Winter produce typically doesn’t bring the same flash as its summer counterparts. Root vegetables and leafy greens rarely can compete with the colorful array of plants that ripen in warmer months.
But in recent years, one winter crop has become stunningly varied on the shelf: squash.
New and old-but-forgotten types of squash have started to infiltrate the inventories at markets like Iovine Brothers Produce in the Reading Terminal. You can buy a butternut, of course, or try a speckle-skinned carnival squash, a dimpled Robin’s Koginut, the personal-pan-sized honeynut, or a great big, bubbled blue Hubbard.
At Fishtown’s Riverwards Produce, owner Vincent Finazzo stocks 10 to 15 types of squash. Philly Foodworks, the Hunting Park-based grocery delivery service that works with local farms, currently offers 13 kinds, curated by produce buyer and former organic farmer Loren Pola.
This diversity in selection is partly thanks to the plant’s genetic flexibility. “Squash is a wonder for breeders,” says Geoff Bucknum, sales and operations coordinator for Sunny Harvest LLC, a network of farms in Lancaster County. “You can cross the genetics and come up with the new hybrid within one season. It’s a beautifully malleable vegetable.”
All these variations are lovely to look at, but are they all the same thing in different packaging? Not really. Here, we break down 10 kinds of squash, all of which you can find locally.
Honeynut and Robin’s Koginut
These two squash were born of a collaboration between Cornell professor/vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek and New York celebrity chef Dan Barber, who asked Mazourek why he couldn’t prioritize flavor and texture over durability or yield when growing butternut squash. (The pair later launched a flavor-focused seed company, Row 7.) As it happened, Mazourek already had experimental squash hybrids growing at Cornell.
One of those was a cross between a buttercup and a butternut squash that looked as if scientists had taken a shrink ray to the latter. Because it’s smaller, it cooks and caramelizes faster than a butternut, and its sweetness is more concentrated. (Note that the honeynut has a shorter shelf life than a butternut.)
This new breed — dubbed the honeynut — has since gained a foothold with customers and therefore farmers, even though “it’s kind of a pain in the butt,” as Pola puts it. “It’s a lot easier to grow a bunch of big squash than it is a million little squash and then have to run around the field and try to harvest all of them.”
But for those with small houses and/or families, its stature is ideal, says Finazzo. “Sometimes roasting a butternut is a Sunday-dinner type of deal: It’s big, it takes a long time. But a honeynut? You can half that thing and cook it facedown in a pan. You don’t even need the oven.”
The Koginut made a splashy debut in 2018, courtesy of a Sweetgreen promotion, but it still has a ways to go to catch up to its squash sibling, with farmers and customers alike.
“For some reason, the honeynut just resonated.” Bucknum says. “Was it the name? Was it the cuteness? The Koginut eats just as great and has a lot of other desirable properties, but is it just an ugly stepsister? I don’t know.”
Acorn and carnival
Talk to folks in the farming community about squash and you realize they’re on a continuum: To a customer, a butternut is a butternut is a butternut; but to a grower, it might be a Waltham butternut, an Autumn Glow, or a Butterbush.
The acorn squash illustrates that. In 1913, the Iowa Seed Co. introduced the Table Queen into its catalog. It became one of the most popular squash of the 20th century, despite its relatively short shelf life of one to two months. Supermarkets loved it because it packs well, thanks to its symmetrical grooves and squat size.
Today, the deep-green squash is known to customers simply as acorn squash. All-white or gold variants are trickling into markets, too, as are carnival squash, which have the mottled coloring of a decorative fall gourd. (Consider celebration and festival squash the same.)
For small, bowl-shaped squash like these, Finazzo recommends cooking in them. Pola likes to cut off the tops, hollow out the seed cavities, fill the squash with rice and beans, and then bake them. Eat the skin if it’s soft enough.
Red kuri and kabocha
Squash are native to the Americas but made their way around the world. In the late 19th century, they reached Japan. Naturally, farmers started tinkering.
“The Japanese bred for lower fiber and almost more of a dense, flaky texture,” Bucknum says.
