Before I started gardening, I used to think winter squash referred to the squash that grew over winter.
Only after harvesting my very first “winter” squash did I realize all the pumpkins, hubbards, butternuts, and turbans that arrived at the turn of cool weather actually took three or four months to get there!
Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, Cucurbita mixta, and Cucurbita pepo are summer-growing annuals, maturing through the warmer months and storing through the winter (with some varieties even holding into the following spring).
Though you can use them right away (and what’s more soul-soothing than a butternut roasted to sugary sweetness as the weather turns cooler?), you can also save them for two, three, or even six months from now.
Curing your winter squash doesn’t take much more effort than it does to harvest them, and is well worth the extra step.
First, what’s the difference between winter squash and summer squash?
Winter squash are the pumpkins, gourds, and tough-skinned varieties you might find in a fall cornucopia.
With the exception of acorn and delicata squash (whose skins are soft and edible), winter squash have hard shells that need to be separated from the flesh.
Summer squash, on the other hand, have skins that are tender and full of flavor.
They include zucchini, yellow crookneck, zephyr, cousa, pattypan, and chayote squash. These types of squash are ready for harvest as soon as they reach an inch long, and it’s not uncommon to eat summer squash that still have blossoms attached.
Then there are squash that can fall into either category, depending on when they’re picked.
Zucchino rampicante (also called tromboncino squash or zuchetta) and tatuma (tatume) squash are two common varieties that can be harvested as summer squash and cooked the same way you’d cook zucchini.
If left to mature through the end of summer, however, they can be cured and stored like winter squash. Because their skins have hardened, they’re prepared like butternut squash at this stage.
Do you have to cure winter squash?
Technically, you don’t have to cure winter squash. You can pick immature winter squash at any stage of growth and eat it like summer squash, but the flavor of “green” squash won’t be as rich and sweet as fully ripe squash.
Immature winter squash won’t store well either, so they should be refrigerated soon after harvest.
When is the best time to harvest winter squash?
Winter squash are picked at the end of summer (typically from early September to early October) when their rinds have toughened up, their seeds have fully developed, and their vines have started to wither.
The leaves are the first sign of fruit maturity. Once they turn yellow on their own and the vines look like they’re on their way out (before frost hits), the squash should be fully ripe.
But don’t wait until the first frost!
Squash that have been hit with frost will not ripen or store well.
A tan, cracked, and hardened stem that’s died off is a good clue to look at; so is resistance to the stab of a fingernail.
You might make a slight dent in the skin, but you shouldn’t be able to puncture all the way through the flesh.
The squash should sound hollow when you give it a good thump with your hand, and the skin’s glossy sheen will give way to a duller tone.
At this stage, the water content of your winter squash is just right for harvest.
How to cure winter squash for storage
Once your winter squash have fully matured, cut the squash from the plant, leaving at least 3 inches of stem.
The stem is the fruit’s fail-safe seal against rot and disease, so avoid lifting it by the stem and instead hold it from the bottom.
Despite their burly appearance, winter squash actually require a little babying to keep them from spoiling. Treat them gently while their skins continue to toughen up and the sun heals any cuts or cracks that could lead to rotting later.
Squash may develop ground stains on their skin, which indicate where they laid on the ground while growing. These superficial spots are merely discolorations and have no effect on the flesh underneath.
A few minor marks on the surface are generally nothing to worry about, but these are the squash that should eventually be eaten first.
The same goes for squash that might be bruised or broken; they won’t keep well. Remember that any little ding will only get worse in storage and may also affect the quality of the other squash in the pantry.
Once you’ve harvested all your squash, lay them out in the sun in a warm, well-ventilated area (around 80°F to 85°F is ideal).
(Mine are simply spread out in the field where they’re not in the way of other garden chores.)
If there’s a threat of rain coming, move them inside to a dry, cozy place like an attic near a sunny window, a sun room, or a greenhouse, or even a sunny windowsill. Just don’t forget about them!
Winter squash need 7 to 14 days of warmth and sunlight to properly cure.
In that time, the fruit continues to “breathe” but as its skin hardens, the rate of respiration (and thus the rate of spoilage) slows down. The harder the skin is, the longer it will keep in storage.
Think of the hardened skin as a protective layer of armor; it makes the squash impervious to mold and bacteria. Curing also concentrates the natural sugars in squash, making them sweeter and richer.
I like to turn my squash over after one week and let the other side soak up some sun for the remaining week. Under cloudy or humid conditions, allow at least two weeks per side.
How to store winter squash for peak flavor
Once they’re fully sun-cured, store your squash in a cool, dry, and well-ventilated area with an ambient room temperature below 70°F.
Very cold conditions (anything under 50°F) will shorten storage life.
Don’t just lump all your squash together into a large bin and call it good. Stash them in a single layer on a shelf (preferably not touching each other) with ample air circulation, in a spot where they’re easy to check on throughout the season.
You want to keep an eye out for blemishes and soft spots. If any dark marks begin to appear on the squash, move it away from the other squash and plan to use it up first. Those marks (which resemble water stains) will eventually coalesce and become water-soaked, causing the entire squash to collapse in rot.
Winter Squash Storage Chart
|Squash Variety||Average Shelf Life|
|Acorn (see Note below)||1 to 2 months|
|Delicata||2 to 3 months|
|Spaghetti||2 to 3 months|
|Pumpkin||2 to 3 months|
|Butternut||3 to 6 months|
|Buttercup||3 to 6 months|
|Turban||3 to 6 months|
|Banana||3 to 6 months|
|Kabocha||4 to 6 months|
|Hubbard||4 to 6 months|
|Red-Skinned Hubbard (Red Kuri)||4 to 6 months|
|Cushaw||4 to 6 months|
In general, the harder and thicker the rind, the longer it will store.
Note: Acorn squash is an exception to the curing rule, as it actually declines in quality if left in the sun. It keeps (without curing) in ideal pantry conditions for a month or two at most.
Sometimes I’ll get lucky and a squash will store longer than expected. I love to pull out, say, a hubbard in March — a squash that I’d harvested back in August! With only a couple of winter squash plants, you could be set on soups and roasts until the following spring when the weather finally turns warmer.
Common questions about curing winter squash
How do you ripen immature winter squash?
If winter arrives early and your winter squash are still green on the vine, here’s a simple test to see if they have a chance of surviving: give them a good tap with your hand.
If the fruits feel and sound solid, and have begun to change color, you can harvest them and ripen them indoors in front of a sunny window. Watch them carefully and turn the squash every few days until they reach the proper color for eating. At that point, you can store them in a cool and dry place.
Immature squash that were cured in this way may not last as long as squash that were ripened on the vine, so keep an eye on them and try to use them up within a couple months.
Can you eat the rind of winter squash?
Technically, the rind (or skin) of all winter squash is edible. There’s no danger to consuming it — it’s just a matter of texture and personal preference.
The thicker the skin, the greater chance it has of remaining chewy and tough even after it’s cooked.
That’s why thin-skinned winter squash like red kuri and delicata are culinary darlings: their skins practically melt away after sauteing or take on a pleasantly crisp texture after roasting. You may also have some luck with petite varieties of kabocha or butternut squash, which don’t necessarily need to be peeled.
Should you refrigerate winter squash?
Do not refrigerate winter squash, as it will shorten their lifespan. If they’re well cured, they’ll keep perfectly well in the pantry (and keep longer if the ambient room temperature stays on the cooler side between 60°F and 70°F).
You only need to refrigerate winter squash if it’s been cut or cooked.
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on August 20, 2014.