If an alien were to abduct me tomorrow and demand not to be led to my leader but to the strangest piece of produce I know, I would be torn between finding the nearest rambutan and heading to a pumpkin patch.
In the end, I think I would choose the latter. Winter squashes are so bizarre, their outsides hard and sometimes ridged, sometimes freckled, sometimes warty, the insides woven with stringy webs of seeds.
M.F.K. Fisher famously wrote that an egg is the most private thing in the world until you crack it open, and the same could be said of squash. (Who knows what's in there?) While many squash taste similarly, it's nearly impossible to predict what the texture of the thing will be like unless you've eaten it before.
Because the texture of a squash can and should impact how you prepare it, we thought it would be handy to break down some of the most common edible squashes by texture—soft squashes, hard squashes, and those squashes that can only be described as weird but lovable. Here's what to make with each:
Hard squashes—like pear-shaped butternut and honeynut (a mini, personal-sized version of butternut!) squashes, acorn squashes (aptly named for their shape), and petite, freckly carnival squashes—have very firm flesh that, when cooked, becomes velvety but holds its shape.
They're very versatile: Cube, slice, or halve them, scoop out the seeds (save them to roast!), slide them into the oven, and eat as-is once the flesh is tender. Carnival squashes are especially good for stuffing because of their diminutive size—just serve everyone one squash.
Hard squashes also make for excellent soups or mashes (which you can then use in baked goods, if you like). Once you scoop out the seeds and get them roasted, you can do just about anything with them.
"Softer" squashes actually still have fairly firm flesh (but it's a lot easier to carve a face into a sugar pumpkin that it would be into a butternut).
These squashes—like the iconic, platonic sugar pumpkin, lumpy, moody-blue Hubbard squashes, long and stripy delicata squashes, and lopsided, teardrop-shaped red kuri squashes—tend to have softer, edible skins and very moist, slightly stringy, and often quite sweet flesh. Purée them for soups or pie fillings, or roast in big slices (delicata is particularly pretty this way).
Stout, woody kabocha (some reddish, some green) are very dense and sometimes dry, which makes them good candidates for salads (they benefit from a dressing) or soups; when roasted and cubed, they hold their shape well.
Buttercup squashes, with their turban-like domes, are like sweeter kabocha, with a dense, rich, and rather dry flesh.
Pale pink-orange and huge, banana squash are often sold in pieces; they're finely textured, similar to pumpkins, and are earthy-sweet in flavor, which makes them good for roasting (or pie).
Spaghetti squash has its own rules: They look like sunny blimps, and are very stringy, pale golden inside, and don't behave like other squashes. Roast it in halves, with the seeds scooped out, before "shredding" it into spaghetti-like strands.
Illustrations by Lara Odell
What do you look forward to making with winter squash all year? Give us a not-recipe version in the comments.