Butternut squash can be a pain to prep. Here's how to master it. 

By Stacey Ballis
August 09, 2019
Photo: Antonis Achilles, Food Styling: Mary Claire Britton and Sarah Epperson; Prop Styling: Prissy Lee

Butternut squash is one of my favorite vegetables. Naturally sweet, it can go anywhere a sweet potato can go, from pastry to savory dishes. It is great roasted, grilled, steamed or baked. For years now, my “famous” Thanksgiving pumpkin soup has been made with a minimum of 50% and sometimes as much as 75% butternut squash, and no one has noticed. And one of my standard salads is this one with butternut squash, pomegranate seeds and peanuts, which is a perfect side dish, or a lunch salad, and beloved by vegetarians and meat-heads alike. 

I will admit that I usually rely on the pre-prepped butternut squash from the store for my recipes. This is because butternut squash is sort of a pain in the butt to prep. It has a super sticky sap just under the skin, which can be a bear to remove from your hands. It is a weird shape, like a giant Bosc pear put on a wetsuit. And it is a hard squash, so cutting through it can be really difficult. I’m not telling you not to tackle it, unless you are unconfident or klutzy in the knife skills department, I’m just saying it requires some technique. Here’s how to master it:

 

Pick your squash

You are looking for a squash with a smooth, tight, taupe colored skin that is without blemishes or soft spots. It should feel heavy for its size, and the seeds should not feel like they are rattling around when you shake it, which is a marker of an old squash. If you are going to use within a day or two, you can store at room temp in a cool dark place. Otherwise, toss it in the bottom drawer of your fridge. These squashes start converting their sugar to starch once they are picked, so while you can store them a long time, the fresher they are the sweeter they will be.

Get the recipe: Roasted Butternut with Sage and Thyme

Get your gear

Julian Birchman

For butternut squash, you will need a sturdy cutting board that does not move around on your counter. To make it secure, take some paper toweling or a dish towel, run it under water and wring it out well so that it is damp but not wet, and place it between the counter and your board to help secure it. I recommend disposable latex gloves if you have them around, since it will protect your hands from the dreaded sap, but still give you good grip and control. As far as tools go, you’ll need a large sharp serrated knife, a large sharp chef’s knife, and a sharp swivel-bladed vegetable peeler. A Y-shaped peeler will work slightly better than a straight one.

Get the recipe: Butternut Squash Spice Cake

 

Pre-prep the squash

Julian Birchman
Julian Birchman
Julian Birchman

For starters, if you want peeled squash for your recipe, you should peel the squash entirely before cutting it up. To do this easily, slice a thin slice off the top and bottom, and holding the squash with one hand, run your peeler in long strips from the top to the bottom, moving the squash a quarter turn as you get the peel removed. If you are keeping the peel on, use the serrated blade for getting through the skin without slipping. Remove the neck of the squash in one piece by slicing through the squash right where the bulb starts to curve at the neck. This will leave you with the neck, which is solid, and the bulb, which is hollow and full of seeds. Place the cut side of the bulb face down on your cutting board and slice in half. Using a large metal spoon, remove the seeds and stringy guts from both halves of the bulb. Now you are ready to get the squash in hand. 

Get the recipe: Greek Butternut Squash Salad

 

Decide on your shape

Julian Birchman
Julian Birchman

For most recipes, cubes are the main shape of butternut. To cube your squash, cut the neck end into rounds as thick as you want your cubes, then slice each round into sticks and then across the sticks into cubes. The bulb can also be cut into wedges, and then cubed. But round planks or sticks from the neck are good for grilling and roasting, as are wedges from the bulb. You can spiralize the neck, and stuff the whole bulb halves.

Get the recipe: Skillet Squash Blossom

 

Clean up

I keep one of those exfoliating scrubs with the ground up apricot kernels in my kitchen cleanup arsenal, which helps get heavy duty crud off my hands, but if you don’t have that around and don’t have the gloves, you can get the sap off with a combo of hand soap and coarse sugar. Use a scrubber pad on your cutting board.

Get the recipe: Warm-Spiced Butternut Squash Soup

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