Learn about the squash varieties available throughout three seasons, how to cure them and how to cook them to reap the full flavor of each season.
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 about the different squash varieties available in winter, fall and summer.
You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The Resilient Gardener.
Big, long-storing max squash are ideal for the primary homestead squash food supply. It is much easier to harvest, or open and clean one 20-pound squash than twenty 1-pound squashes. In addition, the small squash are mostly skin and seeds. The bigger squash has a much higher proportion of flesh. For the main food supply, I prefer a squash as big as possible, up to about 22 pounds, which is the largest size I can bake in the oven. Baked mashed squash freezes well, so having a small family is no reason to forgo growing the big squash that do the most efficient job of providing us with serious amounts of food.
‘Sweet Meat-Oregon Homestead’
Nate and I grow ‘Sweet Meat–Oregon Homestead’ as our major winter squash. This is a 16 to 24 pound slate-blue-gray, disk-shaped squash with very sweet, rich-flavored flesh that is unsurpassed in quality. The flesh is up to 3 1/2 inches thick. The seed cavity is tiny. Given the size of fruit and thickness and dryness of the meat, this squash is by far the best one for producing serious amounts of truly gourmet-quality food with minimal labor. (A ‘Sweet Meat–Oregon Homestead’ will give you about three times as much food as a ‘Blue Hubbard’ of equal size.) The baked squash freezes well. I ordinarily bake a squash, eat a meal of it, make a couple of pies from it, then freeze the rest. The next time I want squash, I open another and repeat. By late spring, I’ve processed all the squash and have a year’s supply frozen. Baked mashed ‘Sweet Meat’ squash is the main vegetable I freeze.
‘Sweet Meat’ squash is an Oregon heirloom with huge seeds and a capability of germinating in cold mud and growing vigorously in cool weather. The plants have big vines that run 20 feet in all directions. However, the commercial ‘Sweet Meat’ has deteriorated and no longer has thick flesh, big seeds, or an ability to excel in typical Oregon spring weather. I searched for years to find a line that was still not too badly deteriorated, then reselected it for the original virtues. The results, after a few years and more than a ton of squash, is ‘Sweet Meat–Oregon Homestead’.
With all other varieties of squash I have grown, the immature or undersized late fruits on the vine don’t keep well. However, even the immature and subprime fruits of ‘Sweet Meat’ squash keep well. They don’t continue to sweeten as prime fruits do. But they don’t deteriorate either. When properly harvested and stored, nearly every ‘Sweet Meat’ will keep without losing quality until the following summer or even longer. The fact that even the culls of ‘Sweet Meat’ keep well matters. Those culls are one of the major foods for my duck flock in winter and spring.
Using ‘Sweet Meat’
Eat no ‘Sweet Meat’ squash before its time. I follow the old Oregon tradition, and open the first of the ‘Sweet Meats’ for Thanksgiving. I open the squash with a big bowie knife and a rubber mallet so as to get exact halves. Many people open them with a hatchet. (The thick, leathery skin plus thick flesh are a bit much for an ordinary kitchen knife.)
One traditional way of fixing ‘Sweet Meat’ is to cut it into 3-inch squares—which are 2 to 3 1/2 inches deep, depending upon just where they were on the fruit—then bake the squares, flesh side up. Prepared this way, the outside of the flesh dries and caramelizes and is like candy, with an inner core of soft, sweet squash. Such chunks of ‘Sweet Meat’ squash are often taken to potlucks and served, hot or cold, as finger food.
My usual approach, however, is to bake a ‘Sweet Meat’ by cutting it in half, removing the seeds, and placing the two halves cut side down on a baking sheet and baking at 350°F until the squash is soft all the way through. (I use a rack position midway in the oven.) I don’t scrape or clean the fruit’s inside surface before cooking; I just remove the seeds. The coarser flesh near the seed cavity helps protect the rest from drying out and is easier to remove when cooked. The squash partly bakes and partly steams. The halves generally take 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours. After the squash is soft all the way through when poked with a fork, I remove the baking sheet with the squash, chop off what is wanted for the immediate meal, and set the rest aside to cool.
