The first time I grew spaghetti squash, I had no idea when to harvest it.
Of course, I’ve purchased spaghetti squash many times. Those store-bought fruits were butter-yellow and usually about the size of a quart jar. The squash in my garden, however, were light green and about the size of a football. Puzzled, I checked online and read that spaghetti squash should be harvested after it turns from green to light cream to butter yellow. Did this mean my green football-sized squash was still growing? What the heck? I’m single! I don’t need a squash large enough to feed the Brady Bunch. Still, since the consensus was to leave it, I did.
I’ve since learned that it’s OK to pick spaghetti squash — or any winter squash — before they’re fully ripe. But that advice comes with a couple of caveats. Read on to find out the best time to pick winter squash, how to prepare (or cure) squash for the best flavor and for long-term storage, and how long squash will keep.
What is Winter Squash?
Winter squash varieties include pumpkins as well as acorn, butternut, buttercup (a.k.a. kabocha), spaghetti, and delicata squash. Winter squash isn’t grown in the winter; it’s so named because it can be stored and used throughout the winter months. Summer squash — like zucchini — has thin skin and needs to be used within about a week of being picked. But winter squash has a tough, thick rind and it stores well. Depending on the variety, winter squash may keep for anywhere from one to eight months.
When to Harvest
Letting winter squash ripen on the vine will bring out its sweetness, and typically that means harvesting in the fall. There are a few ways to tell if your squash is ripe and ready to pick. First, each variety has unique physical characteristics that indicate it’s ripe:
- Acorn squash turns dark green when ripe and its yellow spots (which appear where the squash was touching the ground) turn orange.
- Ripe butternut squash has a light tan-colored rind, with no green lines showing.
- Buttercup/kabocha squash turns from bright green to a duller green/brown color when ripe. Its shape changes as well, from a round pumpkin-type shape to a blockier shape.
- Ripe spaghetti squash is butter yellow.
- The white areas on delicata squash turn creamy or yellow in color when the squash is ripe.
- Pumpkins, of course, are ripe when they are deep orange.
There are a few other clues that help determine ripeness:
- The squash feels heavy for its size.
- It sounds hollow when tapped.
- If you press your fingernail against the rind, the rind doesn’t break.
- The vines have died back (withered and dried) and the fruit’s stem is brown. (However, sometimes squash will not be fully ripe even if the vines die back. Don’t use this tip alone to determine if the squash is ready for harvesting.)
What if it’s Not-Quite Ripe?
Sometimes we need to pick squash that isn’t quite ripe. It might be growing too large (like my spaghetti squash) or a heavy frost may be forecast. One or two light frosts won’t hurt squash that’s ripe or almost ripe. But if you anticipate heavy frost or consistently low temperatures, it’s best to harvest your squash.
Let squash stay on the vine for as long as possible, even if you do eventually pick it before it’s completely ripe. (Very young squash, particularly those that fail the fingernail test, likely won’t ripen enough to eat and won’t keep well.) The closer harvested squash is to being fully ripe, the better it will taste once it’s ripened, and the longer it will keep. Once picked, let it continue to ripen and cure before using.
Curing Winter Squash
Except for acorn squash, winter squash should be cured before using or storing. To cure, just let harvested squash sit for 10-14 days in a warm location (indoors or out) that has good air circulation. Don’t let the fruit touch each other and don’t stack them. The curing process reduces the water content of squash, which 1) concentrates the fruit’s natural sugars, heightening its sweet taste; (2) slows the fruit’s respiration rate, which helps with storage; and, 3) reduces chances of rot. Curing also gives scratches and dents a chance to heal and further hardens the rind, which increases the amount of time the squash can be stored.
Storing Winter Squash
Always harvest winter squash by cutting them from the vines and leaving about two inches of the stem attached. Pulling or twisting the squash off may damage the stem, which can cause rot and shorten the fruit’s shelf life. Rinse the squash clean and remove any bits of blossom that might be stuck on the bottom.
The best candidates for storage are fully ripe, cured and unblemished squash with thick rinds. Place those in a dry, cool location (ideally 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit). Spreading them on a pallet will ensure good air circulation.
Acorn and delicata squash need to be used the soonest, as they have a 5-8 week shelf life. Buttercup and spaghetti squash as well as pumpkins may keep up to 4-6 months. Butternut squash keeps the longest, for up to 8 months.
Do you have any squash stored away for the winter? If so, do you have any other tips for making them keep longer? Let us know in the comments below.