The Health Benefits of Winter Squash, Plus 10 Types to Try
Fall and winter bring some of our favorite seasonal ingredients, such as apples, cranberries, Brussels sprouts and winter squash. Tender and nutty with undertones of sweetness when cooked, winter squash refers to pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash and other squash ready to harvest in the fall, from from the end of September. Not only is it versatile and varied, winter squash is also beneficial to your health, thanks to its vitamin and mineral content.
Feeding winter squash
The many varieties of winter squash you’ll find in stores vary widely in shape, size, texture, and color, but generally share the same nutritional content.
They are rich in alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A (retinol). This is also why winter squashes go from yellow to orange on the inside. The darker the orange hue, the higher the beta-carotene content.
Clark and company
“When I think of vitamins I like to group them in colors, usually each color, in broad terms, represents a different nutrient,” Rhyan Geiger, RDN and owner of Phoenix Vegan Dietitian, tells VegNews. “That’s why it’s so important to eat rainbow to get a variety of vitamins and nutrients.”
Winter squash also contains important nutrients, such as vitamin C, dietary fiber, and minerals like folate, magnesium, and potassium.
Health Benefits of Winter Squash
Your body converts alpha-carotene and beta-carotene into vitamin A (retinol), an essential vitamin that helps support healthy skin and mucous membranes, healthy vision and eyes, and your immune system.
Like other carotenoids, they are also antioxidants, a compound that inhibits oxidation, a chemical reaction that can lead to the production of free radicals. High levels of free radicals are linked to a higher risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Vitamin C, also an antioxidant, is known to boost your immune system and fight inflammation, a precursor to many chronic diseases. It may help lower high blood pressure and protect against heart disease. This powerful vitamin also helps improve iron absorption, especially for people following a vegan diet.
Folate, or vitamin B9, is needed for the production of red and white blood cells in your bone marrow, the conversion of carbohydrates into energy, and the manufacture of DNA and RNA. Potassium metabolizes carbohydrates, synthesizes proteins, helps regulate your heart rate, and keeps your muscles and nerves working properly. Magnesium converts food into energy, creates protein and regulates the nervous system.
Generally, a diet high in plant-based foods is associated with a lower risk of multiple chronic diseases, including some forms of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, as well as lower blood pressure. They’re also high in fiber, which helps improve digestive health and is known to diversify your gut microbiome, says Geiger.
“Some studies have also shown improved insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation when eating high-fiber foods like pumpkin or acorn squash,” she adds.
How to Use Winter Squash Seeds
Don’t discard the seeds when buying a whole winter squash, such as pumpkin or butternut squash. Geiger says “the seeds are a source of protein and fat and contain vitamins like vitamin A, vitamin C, folic acid, potassium, calcium, and iron.”
Roasted seeds can be used as a garnish for soups, salads, cereal bowls and stuffed winter squash. To make roasted seeds, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the seeds and transfer them to a colander. Rinse them under cold running water, using your fingers to loosen gunk and wisps. Pat them dry – excess water will turn to steam in the oven and prevent the seeds from browning.
Add the seeds to a bowl and mix them with salt, pepper and olive oil. You can also add additional seasonings, such as a pinch of chili powder or smoked paprika. Spread the seeds evenly on a baking sheet, then bake in the oven until golden brown, about 13 minutes, stirring occasionally and turning halfway through.
How to choose and store winter squash
When choosing a winter squash, choose one that is firm to the touch, with no blemishes or soft spots. Look for a squash with dull skin and a dry or dry stem, both of which are signs of ripeness. Be sure to check the stem for signs of mold. Store winter squash in a cool, dark place for up to a month.
7 kinds of winter squash and how to use them in vegan cooking
Winter squash can be roasted, steamed or pureed and can be used in a wide variety of vegan recipes, from stuffed squash to risotto.
To puree winter squash
Squash puree is good for soups, dairy-free cheese sauces, and desserts. Start with steamed or roasted squash. The latter will add more flavor to the finished dish. Blend until smooth, adding a little water if needed.