I usually mash ‘Sweet Meat’ squash with a little salt and butter, though it also tastes great just plain. Adding sugar is overkill and would make the squash overly sweet. In fact, sometimes I take the opposite approach and make Lemony ‘Sweet Meat’ or Limey ‘Sweet Meat’, in which I add butter, salt, and a little fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice for a delightful sweet-and-sour effect. Sometimes I use a pint of frozen ‘Sweet Meat’ as the basis for a sweet-and-sour stir-fry or a hot-and-sweet-and-sour soup. This variety is also the squash I usually use for pies.
I usually don’t grow hybrid squash varieties, as they aren’t compatible with my desire to save my own seeds. In addition, the best hybrid squash generally don’t have the flavor and quality of the best open-pollinated lines. ‘Sunshine F1’, a brilliant red, disc-shaped squash bred by Rob Johnston of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, is an exception. It weighs about 3 to 5 pounds and is a little moister than ‘Sweet Meat’. The flesh is just as fine-textured, however, and almost as sweet. The flavor is somewhat different but equally delicious. ‘Sunshine’ is the only red squash I’ve ever had that is top-quality. (‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’, for example, is equally scarlet but is coarse in texture, watery, and lacking in flavor. ‘Delicious’ isn’t especially delicious; neither is ‘Boston Marrow’.) The flesh thickness of ‘Sunshine’ is comparable to the better squash of its size. ‘Sunshines’ keep until January when harvested and cured as I describe, only improving in quality the entire time. (They deteriorate rapidly thereafter.) ‘Sunshine’ fruits have a medium-thick leathery skin that is easy to cut open without resorting to heroic tactics. The plant is early and is a vigorous half-bush type. It can produce prime squash here in Oregon even in cool summers or on limited water.
We like the max part of our squash patch to have plenty of ‘Sunshines’ as well as ‘Sweet Meats’. The ‘Sweet Meat’ is a full-season squash that produces the most food the most efficiently in most years. But sometimes circumstances don’t cooperate, and we don’t really have a full season. In those years, the ‘Sweet Meats’ may not fully mature. ‘Sunshine’ gives us those spectacular flashes of red in the pumpkin patch at harvest each year, but is also what we depend upon to produce gourmet-quality squash even from a late planting or when the season is truncated or things go wrong. ‘Sweet Meat’ makes superb squash only when it’s well grown. ‘Sunshine’, on the other hand, seems to make superb squash even when poorly grown.
One year Nate grew a dryland garden here in maritime Oregon, where it doesn’t rain all summer. He bucket-irrigated each squash plant twice—that is, gave each plant two buckets of water twice during the season, for a total of 20 gallons per plant. The buckets were 5-gallon buckets with small pinholes in them that fed the water out slowly. Most squash plants of most varieties were so stunted using this growing system that they produced nothing. The ‘Sweet Meat’ and the ‘Sunshine’, however, both produced decent amounts of good-looking fruits, in spite of the water limitation. The ‘Sweet Meat’ fruits, though, were subprime and inferior. We fed them all to the ducks and Nate’s cow and pig. The ‘Sunshines’ were prime. The other winter squash varieties that produced prime fruit under these conditions was ‘Katy Stokes’ Sugar Meat’. (‘Sweet Meat’–finished pork, by the way, is spectacularly delicious. The meat is actually sweet, and the distinctive flavor and aroma of the squash is unmistakable.)
In 2009, when Nate and I got such a late start on our newly leased land, we planted fewer ‘Sweet Meats’ and more ‘Sunshines’. We weren’t sure we would have enough time for the ‘Sweet Meats’ to fully mature. That proved to be a good choice. On top of the late start, we had a cool summer. The ‘Sweet Meats’ that year were good compared with most squash but not nearly what they can be—not prime. The ‘Sunshines’, though, were as spectacular as ever.
‘Katy Stokes’ Sugar Meat’
Oregonian Katy Stokes maintained her own line of ‘Sweet Meat’, and each year as she ate the squash, she saved seed from the very sweetest fruit. I believe ‘Katy Stokes’ Sugar Meat’ represents a cross between ‘Sweet Meat’ squash and a smaller blue squash, which Katy Stokes then stabilized. ‘Sugar Meat’ plants are vigorous vines. The fruits are less than half the size of ‘Sweet Meat’, running 5–12 pounds. The flesh is as thick as other varieties its size and is, if anything, sweeter even than ‘Sweet Meat’. The flavor of ‘Sugar Meat’ is excellent, much better than that of most squash, and right up there in that elite league with ‘Sweet Meat’, ‘Buttercup’, and ‘Sunshine’. I prefer the more multidimensional flavor of well-grown ‘Sweet Meat’, as well as its size and thickness of flesh—in a good year. However, ‘Sugar Meat’ squash are considerably better than ‘Sweet Meat’ in a bad year. In the year of Nate’s dryland garden experiment, with the squash limited to 20 gallons of water per plant for the season, ‘Katy Stokes’ Sugar Meat’ (along with ‘Sunshine’) produced prime food, while the ‘Sweet Meats’ were used only for savory dishes and duck food.
