Drying squash can be rewarding. Learn how to do it using the sun or a dehydrator and incorporate it into soups, stews and more.
In The Resilient Gardener (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010) scientist and gardener Carol Deppe combines her passion for gardening with newly emerging scientific information from many fields—resilience science, climate change, sustainable agriculture and more. In this book you’ll learn how to garden in an era of unpredictable weather and climate change; grow, store and cook different varieties of her five “key crops”; and keep a home laying flock of ducks or chickens. Deppe didn’t just write this book, she lives the principles in it every day, and you can, too, with her expert advice. In this excerpt from chapter 10, “Squash and Pumpkins,” learn how drying squash increases the versatility of your preserving and cooking, and make flavorful soups and stews once the season is over.
You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The Resilient Gardener.
For Buffalo Bird Woman, the Hidatsa Indian featured in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, it was dry slices of immature squash that were the main squash staple, not fully mature squash. I love growing squash. And Buffalo Bird Woman had a production system for dried squash that looked very efficient as well as fun. So I studied the text and pictures in the book for hours.
Buffalo Bird Woman and other Hidatsa and Mandan Indian women harvested their squash when they were about fist-sized. (We don’t know what varieties they were using. Their squash varied in color and shape, and they may not have been pure varieties.) At this stage, the squash skin was still tender and the seeds immature enough to be palatable. That is, the squash were being harvested at the summer squash stage. It was slices of summer squash, including the seed cavities and immature seeds, that were dried.
The picked squash were cut into slices about 3/8-inch thick. The ends were set aside. The rest of the slices were skewered onto sharpened willow sticks through the soft pulp in the middle of the seed cavities, and the slices were then separated along the stick to allow airflow between them. Each stick with its squash was then placed on a raised drying rack in the sun. The squash took several days to dry completely. If rain threatened, the entire frame with all the sticks of squash was covered with hides.
After the squash was dried, a second, thinner willow stick with a piece of string attached was threaded through the holes of the squash on each stick. (This is while the slices were still on the first stick. The holes around the stick expand as the squash dries.) Then the squash was efficiently transferred from the stick to the needle-stick to the string. Each string of squash was tied into a circle and then hung indoors or hidden with corn and other dry staples in buried food caches.
When Buffalo Bird Woman made a stew, she threw ground corn, beans, meat and fat, and an entire string of dried squash into the pot and boiled it until the corn and beans were done. At this point, the squash had softened and fallen off the string and broken up, and the string (still tied in a circle) was removed.
When I read all this, of course I had to try dried squash. But what about varieties? I didn’t have whatever variety Buffalo Bird Woman was using, if it even was a pure variety. Would different varieties taste different? Would I like the flavor of dried squash of any variety? Would I like it well enough to do the work of drying? And could dried squash be produced in Oregon? I decided to start backward. What did dried squash taste like? Would I like it? These were questions I could answer by just drying some squash in a dehydrator and skipping the issue of Oregon’s weather. If I didn’t like dried squash, I wouldn’t need to figure out how to produce it.
What varieties should I try? Where should I start? Oftentimes when I ask this kind of question, I factor in a huge dose of cheerful optimism. What would be the best possible answer? What answer would make growing and drying squash most practical? I look for that answer first.
The best option, I decided, would be if I could produce great dried squash from varieties I already grow for other reasons. The large, viney varieties of prime winter squash I grow mostly wouldn’t be suitable, though, I thought. Those plants need the full energy of the plant and the full growing season to produce and sweeten their big winter squash. Their quality and productivity would be sabotaged if I asked them to also crank out lots of immature fruits. What would be optimal is if standard summer squash varieties could produce good dried squash using the bigger summer squash that are past their prime for use as summer squash. Summer squash plants are mostly bushes that are in the business of cranking out huge amounts of immature fruits. Summer squash also have a tendency to “get away from you,” that is, to grow, seemingly overnight, from tiny fruits into squash that are too big to be really useful as high-quality summer squash. What would be most wonderful and practical would be if these bigger “escapee” summer squashes were delicious dried. Bigger squash would also give more food for each motion of picking or slicing. Of summer squash, my favorite variety, as mentioned above, is ‘Costata Romanesca’. So I started there.
I started out making 3/8-inch slices, as Buffalo Bird Woman did, but dried them in a dehydrator at 125°F. Dried ‘Costata Romanesca’ quickly proved to be powerfully delicious. The flavor of the dried squash was unique and distinctive, and so wonderful I would have been happy to grow the variety for dried squash alone. (The flavor was much more powerful and quite different from the flavor of ‘Costata Romanesca’ as a summer squash.) I was inspired to check out some other varieties.
