Ode to Butternut Squash
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
I know there are seemingly endless varieties of winter squash out there and that I should probably extol all their virtues and the importance of biodiversity and all that. Too bad. Today I mostly want to talk about my favorite one: butternut squash.
Butternut squash is hands-down the winter squash I would bring if stranded on a desert island and only able to take one kind of squash. But why the butternut, you ask? Well, let me count the reasons.
Butternut squash’s smooth, flat skin is a breeze to peel compared to all the knobby, warty and ribbed varieties out there. Sure, that doesn’t matter if you simply bake your winter squash whole or halved and scoop out the flesh, but sometimes you want to cook it other ways, like simmered, steamed or roasted. For baking whole or halved, butternut squash is as good as any other variety. For doing anything that requires peeling and cutting before cooking, butternut is hands-down the best. If you’re stranded on a desert island, you’ll want options.
Bang for Your Buck
Butternuts have a relatively small seed cavity that’s only on one end, leaving the rest of the squash’s neck filled with, well, squash. Those expanses of straight-up squash flesh mean extra yield and make cubing or slicing it before cooking a snap.
What about the flavor of all that extra flesh? One of the sweetest out there.
When I think “winter squash,” I think “orange.” Butternut squash has deep orange flesh every time (unless it’s picked not fully ripe). You’re never going to have pale or yellow flesh (I’m talking about you, delicata and acorn).
The average butternut squash is around three to four pounds)—the perfect size for several servings of deliciousness. Not so small that you have to prepare several of them to get enough to work with, and not so big that they’re ungainly or hard to break open (like one of butternut’s parent squashes, the mighty Hubbard).
Easy to Grow
Even though butternut squash requires a bit more time to mature than some other varieties, it is naturally resistant to many pests, and some hybrids are also resistant to powdery mildew.
If harvested, cured, and stored properly, a butternut can outlast many other varieties of winter squash—up to six months.
If you’re growing butternut squash yourself, make sure it’s fully ripe before you harvest it. For most varieties, wait until at least late September and then start to look for fully tan skin with no green lines, a stem that has turned brown, and vines that are starting to die back. Cut the stem a couple inches up from the fruit, then let it “cure” for about a week outside in the sun, turning a few times (if there’s a chance for frost, bring them inside to cure in a warm place with good air circulation instead). After curing, store them somewhere cool with low humidity and good air circulation, and wait about a month before starting to eat them, as storage actually improves their flavor and nutrition.
If you’re buying butternut squash at a farmers market, also make sure it’s fully ripe. It should have no green streaks, the skin should be a darker rather than lighter shade of tan, and the skin should be matte rather than shiny. It should feel heavy for its size and make a hollow knocking noise when rapped with your knuckles. And remember that butternuts are best after at least a month of storage, so don’t buy them in August or even September in Wisconsin, no matter how tempting, unless you plan to store them yourself.
I’m not the only one who loves butternut best. According to a 2015 Mother Earth News poll, butternut won the favorite squash award among both the readers and organic farmers that they asked.
Even with all the reasons that butternut is my favorite, there really are many other winter squash varieties that I suppose are worth trying out.
For enjoying earlier in the fall, some varieties like delicata, sweet dumpling, red kuri and acorn mature sooner than butternut or don’t need curing or storage time to develop their best flavor.
Sometimes you may want to use a culturally appropriate variety for a certain ethnic recipe. In Japan, for instance, winter squash or pumpkin inevitably means kabocha, a round, green-skinned variety with dense, deep-orange flesh.
If you want to stick to tradition, you’ll stick to kabocha for Japanese recipes, where it’s often served simmered in pieces with its skin still on or dipped in tempura and fried.
Other times you may require a gigantic squash to impress a crowd or feed a small army. In that case, go for blue Hubbard (a 19th century heirloom) or giant pink banana squash, both of which can reach up to 40 pounds, or the recently rediscovered heirloom “gete-okosimin,”a beautiful orange-red, zucchini-shaped squash that can grow up to 20 pounds. Gete-okosimin means “really cool old squash” in Anishinaabe and was named such by Winona LaDuke of the White Earth Land Recovery Project’s Indigenous Seed Library in Minnesota. The seeds came from the Miami Nation of Indiana, whose people had been carefully cultivating and saving the seeds of that squash for generations immemorial.
Whether you choose a winner or a runner-up variety, all winter squash are botanically a fruit and are in the same family as cucumbers and melons. Pumpkins, gourds and summer squash are all in the same genus (Cucurbita) within that family. The word squash comes from the Narragansett Indian word “askutasquash” (which New England settlers apparently couldn’t pronounce, hence the shortening).
Squash’s wild ancestors were native to what are now Mexico, Central America and northern South America. It’s estimated that squash was domesticated in Mesoamerica over 9,000 years ago, making it one of humans’ oldest domesticated fruits. Through migration and trade, domesticated winter squash spread into North America, where it became one of the legendary Three Sisters of Native American agriculture, which also included its indigenous companion plants, climbing beans and corn.
Winter squash was unknown outside the Americas until the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro sent the first seeds back to Europe from Peru in the early 1500s. Now they’re grown just about everywhere around the world that has a long and warm enough growing season. Most of the varieties we grow today are open-pollinated or hybrid varieties that were only developed over the last couple hundred years.
Which brings us back to the best—the butternut—which was first developed in the 1940s as a cross between the Hubbard and a gooseneck variety. Charles Leggett, a Massachusetts gardener and hobby plant breeder, was looking to create a winter squash that would be smaller than a Hubbard and more compact than a gangly gooseneck, making it an efficient variety to ship. Once he nailed it, he got to name it, describing it as “smooth as butter, sweet as nut.” I concur.