How to buy, store, and cook nutritious winter squash.
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
When the weather cools off, it's out with zucchini and in with winter squash! You can't miss seeing them in the produce section this time of year. Some types of winter squash are bright yellow or orange (like spaghetti and butternut squash), and some are big enough to double as a bowling ball (like blue or orange Hubbard squash).
While summer squash like zucchini have thin, soft skin, winter squash have hard skin and inedible seeds that have to be scooped out. Think pumpkin -- that's a typical winter squash.
Nutritionally, most winter squash varieties qualify as "superfoods" because they are bursting with fiber and the antioxidant vitamins carotene and vitamin C. Most types also have folic acid as well as several minerals many of us need more of -- calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Most contain all three types of carotene-family phytochemicals: alpha, beta, and gamma. Studies suggest that these three carotenes have antioxidant activity in the body, which helps reduce the risk for many types of cancer. The carotenes may also help your immune system function properly. And they benefit the eyes through the body's ability to convert beta carotene into vitamin A.
Here's the 4-1-1 on four types of winter squash you're likely to see in your supermarket:
1. Acorn Squash
Shaped like a giant acorn, acorn squash can weigh from 1 to 3 pounds. If you cut one in half from stem to pointy bottom, an acorn squash makes two nice bowls that can be filled with a stuffing or rice mixture.
- Pureed and added to soups or as a sauce for pasta dishes or filling for lasagna
- Filled with festive apple mixture (or other fruit)
- Roasted and served as a side dish or added to an entree
- Filled with rice, stuffing, or sausage mixtures
- Baked with a cinnamon & brown sugar topping
One cup of cooked, diced, acorn squash will give you:
- 115 calories, 9 grams fiber
- Vitamins: 877 International Units (IU) of vitamin A (that's 25% of the recommended Daily Value, or DV), 22 mg vitamin C (30% DV), 39 mcg folic acid (10% DV)
- Minerals: 90 mg calcium (9% DV), 88 mg magnesium (28% DV), 896 mg potassium (19% DV)
- Bonus: each serving contains a whopping 9 grams of fiber and 31% DV for vitamin B1 and B6.
2. Butternut Squash
Shaped like a gigantic orange pear with an elongated top, butternut squash can weigh from 2 to 5 pounds. You can cut the top portion from the bulb portion of the squash. There aren't any seeds in the top part, so if you remove the skin, it's easy to cut the flesh into cubes. You can do the same with the bulb piece, once you scoop out the seeds with a large metal spoon. The skin is particularly thick and hard on this squash, so be extra cautious with your knife. I find a large chef's knife works best.
You can buy 10-ounce bags of diced butternut squash (Stahlbush Island Farms brand) in the frozen section of your nearby Whole Foods Market. It doesn't get any more convenient than that!
Use them in:
- Pasta dishes (even as filling for ravioli)
- Rice dishes
One cup of cooked, diced butternut squash has:
- 82 calories, 6 grams fiber
- Vitamins: 22,867 IU vitamin A (653% DV), 31 mg vitamin C (41% DV), 39 mcg folic acid (10% DV)
- Minerals: 84 mg calcium (8% DV), 59 mg magnesium (19% DV), 582 mg potassium (12% DV)
- Bonus: 2.6 mg of vitamin E (18% DV)
3. Spaghetti Squash
A spaghetti squash looks like a small yellow watermelon, and weighs anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds. This squash is usually prepared by cutting it in half lengthwise with a sturdy knife and baking it, cut-side down, in a baking dish with 1/4-inch of water. (At 375 degrees, baking will take about 35 minutes.) Here's the fun part: When you scrape out the inside flesh of the squash halves it easily separates into pasta-like strands.
- As a substitute for pasta in some dishes
- Served cold as a salad ingredient
- Topped or dressed with flavorful ingredients for a side dish
One cup of cooked spaghetti squash will give you:
- 42 calories, 2.2 grams fiber
- Vitamins: 170 IU vitamin A (5%), 5 mg vitamin C (7%), 12 mcg folic acid (3%)
- Minerals: 33 mg calcium (3%), 17 mg magnesium (5%), 181 mg potassium (4%)
- Bonus: 12 grams of heart-healthy plant omega-3 fatty acids
You can't get through October without seeing hundreds of pumpkins -- at the supermarket, on front porches, and atop the desks of co-workers. Pumpkins come in all shapes and sizes. Like other large winter squashes, pumpkin can be cut into smaller pieces, the inside seed part removed, and cooked until the flesh is tender by steaming, microwaving, or roasting. Although many of us use canned pumpkin in our favorite recipes, here is some information on fresh pumpkins.