The next squash I tried was ‘Dark Green Zucchini’. It produced dried squash that tasted like, well, nothing. It had virtually no flavor. Many other varieties also produced bland dried squash that were, as far as I was concerned, not worth the effort. Variety was everything. Some varieties produced spectacularly delicious, rich, flavorful dried squash, squash that tasted so delicious in soups and stews that I rapidly expanded from a small round dehydrator to a big Excalibur, primarily just to produce dried squash. Here’s a summary of the drying quality of selected varieties:
1. Most of the green zucchini varieties, including ‘Seneca F1’, ‘Dark Green’, ‘Spineless Beauty’, and ‘Nimba’, produce bland, virtually tasteless dried squash. One very dark green zuke variety whose label was lost produced a dried flavor that was actually foul.
2. ‘Costata Romanesca’, ‘White Egyptian’, and ‘Magda F1’ produce very delicious dried squash that taste similar to each other. Of these, ‘Costata Romanesca’ is best for drying for size reasons, and because it actually has a higher dry matter content to start with. So you get more food for your processing work.
3. ‘Golden Zucchini’, ‘Golden Bush Zucchini’, and ‘Gold Rush F1’ produce delicious dry squash of a completely different flavor class than ‘Costata Romanesca’.
4. I tried drying many winter squash too, just to check out the flavors. Some had foul flavors. ‘Sweet Meat’, ‘Sunshine F1’, ‘Black Hubbard’, and ‘Chicago Hubbard’ are all delicious dried and give a third, completely different flavor.
5. My initial supposition, that it would be impractical to dry winter squash, turned out to be only generally true. There are useful exceptions. ‘Sweet Meat’ sometimes produces a late flush of immature fruits that can be dried. And if you treat a few of your ‘Sunshine F1’ bushes as summer squash and keep them harvested, they will act like summer squash and crank out flush after flush of fruit great for drying.
6. I dried one medium green-colored zucchini I bought in a store that was spectacularly delicious dried. It made a dried-squash flavor that was yet again different from the three other flavors I’ve found. It also had a powerful, rich flavor when stir-fried. I have been unable to locate its variety name. However, that experience did prove to me that there is at least one green zucchini in the world with a rich flavor when stir-fried and a great flavor dried.
7. There are many other summer squashes and zucchinis that have shapes or sizes that don’t lend themselves to drying. ‘Yellow Crookneck’ and ‘Sunray F1’, a yellow straightneck, are summer squash that develop a hard skin and unpalatable seeds by the time they are at the right stage for drying, for example. The scallop shape doesn’t lend itself to making slices, and the scallop varieties generally develop tough skins and/or unpalatable seeds before they are at a good size for drying.
The best stage for drying most squash is when the squash is 1 to 4 pounds, depending upon the variety. ‘Costata Romanesca’ is a variety that, if allowed to mature fully, produces squash that are up to 3 feet long. It is an especially nice summer squash, with good flavor and a firm texture (even after cooking), and it is tasty as a summer squash when harvested at up to about a pound in size. The skin is tender and the seeds are immature enough to be palatable up to about 3 or 4 pounds. In fact, the little 1-pound squash are not the most flavorful when dried. It is the bigger squash, 1 pound and up, that taste best dried. Even 4-pound Romanescas can be sliced and dried. However, squash in the 1- to 3-pound range yield a larger amount of dry squash per pound of fresh squash. ‘Romanesca’ skin stays tender until the squash are very big, however, and it is tenderness of the skin and maturity of the seeds that determines when a squash is too big to dry. This varies with the variety. If the seeds develop far enough so that the seed coats are tough and unpalatable, you can still halve the fruit, remove the seeds, and slice and dry the flesh. (But you can’t dry such pieces on sticks.) Once the skin has begun to toughen, the fruit is too big for drying, even deseeded.
‘Costata Romanesca’ stays tender-skinned so long because it is planning to be a 3-foot-long squash. So a ‘Romanesca’ squash that is 4 pounds is still a baby with a tender skin and edible immature seeds. The slices are about 3 to 5 inches across, representing a significant amount of food for each slicing motion. Most summer squash varieties don’t get nearly so big. When the final squash size is 4 pounds for many varieties, they are at or near full size and have tough skins and inedible seeds. When the squash is intending to be a small squash, you don’t have much leeway after the summer-squash stage in which to catch fruits of the right size for drying. You can dry smaller fruits, fruits in the summer-squash stage, but that is counterproductive and inefficient. You don’t get much dried food for picking and drying dozens of small zucchinis. And they must be dried in a dehydrator; they aren’t wide enough and don’t have big enough seed cavities to work well on sticks. Furthermore, the tiny fruits have less flavor dried than the bigger ones. In addition, the thing that is most practical for gardeners is having something to do with the summer squash that escape from the prime summer squash stage.
