While canning and pickling vegetables from the garden are great ways to preserve food for winter, wouldn’t life just be a great deal easier if fresh food kept all on its own? No dicing it up. No sterilizing jars, buying new lids, or afternoons peering over the rims of steamy pots. Hey, a good homemade tomato sauce is hard to beat, but… doesn’t roasted butternut squash seem so right on a cold winter day?

For those fortunate enough to have thought ahead and planted winter squash this past summer, there are ought to be a bounty of treats sitting out on the garden mulch right about this time. Amazingly, unlike with soft-skinned, summer squashes that have a limited shelf life, these beauties—the butternut, acorn, hubbard, carnival, delicata, and so on—have hard shells and can store fresh for months.

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With a few simple steps, winter squashes are ready to stow away for roasted perfection in the months to come.

Picking Winter Squashes at the Right Time in the Right Way

Unlike with summer squash, which is delicate and delightful when small, winter squash needs plenty of time to mature. Picking them early will mean they need to be eaten early, too. So, when storage is the goal, it’s important to allow them to mature fully.

There are a few different ways to gauge the right time for picking winter squash. One good indicator is that its vine dies. A riskier method is to test twisting it from a live vine, probing for fruits that free themselves easily. The most reliable method, however, is using a fingernail to test its skin. If the skin is more or less impenetrable, that’s a mature fruit. Regardless, the squashes need to be harvested before the first frost.

With a mature fruit meant for storage, it’s also important to pick it correctly. Rather than pulling or twisting the squash off the vine, a better idea is to clip it free and leave about an inch worth of stem (three inches for pumpkins). The little nib of stem helps to prevent rot from entering the fruit through its crown.

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Hardening Winter Squashes Off Before Putting Them Away

winter squash

“Kabocha and Red Kuri (Japanese Winter Squash)” bykanshiketsu is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As with other root cellar crops, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, winter squash store better when “hardened” off. Hardening off is basically a process for encouraging the skin to get harder still. This tough outer skin, then, acts as a protective coating for the delicious flesh of the fruit. With super hard skin, bugs, bacteria, and mold will have trouble spoiling the harvest.

Hardening off is a fairly simple process, which some people take very seriously and others do very lazily. On the serious end of things, the ideal environment for hardening off winter squash is something around 80 degrees and 80 percent humidity. They should be laid out—not stacked—with a little space between them for air. On the lazy side of things, many gardeners simply leave their harvested winter squash out in the garden for a week or more, turning it a time or two.

Not only does this process toughen the skin, lengthening storage time, but it also concentrates the sugars in the flesh, making the fruit richer and sweeter when it comes time to eat it. In short, winter squash will store a while without this, but the minimal effort makes it all—storage and eating—better.

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Storing Winter Squashes Properly for the Long Haul

The final step for storing winter squash is stowing it away to last. The best-case scenario is a place that stays between 50 and 70 degrees, such as a pantry shelf, closet floor, or under a bed. The squash will keep better if they aren’t stacked but rather laid out with air space between them.

While in storage, the squash should be checked regularly, culling any fruits that develop dark or soft spots for first use. Squashes that show signs of aging should be separated from the others, i.e. moved to the kitchen, oven, or soup pot. Smaller and softer squashes, such as acorn and delicata, can store reliably for a couple of months whereas those with harder exteriors, say kabocha or turban, can make it some six months if stored properly.

Squashes are amongst the most agreeable crops to grow, and they tend to thrive with little to no love. Winter squashes can be planted in flower gardens or along fences, even climbing up fences, or as groundcovers below some sweet corn. So, if it’s too late this year, be sure to include them in next year’s gardening scheme.

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