‘Katy Stokes’ Sugar Meat’ was initially introduced by Nichols Garden Nursery under the name ‘Katy’s Sweet Sweet Meat’. It is becoming popular in markets around here as ‘Sweet Meat’, which causes confusion. (Modifiers tend to get lost in marketing.) Nichols, with Katy’s concurrence, has subsequently changed the name to ‘Katy Stokes’ Sugar Meat’. ‘Katy Stokes’ Sugar Meat’ is a completely new, unique variety, with a different size and flavor from ‘Sweet Meat’, and with its own special virtues. Market growers as well as gardeners should take note.
This squash is an all-time classic heirloom squash. It is a blocky, dark green squash of 3 to 5 pounds with a button at the end. ‘Buttercup’ is a vigorous, productive vine. It’s generally better quality than most of the variant Buttercup varieties that have been bred and introduced since.
There are many Hubbard varieties that are especially popular in New England, with ‘Blue Hubbard’ the one most mentioned with respect to quality. The name ‘Hubbard’ seems to represent a shape—fat in the middle and pointy at the two ends—more than a genetic ancestry. Traditional Hubbard varieties were big squash, with some varieties going to 50 pounds or more. The classic ‘Blue Hubbard’ has flesh about 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick and a rich, distinctive flavor. There are now also many smaller Hubbard varieties.
In my Oregon garden, ‘Sweet Meat–Oregon Homestead’ far outperforms any of a half dozen Hubbard varieties I have tried, for quantity of flesh per weight of fruit, sweetness, flavor, fine-grained texture, and keeping ability. I also prefer the thick, leathery skin of the ‘Sweet Meat’ to the hard shell of the Hubbard. The ‘Sweet Meat’ skin is thick enough to give good protection to the fruit but can still be eaten by livestock such as pigs and milk cows. My ducks clean up all the bits of cooked ‘Sweet Meat’ skin with its bits of squash clinging. They can’t make as good use of squash with a hard shell. The hard-shelled Hubbards have some advantages, however. Sometimes a deer gets in the field near the end of the season and takes bites out of some of the ‘Sweet Meats’. The bites usually heal, but mold often starts there, so the bitten fruits need to be eaten within two months. Deer don’t seem to bother the Hubbards. Sometimes a gopher or other rodent burrows into a ‘Sweet Meat’ from below, leaving not much more than an empty skin to harvest. I have never had that problem with a Hubbard.
To open a hard-shelled squash such as the Hubbards, I don’t cut them. I take them outside and drop them on the driveway from about waist height. Usually they break cleanly into two halves, lightly held together by flesh and pulp. If the squash doesn’t break, drop it from higher up. I bake and use Hubbards just like ‘Sweet Meats’, except they bake faster because the flesh is thinner.
Hubbards may be slate blue, deep green, orange, and even black, which can help round out the color palette in the squash display.
‘Sibley’ is a slate-blue, banana-shaped or tear drop-shaped squash of up to about 30 pounds. It has a leathery skin. The flavor of ‘Sibley’ is delicious and is distinctively different from that of ‘Sweet Meat’, ‘Sunshine’, the Hubbards, and most other squash varieties. The plants are vines.
‘Flat White Boer’ is a very flattened, big, disk-shaped squash of up to 30 pounds that grows on a viney plant. It has fine-grained yellow flesh of excellent texture and flavor, and the flavor is distinctively different from all the squash already mentioned. The flesh is also moister than those already mentioned and is very thick, about 3 inches or more; the seed cavity is tiny. I know of no other white squash or pumpkin that is worth growing if you actually want to eat it. ‘Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato’ and ‘Cream of the Crop’ are white acorns (pepos) that are fine-grained and have thick flesh for the size of the fruit, but they have very little flavor. The white pumpkin ‘Lumina’ has thin, coarse, awful-tasting flesh. ‘Manteca White’ (a max) is coarse in texture with less flavor and sugar than the squash that make my seven-squash short list.