I would suggest you start off drying squash first with ‘Costata Romanesca’ and with a big gold zucchini such as ‘Golden Bush Zucchini’ or ‘Gold Rush F1’. That will give you two very different, delicious flavors. Second, I recommend you just try drying whatever summer squash you like that are of the right shapes and sizes for it and see if you end up with something delicious.
I dried my first squash in a little round dehydrator. It was inadequate for anything but experiments. I next tried drying on sticks like Buffalo Bird Woman. Buffalo Bird Woman used willow sticks whose dimensions she specified exactly. (It matters. Thicker sticks break the squash slices and they fall off. Thinner sticks cut through the squash slices under the weight of the squash, and the slices fall off.) I approximated with dowels. With a little experimenting, I settled on a 1/2” x 4’ dowel as the ideal modern squash stick. (In actuality, 1/2-inch dowels are slightly thinner than a real 1/2-inch diameter. Home Depot carries 4-foot dowel lengths.) My first version of a drying rack involved just pounding some nails into two wood beams that were supports for the second-floor deck, and that happened to be the right distance apart to support squash-sticks. I left the squash slices outdoors for several days. Even though it was August and as dry as any of our August weather ever gets, the squash didn’t dry. We have moist, cool nights even in August, with heavy dew on the ground each morning. The squash made progress on drying during the afternoons, then re-hydrated each night and morning.
So next I tried putting the squash sticks outdoors and bringing them indoors each night. That actually did work. But it was a pain. I could only move one squash-stick at a time, so that meant a trip between the house and the deck for every squash stick every night and morning; and it took at least three or four days to do the drying. It just wasn’t my sort of thing.
Meanwhile, by this time, inspired by the flavor of dried-squash soup and stew, I had splurged and bought a nine-tray Excalibur dehydrator. This dehydrator allowed me to get into serious squash drying. I developed four basic styles when drying squash using a dehydrator.
Big rounds. In the first style, I slice the squash 3/8 inch thick, just as for stick drying, but put the slices on the dehydrator trays instead and set the thermostat at 125°F. It usually takes about a day to dry the slices. The slices don’t stick to the trays and don’t have to be turned over. However, to save drying time, I usually turn the trays around about two-thirds of the way through the drying. I dry until the slices are brittle. Then I transfer them (quickly, while still hot) to plastic bags. (They absorb moisture from the air rapidly.)
Chips. I got the idea of making chips from the Excalibur company’s book on dehydration, Preserve It Naturally II: The Complete Guide To Food Dehydration. For chips I cut the squash into slices about 3/16 inch thick. When the shape of the fruit is round, as with ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Sweet Meat’, I halve each fruit lengthwise first, then slice the halves. Otherwise it’s hard to get even enough chips by hand. The 3/16-inch thickness gives a chip that is just the right thickness to eat out of hand, and thick enough to use as a dipper. The C. pepo squash make better chips to use with bean dip or salsa, as they aren’t very sweet. ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Sweet Meat’ chips are a little too sweet for that role, and are most delicious eaten plain. ‘Sunshine’ is our favorite squash for making sweet chips. We now devote a few ‘Sunshine’ plants completely to providing squash for chips. We keep them picked and cranking out young fruits just like summer squash plants. (The rest of the ‘Sunshine’ plants we leave alone to produce prime winter squash.)
Chip-sliced squash take about half a day to dry in the Excalibur, and don’t have to be turned. Squash chips are very hygroscopic (absorb moisture quickly), so I take them out of their plastic bag only a handful at a time. If I dump out a whole bowlful, the last to be eaten will be soft instead of crunchy.
Slivers. I cut the squash into quarters or appropriate pieces lengthways, then push the pieces through a salad shooter and aim the flow of slices at an Excalibur dehydrator tray placed over a large cutting board. I move the salad shooter around to get a more or less even pile of slices about 1/2” thick that covers the entire tray. Then I rearrange a little by hand. I can fit about a pound of slices per Excalibur tray. I dry the trays for several hours, then rustle up and rearrange the bits on each tray by hand when they have partially dried. Making the slivers and drying them is more work than drying 3/8-inch rounds. Their big advantage is they re-hydrate faster—more like 15 minutes in a soup instead of 45.
