A Casual Guide To Grocery Store Squash

Take this as your informal introduction to the squash you'll find across every season.

I recently had some squash foisted upon me. I'm used to a late summer gifting of zucchini, but these bumpy, horn-shaped yellow beauties were new to me. Turns out they were just a variant of the usual yellow squash—in this case, a crookneck.

I absolutely hated squash as a child, but I've come to love and appreciate this versatile, easy to grow, and widely available produce for all that it can become once you haul it back to your kitchen. Here's a guide to the varieties of squash you're most likely to find at the grocery store or farmers market, and how to approach each one. 

An overview of summer squash

Summer squash is a broad category of produce, and more specific examples of it, like zucchini, might sometimes be referred to this way instead. There are many varieties of summer squash on offer at the grocery store or market, not to mention the stuff growing in a backyard garden near you.

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All summer squash have a similar texture when cooked (just slightly spongy) and generally share a mild flavor. They're a good vehicle for sauces, spices, and marinades, and never threaten to overpower the flavors you pair them with.

Zucchini

Yes, zucchini is a summer squash; it just gets its own unique name because we use it so often. While I'm sure you've seen giant zucchini, it's actually better to pick them when they're closer to the size of a large cucumber—not a pickling one, but more the size of one you'd slice for salads. The resemblance between zucchini and cucumber can sometimes be hazardous; I accidentally cooked a cucumber thinking it was a zucchini once. Do not recommend.

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Some zucchini are round and resemble more of an underripe pumpkin, maintaining their signature green color.

Yellow squash

Yellow squash looks like zucchini but without the telltale green rind. Like zucchini, it's best to harvest it when it's slightly immature; this will mean more preserved flavor and thin skin. Both zucchini and yellow squash are good candidates for running through a spiralizer and creating delicate "zoodles," which you can add to pasta or swap in for the noodles entirely. For best results, cook squash noodles only briefly so they don't fall apart.

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Crookneck

Crookneck squash is a type of yellow squash, and it's the same basic product as general yellow squash except for the shape and (most often) the texture of the outside, which is bumpier here. You should pick these sooner rather than later to keep the skin from getting too thick.

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Patty Pan

I am rather fond of the name of this lesser-known summer squash, which has a notable "squished" shape with a scalloped edge—some liken its shape to a UFO. It derives its name from a type of cake made in a scalloped pan. This squash comes in many colors and has other names in other places, most adorably "button squash."

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These are often baked, boiled, or fried, though in some Ukrainian and Polish preparations, they are pickled. Try saying "pickled patty pan" five times fast.

Chayote

While it's now grown all over the world, this green, ridged squash originated in Mexico. Remember how squash is a fruit? Some say the chayote squash tastes like apples, while others compare it to a cucumber. Generally, you can expect the flavor to be bland and versatile, just like any summer squash. It's most often prepared like a vegetable, so try sauteing, grilling, or roasting it.

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Tromboncino

As you can maybe guess, this is an Italian variety of squash that's shaped like a trombone, kind of. You want one that's about a foot long to preserve the integrity of the flavor. Firmer and with fewer seeds than many other squash varieties, these can be cooked as you would a yellow squash or zucchini.

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An overview of winter squash

Many squash peak in the fall and winter. Their appearance signals the changing of the season, making you think of warm soups or pie. They often keep for a long time in the pantry, which is why they're a great wintertime staple.

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Unlike summer squash, it's best to let these reach maturity before harvesting and cooking. While one usually eats the skin or rind of summer squash, winter squash's exteriors are almost always removed before or after cooking and not eaten.

Pumpkin

A uniquely sweet squash. If you've ever gone to a pumpkin patch, you'll know there are a wide variety of pumpkins, many with "ugly" lumps or variations and in many colors. In fact, there isn't really any botanical specificity here; a pumpkin is just one of those "know it when you see it" things. The classic orange ones are the kind most often cooked in pies, soups, quick breads, and other fall favorites. Fun fact: Pumpkin spice isn't usually referring to the taste of pumpkin, but rather the combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices associated with pumpkin-based desserts.

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Butternut

One of the best for soups due to its texture and flavor, this long, bell-shaped squash has a warm orange color and a flavor similar to pumpkin. As such, butternut squash is often used similarly, though more likely as a savory addition than as a sweet. An easy side dish is to simply slice it into cubes along with other squash or root vegetables, toss with oil and spices, roast in the oven, and serve as a side. It can also be used in muffins, breads, or pies as one would use pumpkin. There is also a sweeter variant, the honeynut squash.

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Acorn

Named for its shape, acorn squash is a versatile and delicious fall and winter side dish. Green on the outside and yellow-orange on the inside, this one screams coziness—plus, it's equally great as a vessel for sausage and other savory fillings or roasted with sweetener (sugar or maple syrup) and served on the side of a more savory main course. This is the most perishable of winter squashes, so don't wait too long to cook it after purchasing.

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Spaghetti

Spaghetti squash is so named because the flesh, when cooked, comes apart from the rind in spaghetti-like strings. The exterior is usually golden yellow but can also be white or orange. With a shape similar to a watermelon, this squash is usually fairly large when mature, between two and five pounds. Because of the texture, spaghetti squash is often used in place of or in addition to string-based pastas. Here are several ways to cook with it.

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Delicata

I love the pattern on the outside of a delicata squash, with its cream-colored ridges and green stripes. When cut down the middle and then sliced into half-rings, the resulting shape is a pretty arch, which makes roasted delicata an attractive holiday side dish. It's also a good vessel for meat or other fillings. Unlike many winter squash, these are noticeably sweet and have edible skin.

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Kabocha

These are usually shaped like a pumpkin, but are smaller and green. They often have the alternate name "Japanese pumpkin," although in Japan the word kabocha also refers to the orange type of pumpkin we associate with Halloween and pie. The flavor is described as a pumpkin mixed with a sweet potato and is generally one of the sweetest squash. It's often used like pumpkin or butternut in side dishes, soups, and desserts.

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