The pumpkin-shaped kabocha and the red kuri — a smooth, thin-skinned, red-orange squash shaped like an oversize lightbulb — are two Japanese imports that have gained traction in the U.S. in recent years. Red kuris are also popular in France, where they’re known as potimarron.
Both can be treated like any squash, good in a soup, casserole, or roasted side. But Bucknum suggests using red kuri and kabocha for what they were bred for: steaming.
“We always think you have to put squash in the oven and just blast it until it’s falling apart,” he says, but “don’t forget about steaming. You can cut up and steam some squash and have it ready in 10 or 15 minutes, and it’s delicious and dense and perfect.”
Oblong, striped, and relatively thin-skinned, the delicata exists between a summer and a winter squash — a quality that functions as a double-edged sword.
“From a culinary perspective, you can cook the whole thing,” Bucknum says. “You can eat the whole thing, including the skin. You can sauté it; you don’t need to give it a big roast. But from a farmer’s perspective, you can only keep it for 30 to maybe 60 days before it’s gonna spoil. So it’s more on the zucchini end of the spectrum.”
The squash’s growing season spans summer into winter, which means its current season is waning. Because it’s relatively slender, it’s easy to slice it into rings and cook on the grill or in a pan. It can be shaved with a vegetable peeler, then briefly steamed, too.
Spaghetti squash doesn’t cut nearly the iconic fall figure that the butternut does. But you know what? It’s the best-selling squash at both Philly Foodworks and Riverwards Produce.
“We sell so much of it, it’s insane,” Finazzo says. He attributes its popularity to carb-conscious shoppers as well as the squash’s versatility. “People can mix it with pesto, or they can make a ratatouille or a super-hearty, meaty ragu sauce and then put it on spaghetti squash. I’ve even seen a scallion pancake spaghetti squash recipe.”
The smooth, round, sunny squash is another world traveler. It debuted in U.S. seed catalogs in the 1930s, after arriving from China by way of Japan under the name “vegetable spaghetti.” It didn’t go mainstream until the ’80s.
Most recipes today call for roasting halves of the squash and plying it with cheese, sauce, and other toppings. But consider an old-school treatment: boiling it whole. Cut it in half when it’s tender, then scoop out the seeds and season with salt, pepper, and butter.
This cross between a butternut and a sugar pumpkin hit U.S. markets in 2014. Pale orange on the outside and fluorescent orange on the inside, the hybrid was developed in New Zealand.
Finazzo knows exactly what to use this for: “This is the pumpkin that you should buy to make a pie,” he says. “Those small, fibrous, orange pie pumpkins, those are fine. But you’re never going to get that, like, velvety texture.”
In fact, as some have learned in recent years, the canned pumpkin pie puree that floods supermarkets is actually made from a Dickinson pumpkin, which is closer to a butternut squash than a jack-o'-lantern. Which means the butterkin offers the best of both worlds: looks like a pumpkin, tastes like a squash.
Wrinkly, misshapen, and big as a baby, the blue Hubbard doesn’t even look like something you’d eat. Maybe that’s why it’s the worst-selling squash in the Philly Foodworks lineup. “I think they’re too big for most customers to handle,” Pola laughs.
It might not be a top seller, but farmers are fans, Bucknum says. “It’s high-yielding, it’s high-sugar, you can get a lot of crop out of a small area. It’s like hunting-big-game squash.”
Bucknum recalls the first time he cooked with Hubbards. He was living in Minnesota, launching a co-op, when someone donated a bunch to make a vat of soup. “We were trying to feed a lot of people. I thought, ‘Great!’ Then I had a pickup truck full of them. And then it’s like, how do you even take a knife to it? I don’t have a knife big enough to cut this.” He ended up dropping them from a height to break them apart.
Unwieldy as it is, Finazzo sees some advantage to the squash’s girth. “Something that’s really cool about the blue Hubbard is using them as a centerpiece. People like roasting it and then maybe serving their Thanksgiving stuffing in it," he says. “The flesh can be a little bit fibrous, but it does really well under high heat.”