Squash powder. You can make squash powder by putting dry (brittle) squash rounds in a blender or coffee grinder and letting the blades chew them up. (This was another idea suggested by the Excalibur dehydration book.) The squash powder makes great soups and stews.
I put my dried squash rounds or chips in food-grade plastic bags and put the bags in heavy plastic buckets with lids. (Insects sometimes eat through plastic bags.) The dried slivers I press into glass jars, not minding if they break up further. Squash powder also goes into glass jars.
Dried squash seems to keep indefinitely without losing quality in any obvious way. (That represents a storage life greater than that of beans, which do lose quality obviously if kept more than about a year.) I have had batches of soup based mostly upon dried squash that was six years old, and it was as tasty and delicious as ever. Undoubtedly, though, vitamin losses do occur with long-term drying and storing.
After a few years of drying squash in an Excalibur dehydrator, I started wanting much more dried squash. I began to covet Buffalo Bird Woman her drying rack with dozens of sticks of drying squash. By this time, Nate and I had joined forces, and he had tasted enough dried-squash-based soups and stews to be eager to help make more of them possible. We wanted lots more dried squash. So we conferred. The result was a simple, portable squash drying rack that can be used indoors or out. The rack could be placed in an appropriate plastic tunnel to make a solar drying situation with drawstring-closed vents that could be closed at night. If we had a woodstove, we could put it next to that. The entire rack full of squash could be moved from outdoors to indoors easily at night. And the rack could even be used indoors in front of a fan. We didn’t know quite how we would be using the rack. We wanted many options.
Our rack is a simple frame made from four pieces of 2 x 2 inch lumber cut down into the appropriate sizes, four right-angle corner braces, some screws and some nails. Our rack is an upright rectangular frame 6 feet high and a bit under 4 feet wide, with rows of nails down the two vertical sides to support the squash sticks. The rack is supported in an upright position simply by leaning the top crosspiece against something, or it can be propped into an A shape with a forked stick.
A couple of details turned out to be missing from the account of squash drying in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden. First, it is necessary to oil the dowels initially. Otherwise the squash slices dry onto the sticks more or less permanently, and the sticks have to be scraped or scoured before they can be reused. So I make a squash stick by whittling one end of a 4’ × 1/2” dowel into a gentle 3-inch point, and then I saturate the entire length of the dowel with olive oil, leave it overnight, then wipe away the excess. The stick only needs to be oiled once.
Second, it is useful to jiggle or rearrange the squash slices partway through the drying process to loosen them from the stick. After that, the slices dry loose and are easy to remove.
In my first effort to use my new drying rack, I decided, as usual, to be maximally optimistic. What would be the most convenient for me if it worked? I decided to try just drying the squash indoors in front of a fan. In summer, I have a heavy fan positioned so as to blow air from windows in the rest of the house through the kitchen door and out the kitchen windows at night. (It’s almost always quite cool at night. Just opening windows at night and closing them in the morning is the traditional Oregonian concept of air conditioning.) If the squash rack were in the dining room near that fan, I thought, I could simply swing the fan around to dry squash during the day when the windows are closed. And the squash rack would be just a few feet away from the kitchen where I wash and slice the squash.
So I simply propped the squash rack up in front of the fan right there in the dining room. I did not really expect this scheme to work. That first batch of squash dried pretty well in about four days, though. That is about as good as Buffalo Bird Woman was doing outdoors with full sun. A big fan is a powerful tool. My squash dried to a stage that was leathery, and just short of brittle. That isn’t good enough for chips, but it’s fine for rounds.
Sometimes I “finish” the stick-dried squash in my Excalibur. For chips or for making powdered squash, I need dried-to-brittle squash. It’s easy to finish the dried squash in the Excalibur, because the slices have dried into all kinds of shapes and aren’t flat any more. So I remove two-thirds of the Excalibur trays, make a big pile of dried squash on each of the three remaining trays, and finish the squash to brittle dryness in just a few hours (without any turning of squash or trays).
My squash rack can hold up to eight squash sticks placed at 6 inches apart. For the sizes of squash I dry, those that are about 1 to 3 pounds per squash, three squash will fit on each stick. So a full load is about twenty-four squash, or about 48 pounds of squash per full rack at an average of 2 pounds per squash.
Dried squash are (very) roughly 5 percent dry matter, so 48 pounds of fresh squash consolidate down to roughly 2.4 pounds of dried squash. Dried squash is concentrated food. The bulk of our dry squash these days is rounds dried on the rack. The main use is for soups and stews.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010. Buy this book from our store: The Resilient Gardener.
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