(The ‘Guatemalan Blue Banana’, a hard-shelled banana squash with pointed ends that I once loved, doesn’t appear to exist anymore. Nothing now being sold or distributed by that name resembles what I once grew. Only the name has been preserved, not the variety. Alas, that I did not hoard or save the seeds when I had the chance.)
When it comes to C. pepo species, acorn varieties have to be mentioned because they are so popular in markets. None of them, though, approach the quality of the delicatas. Most people who like acorns put lots of sugar or syrup on them. If you are one of those people, try some delicatas, or any of the seven max squash in the preceding section and skip the artificial sweeteners.
The sweetest and most spectacularly flavorful pepo squash are the delicata varieties. They are small squash, ranging from about 1/2 to 2 pounds. My favorites are the tan delicata varieties ‘Sugar Loaf–Hessel’ and ‘Honeyboat’. These are the sweetest and have the richest and most complex flavor as well as the driest flesh. Other good delicata squash varieties include ‘Delicata JSS’, ‘Zeppelin Delicata’, ‘Cornell Bush Delicata’, and ‘Sweet Dumpling’. The ‘Sweet Dumpling’ is dumpling-shaped; the rest are shaped like short, fat zucchinis. ‘Sugar Loaf–Hessel’ and some ‘Cornell Bush’ plants give shorter, fatter fruits than the others.
Except for ‘Cornell Bush’, a PVP (plant variety protected, that is, a proprietary variety), the delicata varieties all have a vining growth habit. ‘Cornell Bush’ is said to be resistant to powdery mildew, but that resistance amounts to only about one week in our fields. Disease resistance is usually to particular disease lines, and which line is usually present can vary by region. So the powdery-mildew resistance of ‘Cornell Bush’ may matter more elsewhere. I’ve found the ‘Cornell Bush’ as commercially available now to be somewhat variable in quality and not quite as good as it was immediately after its release a few years ago. (The fact that ‘Cornell Bush’ is a PVP is usually not listed in seed catalogs. I consider this situation inappropriate. I think when we buy seed, we have a right to assume we are buying full rights to it unless told otherwise.)
Delicatas can be baked, and taste spectacular baked if you get one with thick enough flesh and can bake it without scorching it. I bake only the biggest of the delicatas. I halve them lengthwise, remove the seeds, and bake them cut side down, as described for ‘Sweet Meat’.
My usual way to fix delicatas, however, is to prick each whole fruit to release steam, put them in a pot of water, hold them submerged with an upside-down steamer basket weighted down with a rock, and boil them until they are soft. This method works as well for thinner-fleshed fruits as for perfect ones. In addition, it cuts the prep time to almost nothing, since it is so much easier to cut open and remove the seeds from a cooked delicata.
I normally dress a delicata only with butter and salt. Occasionally, I make Lemon Squash by dressing with butter, salt, and lemon juice.
The other particularly noteworthy C. pepo squash I like is ‘New England Pie’, a.k.a. ‘Small Sugar Pie’. This little orange pumpkin is only about 4 to 6 pounds at best (with many fruits being smaller). The vine doesn’t grow all that vigorously, and the fruit matures and turns orange only late in the season, and only if encouraged. “Come along there, li’l pun’kin babies, you can do it, you can do it, I know you can.” That is what I tend to say when I’m not at all sure they can. But they do. Takes ’em the full season, though.
‘Small Sugar’ is not sweet by squash standards. It’s only sweet compared to other pumpkins, that is, ornamental or livestock-feed pumpkins. ‘Small Sugar’ has a fine texture. But again, only by pumpkin standards. Its texture is not fine compared with the C. maxima squash I featured, or the delicatas. However, ‘Small Sugar’ has a unique flavor. The flavor is totally different from that of all other squash or pumpkins and is wonderful in pies. That distinctive flavor and the fact that ‘Small Sugar’ is not so sweet means that ‘Small Sugar’ is a better general-purpose culinary vegetable than the sweeter squashes.