- Pureed and added to soups, or as a sauce for pasta dishes or filling for lasagna.
- Roasted and served as a side dish or added to an entree.
- Filled with rice, stuffing, or sausage mixtures (for smaller pumpkins).
One cup of fresh, boiled pumpkin will give you:
- 49 calories, 2.2 grams fiber
- Vitamins: 2,650 IU vitamin A (76% DV), 12 mg vitamin C (16% DV), 21 mcg folic acid (5% DV)
- Minerals: 37 mg calcium (4% DV), 22 mg magnesium (7% DV), 564 mg potassium (12% DV)
- Bonus: 1.7 mg vitamin E (11% of the daily recommendation of 15 mg)
How to Buy, Store, and Cook Winter Squash
When buying winter squash:
- Choose one that seems heavy for its size and doesn't have any soft spots or cracks.
- For squash sold in precut pieces (like banana or Hubbard squash), look for pieces with fresh-looking flesh texture and color.
When storing winter squash:
- You can keep cut pieces in plastic bags in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- If uncut, you can keep winter squash in a cool, dark, well-ventilated location for 30-180 days.
- If it's cooked and pureed, you can freeze squash for up to 3 months.
When preparing winter squash:
- For cutting tougher skinned varieties, you might need to use a cleaver or hefty chef's knife.
- Your best cooking methods are steaming, baking, or microwaving.
- For most types, it's easiest to cut them in half, remove the seeds with a large spoon, and bake the halves, flesh-side down, on a rimmed baking sheet coated lightly with canola oil or canola cooking spray. Bake at 375 degrees until tender (30 to 40 minutes for most).
- Be sure to cook until the flesh is tender, whichever preparation method you use.
Winter Squash Recipes
Here are three recipes to help you celebrate winter squash: a pasta entree, a spicy soup, and a risotto.
Butternut Squash Risotto
5 cups butternut squash cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 1, 2-pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into cubes)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided use
6 cups chicken broth (lower sodium if available)
2 cups leeks (white and pale green parts), rinsed very well and thinly sliced
2 cups medium-grain rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup whole milk or fat-free half-and-half
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (more for garnish optional)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage (available in most produce sections)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a jellyroll pan with foil. Add the squash cubes and 1 tablespoon olive oil to medium bowl; toss well to coat the cubes. Spread them onto the prepared pan and bake until tender and lightly golden (about 40 minutes), stirring after 20 minutes.
- While squash is baking, add the chicken broth to a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to simmer; cover to keep warm until needed.
- Heat remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks and saute, stirring often, until soft and lightly brown (about 5 minutes). Add the dry rice and stir frequently for a minute. Pour in the wine and simmer, stirring constantly, until wine is absorbed (1 to 2 minutes). Reduce heat to LOW and add a cup of hot stock and simmer, stirring frequently, until absorbed (3-5 minutes). Add remaining stock, a cup at a time, each time allowing stock to be absorbed before adding more. Stir each time you add stock. Right about the time you've added the 6 cups of stock, the rice should just be tender and the mixture should look a little creamy.
- and pepper to taste if desired and serve each bowl with a sprinkling of shredded Parmesan cheese if desired.
Yield: 8 servings
Per serving: 323 calories, 10.5 g protein, 53 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 13 mg cholesterol, 4.5 g fiber, 230 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 22%.
Curry & Coconut Winter Squash Soup
1 large acorn squash
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup diced shallots
1 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red curry powder (add 1/4 teaspoon more if desired)
2 cups chicken broth (lower sodium, if available)
1 cup whole milk (fat-free half-and-half can also be used)
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1 tablespoon brown sugar, firmly packed
Optional garnish: 4 tablespoons fat-free sour cream
4 teaspoons chopped fresh chives
- Carefully cut acorn squash into about 8 wedges and scoop out any seeds with a large metal spoon. Place in large, microwave-safe dish with about 1/4 cup water, cover, and microwave on HIGH until just tender (about 9 minutes). Let cool for a few minutes. Once cool, cut away the skin of the squash wedges and cut into 3/4-inch cubes or pieces (about 4 cups).
