I Just Learned the Squash You're Buying at the Grocery Store Could Be from Last Year
As soon as you start to see squashes on display in grocery store, you're thinking fall. But did you know that the early and off-season winter squashes on shelves—the acorns and butternuts and kabochas—that give you visions of warm soups and chilis, might still be from last year?
"This happens a lot, especially with sturdy cellar vegetables, like squashes, and it's true for apples too," says cookbook author and food writer Dawn Perry. Think about how apple picking has a very finite season—by the end of October, all the apples are picked over and local U-pick orchards have closed. The excess gets refrigerated and shipped to grocery stores as needed, so you can still enjoy them year-round. Same goes for your favorite winter squash. "Squashes last a long time, especially when refrigerated, which is why we eat so many of them throughout the winter," she says.
Thing is, you can probably find your favorite squash any time of the year, but the warmth of a roasted acorn squash probably isn't on your radar in July. (Look for a wooden crate tucked away in the corner of the store to find them during the spring and summer.) Perry, a former magazine food stylist, got clued into squash's year-round presence when she would photograph fall recipes in the late spring and squash was readily available. Winter squash doesn't have a natural spring harvest. But, with the proper storage, winter squash may stick around for the entire year.
The same can't be said for, say, stone fruits (such as peaches and plums), which are often only available in the summer and have a higher water content that makes them more perishable, even with extended refrigeration, she says.
On the other hand, hearty veggies like winter squash are made to flourish in the cold. "Think about how hearty greens, like kale, last so much longer in your fridge compared to delicate spring lettuces. Winter vegetables are built for harsh weather," says Perry. Winter squash also has a hardy rind that also makes it easier to toss into storage for long periods of time.
The good news is that winter squash can be eaten any time of year, but you'll want to use different preparations whether noshing in the on- or off-season. "Squash gets starchier and starchier the longer it's off the vine," says Perry. And starchier can mean a drier texture.
Best Ways to Prep Winter Squash
Squash offers a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, including carotenoids, vitamin C, lutein and zeaxanthin, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Those are going to be important heading into the winter flu season, as they support immune system function, and they can also be part of a cancer-prevention diet, says the AICR.
Winter squash's season is beginning now or will start soon, depending on what part of the country you live in, and so recently harvested squash will be fresh and really sweet. Perry recommends steaming and blending it into pasta sauce or into a soup to make it creamy sans dairy. Off-season squash will be drier and starchier, so you'll want to add a splash of heavy cream or a little chicken or vegetable stock to reintroduce some of that mouth-pleasing silkiness.
In-season, roast a whole acorn or kabocha squash, suggests Perry. Off-season, pick up a butternut, then peel, chop and steam it in a steamer basket. This will add moistness. Chopping and roasting, in the other hand, may dry out an already slightly dry squash.
Of course, the other option is frozen squash, which has been picked at peak freshness and then flash frozen. This is a perfect alternative to fresh squash in the late spring or summer when you have no idea when the squashes on shelves were actually picked, says Perry. Puree frozen squash or mash with butter and a splash of orange juice for a bright side dish. "When in doubt, add fat and liquid. Butter (or cream) and citrus perk squash right back up," says Perry. (We may be biased, but our Mashed Butternut Squash Recipe is seriously amazing.)
If you cut into a squash right now and it looks a bit dry, just wait: in-season winter squashes will soon be filling up grocery store displays and overrunning fall farmers' markets so you can get your fill of their tasty and satisfying sweetness.