Some varieties are good for mashing or adding to bowls of seasonal cereal while others make lovely centerpieces for stuffed squash. Here are seven kinds of winter squash and how to cook them.
Roast the squash
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The skin of winter squash is usually edible when cooked, but you may want to peel tougher-skinned varieties like butternut squash and kabocha. Cut the squash in half, then cut into small pieces if desired. Toss with a shortening (like oil or dairy-free butter), salt and pepper or, for a sweeter variety, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar or maple syrup. Depending on the variety, roast the squash for 20 to 45 minutes, until tender.
Steam the winter squash
Peel the squash if desired, scoop out the seeds, then cut into one-inch cubes. The smaller the cubes, the longer it takes to steam. Add a few centimeters of water to a saucepan fitted with a steamer basket. Bring to a boil, add the squash, cover the pan and steam for about 15 minutes. The squash is ready when it is easily pierced with a fork.
1 Butternut squash
The oblong-shaped butternut squash has a smooth, dull, pale yellow skin that is edible when cooked, but is usually peeled or eaten around. It has a bright, moist orange flesh that is slightly sweet and nutty in taste.
How to use it: Butternut squash is delicious stuffed, roasted or mashed and served with seasonal herbs, such as sage and thyme. Check out our butternut squash cooking guide for 15 ways to use it.
2 spaghetti squash
This large, round yellow squash gets its name from the way its golden flesh can be “shredded” into strands of angel hair with a fork when cooked. It has a mild, slightly sweet flavor.
How to use it: It is often cooked whole, then separated into “spaghetti” strands and served with sauces or used to make a casserole. It would soak up all the flavors of this vegan mushroom bolognese.
3 sugar pumpkin
This iconic winter squash is often used for garnish, but it’s versatile in the kitchen. The sugar pumpkin varies in size, but it has a firm, thick, bright orange skin and soft, firm flesh.
How to use it: Roast it, steam it, stuff it, puree it for sauces or use it for vegan fall desserts, like pumpkin pie, bread, muffins or cookies.
4 acorn squash
Although found among pumpkins, butternut squash, and delicata squash in the fall, acorn squash belongs to the same family as zucchini. It has dark, shiny skin with longitudinal ridges and a mild, nutty, buttery flavor. The skin is edible when cooked.
How to use it: Thanks to its buttery flavor, acorn squash is delicious when you mix it with a neutral oil, cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg and a little brown sugar. It’s also delicious when stuffed, pureed or used in risotto, and shines when halved and roasted with oil, salt and pepper.
Also known as the Japanese pumpkin, kabocha is a winter squash with dull dark green skin and sweet, slightly dry flesh with hints of chestnut. Its skin is notoriously difficult to cut, so be sure to use a sharp knife.
How to cook it: Try it in this Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup and adjust the seasoning to your liking. It pairs well with thyme, sage and rosemary.
6 delicate squash
Some winter squash, like kabocha and butternut squash, can be tricky to cut, but that’s not the case with sweet and nutty delicata squash. Knives easily cut through this groovy, cylindrical, yellow and green squash, which has a creamier texture compared to other varieties.
How to cook it: Cut it in half and stuff it or cut it into a half-ring shape, removing the seeds. Dairy-free butter, salt and cracked black pepper bring out a deeper nutty flavor.
seven buttercup squash
With its dark green flesh and round, stubby shape, buttercup squash seems to be kabocha’s sister. It has dark orange flesh with a sweet and creamy taste.
How to cook it: Butternut squash is versatile, so you can roast it or steam it. Its creamy texture complements pureed soups, like this Pumpkin Soup with White Beans.
These are some of the most common varieties of winter squash. But, the farmers market or your local grocery store may have options not on this list, including carnival squash, hubbard squash, turban squash, and sweet dumpling squash. If you want to cook with these, follow the roasting, steaming, or microwave instructions above.
To learn more about vegan nutrition, read:
Simple Ways to Relieve Bloating on a Vegan Diet
A Whole Plant-Based Diet, Explained
Which beans have the most protein?