. A whole squash will keep for up to 6 months in a cool, dry place.
This oval shaped and bright yellow squash is very different from other varieties in this family. Spaghetti squash has a pale golden interior that has a stringy texture. After sliced in half and baked, use a fork to pry up the strands of flesh and you will see it resembles perfectly cooked spaghetti noodles. This squash is not particularly sweet but has a mild flavor that takes to a wide variety of preparations, including as a substitute for pasta in gluten free diets.