- Start heating a large nonstick saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil; when it's hot, add the shallots and saute, stirring often, for about 2 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and continue to stir and cook for a minute. Stir in squash pieces, salt, and curry powder and cook, stirring often, for a few more minutes.
- Increase the heat to medium-high and pour in the chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a low boil, then lower the heat to simmer. Cover the pan and let it simmer for about 8 minutes, stirring and mashing every 4 minutes.
- Meanwhile, blend milk with coconut extract and set aside. When the squash mixture has finished simmering, stir in the brown sugar and the milk-coconut mixture. Use a masher briefly to smooth out any large chunks of squash. Cover the pan and cook for another 5 minutes. Serve as is or, if you like a smoother texture, use an immersion blender, regular blender, or food processor to puree until smooth. Garnish each bowl of soup with a dollop of fat-free sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh chopped chives, if desired.
Yield: 4 servings
Per serving: 218 calories, 6.5 g protein, 38 g carbohydrate, 6.5 g fat, 2.3 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 9.3 g fiber, 363 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 25%.
Butternut Cannelloni With Sage/Brown Butter Sauce
If you can't find sheets of fresh pasta, you can use lasagna noodles, cooked until al dente and well-drained.
3 1/2 tablespoons whipped butter, divided use
3 cups cubed, partially thawed frozen butternut squash (available in the frozen section at Whole Foods), or fresh butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
3/4 cup diced fennel bulb (also called anise), 1/4-inch dices
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons chopped shallot
1/4 cup water
6 fresh pasta rectangles (about 6 inches by 4 inches), available at Whole Foods and other specialty markets
Canola cooking spray
6 fresh sage leaves, cut widthwise into thin strips
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste (optional)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat in a large, nonstick skillet until foam subsides. Add squash, fennel, salt and pepper. Saute, stirring occasionally, until golden (about 4 minutes). Lower heat to a simmer, then stir in shallot and water, cover skillet, and simmer until the vegetables are tender (about 8 minutes). Turn off heat, remove cover and let the mixture cool.
- While vegetables are cooling, start 2-3 inches of water boiling in a large saucepan. Add sheets of pasta and gently boil until al dente (about 2-3 minutes). Gently transfer the pasta sheets to a bowl of ice and cold water to cool. Drain well and pat dry on paper towels.
- Add cooled butternut squash mixture to food processor and pulse to blend. (If you don't have a food processor, just mash the mixture until relatively smooth.) Coat a 9 x9-inch baking dish with canola or olive oil cooking spray. Set one sheet of pasta on a plate coated with canola or olive oil cooking spray. Spread 1/4 cup of the filling along the short end of the rectangle and roll up to create a cannelloni. Place it seam-side down in the prepared baking dish. Repeat with remaining pasta sheets and filling. Coat the top of the cannelloni with canola or olive oil cooking spray.
- Bake until cannelloni is hot and the pasta is starting to lightly brown (about 12 minutes). While cannelloni is baking, heat 3 tablespoons whipped butter over medium-high heat in small, nonstick saucepan and stir until foam subsides. Add sage and 2 tablespoons shallot and saute until sage is crisp, about 2 minutes. Turn off heat. Stir in lemon juice, fresh parsley, and salt and pepper if desired.
- To serve as a first course, place one cannelloni on a small plate and drizzle one-sixth of the brown butter and sage mixture down the center of the cannelloni.
Yield: 6 appetizer servings (or 3 entree servings)
Per appetizer serving: 127 calories, 3 g protein, 20 g carbohydrate, 4.8 g fat, 2.8 g saturated fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 147 mg sodium (not including salt and pepper to taste). Calories from fat: 33%.
Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2007 Elaine Magee
Published October 17, 2007.
SOURCES: Melissa's Great Book of Produce, John Wiley & Sons, 2006, by Cathy Thomas. ESHA Research, Food Processor II nutritional analysis program.
©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.