Baked mashed flesh of ‘Small Sugar’ is my favorite fall squash or pumpkin for soups and stews. I also love to season the mashed flesh with butter, salt, and cumin and serve it mashed-potato style, with meat and gravy layered on top. Or I put down a layer of the squash in a Pyrex pie plate, then a layer of cheese, then bake the dish long enough to melt the cheese. Another of my favorites is a layer of squash with chili on top. All these dishes work because ‘Small Sugar’ has a distinctive great flavor but is not very sweet.
The last three years that I have tried to grow ‘Small Sugar’, seed from three different sources proved to be either crossed up or didn’t have the characteristic flavor of ‘Small Sugar’. Some were sweet, a step in the wrong direction for my purposes. So I think the commercial trade is in the process of losing or destroying the variety. I’m hopeful that the variety isn’t lost yet, however, and intend to try again next year with seed from companies who have been doing their own seed production of the variety.
Under my conditions, ‘Small Sugar’ requires two weeks of curing, then is really prime for about six weeks only. After that the characteristic ‘Small Sugar’ flavor disappears pretty rapidly and has pretty well vanished by week thirteen. Also by then the flesh is getting stringy, and some of the flesh thickness is lost as the flesh near the seed cavity turns into strings. When people say ‘Small Sugar’ keeps three months, they are talking about how long it lasts without molding or rotting. But if you want prime flavor, cure the Small Sugars over two weeks, then use them within the next six weeks. Trust me.
‘Winter Luxury Pie’ and ‘Long Pie’ (a.k.a. ‘Nantucket Pie’) are widely praised as pie pumpkins by other knowledgeable growers. These are fine-grained in texture, and productive when grown here, but have very little flavor. It may be a matter of climate.
Summer squash are squash that are harvested immature and used in the stage in which they are still young and tender. Examples are various zucchini varieties, pattypan varieties, crooknecks and straightnecks. Summer squash are most commonly sliced and sautéed or added to stir-fries. Bigger ones that are still tender are sometimes halved, stuffed, and baked. Some people like their zucchini to be “mild,” that is, essentially tasteless. For many years, I didn’t grow summer squash, because tasteless food doesn’t thrill me. However, there are varieties of summer squash that are delicious.
My favorite commercially available summer squash is ‘Costata Romanesca’. It’s a pale green zucchini-shaped squash with ribs that can grow up to 4 feet long. This variety has a nice flavor, a texture that remains firm even after stir-frying, and it is good even when picked at the size of a pound or two. (Many summer squash varieties have to be picked at a size of just a couple of ounces to have much taste, which involves lots of picking per amount of food. Not my thing.) I also like ‘Golden Bush’ and ‘Gold Rush F1’. So far I haven’t found a green zucchini with enough flavor to be worth growing. (I know one exists, because I bought it in a store once. But I don’t know the variety. I know many green zucchini varieties it isn’t, alas.) The heirloom ‘Early Crookneck’ has a powerful flavor, but one I don’t happen to like. But many people love it. ‘Zephyr F1’ has a delicious flavor as well as a firm, crisp texture. So if you, too, have been unthrilled by the ordinary green zucchinis, give some of these other summer squash varieties a try.
Summer squash are usually bush plants. It is much easier to pick bush squash plants than vines. As with green beans, to keep the plants productive, you must keep them picked.
In Nate’s dryland garden experiment, ‘Costata Romanesca’ and ‘Early Crookneck’ did better with minimal water than other summer squash.
Immature squash of winter squash varieties can be picked when young and tender and used as summer squash. However, most big, viney winter squash varieties don’t flower and refruit very prolifically, so they are not nearly as productive when used as summer squash as the varieties we usually grow for that purpose. In addition, to get optimum yield and quality in winter squash, we usually want to allow the plants to put all their resources into developing their prime, sweet mature fruits.
Don’t. Boiling or steaming cut squash or squash chunks is how to turn a delicious, gourmet-quality, perfectly cured, prime winter squash into watery pulp little better than commercial canned pumpkin. If you’re going to go to the trouble of growing good winter squash, go to the trouble to prepare it properly—that is, by baking or, in the case of smaller squashes, by pricking them and boiling them whole. Smaller squash or pumpkins can also be pricked and baked whole.
Small squash varieties such as delicatas can be halved, turned face down, and cooked in a microwave oven. But it doesn’t save any time. The squash cooks to soft in ten to fifteen minutes. However, they don’t taste like much. The prime flavor develops only after the cooked squash have sat at least an additional half hour, at which point the squash must be reheated.
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.