This time of year, farmer’s markets and fruit and vegetable stands abound with squash. There’s a size and a style for every appetite.
But squash can be intimidating and a little time consuming to prepare, and some people find it easier to default to those bags of cubed squash that you can find at Trader Joe’s. I’m here to encourage you to not only prepare your own squash, but get the most out of it—specifically, butternut squash. That’s the long, beige variety that looks like a vegetable barbell and yields a vivid orange dish of deliciousness that can be sweetened, spiced, pureed, or simply eaten with a fork right out of the oven.
A large butternut squash (about two pounds) should give you a side dish to feed four to six people; beyond the varying sizes, though, selecting the best squash can be confounding, because they all seem to look alike. How do you know you’re choosing a quality one?
As you’re hunting through them, aim for finding the ones that are slightly darker than the others. To be specific, try to match Sherwin-Williams 6364, a color they call eggwhite. Your squash should also feel heavy; a lightweight squash could be a sign it isn’t ripe.
It’s hard to ripen squash once it’s picked, but you can try putting it on a sunny windowsill for a few days. If you want a really sweet squash, wait until later in the season to purchase them. Squash purchased in November or December usually has a deeper flavor. That’s because the natural sugars inside have had time to develop.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, making sure the squash will fit end to end on the pan.
Cut off both ends, then carefully slice the squash down the middle, from top to bottom. It can be a challenge to cut through, so don’t try to do this in a hurry. Slowly work a sharp knife through the squash, using protective gloves if you have them. You’ll get there. Once it’s opened up, scoop out the seeds and accompanying goo.
Set both halves of the squash face down onto the baking sheet. Face down allows the inside to steam in the oven, leaving you with a thoroughly cooked squash, rather than one that’s soft at the narrower end and still solid at the fatter one.
Roast about 45 minutes, then test it by sticking a fork through the fattest part. If the fork goes in all the way to the pan, your squash is done. Most likely, you’ll need another 10-15 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and let the squash sit for about 10 minutes. Then, flip over the halves and, using a spoon, pry away the cooked squash from the skin. This is much easier to do this when it’s still warm. If you let squash cool completely, you must really dig to get out the flesh. Alternatively, you can leave the halves on the foil and pull strips of the skin off with an old-school cheese slicer.
Whichever method you try, place the cooked flesh in a bowl, then mash it with a fork or a potato masher. The level of smoothness is up to you; some people want their squash as fiber-free as possible, and for that you can put it in a blender or food processor. I like some texture, so I mash it until it’s about halfway to mashed potato stage.
I add seasonings only after the squash is cooked, because I want to see what it tastes like when it comes out of the oven.
Squash is a canvas for both savory and sweet flavors. Some people add curry powder or other Indian spices, while others like ginger and cinnamon. I’ve recently tried adding sumac to mine, and I’d recommend it. On the sweet side, you can use maple syrup, honey, or cane syrup, and of course, you can always stir in some butter.
The trick is to season the squash little by little, because above all it should still taste like squash, not just the spices you add to it. For savory additions, use about a teaspoon at a time, blending it in fully, and add more to taste. For sweeteners, start with a tablespoon and work from there.