And just like that…a frost.
A heavy one, too.
We’ve had frosts sporadically over the last few weeks, but none have been quite as heavy as the frosts we’ve had the last few nights. It’s really not that surprising, given that it’s almost November. Some years, we’ve had snow here well before Halloween.
With the frost comes an inevitable end to my gardening season (yes, even in my hoop house, which was supposed to extend the life of my tomato crop quite considerably – but my well-meaning ram lamb ripped holes in the canvas sidewalls and let the cold air in, despite my best efforts to seal the holes with greenhouse repair tape – ugh!).
I wasn’t thrilled to lose my tomato crop so early (but did manage to salvage several hundred pounds of unripened tomatoes to ripen indoors, in cardboard boxes, in my laundry room) but I was chomping at the bit to harvest my winter squashes.
For me, there’s something incredibly satisfying about harvesting winter squash. Perhaps it’s because storing it requires minimal additional effort on my part. All I have to do is pull the plants, cure them, and stash them in wooden crates in my chilly basement.
Whatever the case may be, knowing how to cure and store winter squash is essential if you want to extend the life of your harvest into…you know…the winter. Kind of the whole point of winter squash, isn’t it?
It’s not complicated, but you’ll want to follow a few simple steps – don’t make the same mistake I did and naively think that stashing your squashes in crates without curing them is a good idea. They won’t spoil right away, but they’ll go bad a lot faster than if you cured them first.
Here are some tips.
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What is Winter Squash?
If you’ve ever grown zucchini, perhaps the most prolific of all plants in the squash family, you might be wondering whether winter squash is more or less the same.
It’s similar, but there are several key differences for you to be aware of.
The first is the maturation time. Winter squash is ready for harvest in the late summer or early fall (not necessarily in the winter, as many people believe – it’s named for its storage abilities over the winter, not necessarily for when it’s ready for harvest).
Because of this, winter squashes are meant to be stashed (without any need for preservation techniques like canning, freezing, or dehydrating) over the winter months. Summer squashes like zucchini, on the other hand, have softer rinds and need to be handled and processed in some way before you stash them over the winter months.
So the name summer squash refers primarily to yellow summer squash and zucchini, although there are a few other less-common cultivars that fall into this category, too (such as straightneck squash, cousa squash, and tromboncino).
Winter squashes include acorn, Hubbard, buttercup, banana, butternut, spaghetti, and my personal favorite, pumpkins.
Harvesting Winter Squash
Winter squash, as I mentioned before, is grown in the summer after being planted in the spring, once the last danger of frost has passed. It is then harvested in the fall, ideally before it has the chance to take a frost (although it’s not the end of the world if it does – you just need to be more vigilant when it comes to inspecting the squashes for damage).
Winter squashes take more time to reach maturity than summer squash, even though you’ll plant seeds from either kind at the same time. It stores exceptionally well, as long as you follow these harvesting tips.
Harvest winter squash when:
- The rind is hard and tough to scratch or penetrate with your thumbnail
- The skin is dull and looks dry (squashes that aren’t quite ripe yet will have skins that are bright and shiny)
- The night time temperatures have just started to dip into the 40-45 degree Fahrenheit range (ideally before the first frost)
- The fruits have mature coloration (this will vary depending on the type of winter squash you are growing – for spaghetti squash, a mature fruit will be a deep yellow, while a pumpkin will be bright orange)
- The vine has started to die back and dry up
If you’re reading this article and are panicking because you haven’t harvested your squashes yet and they already took a frost, hang on one moment – don’t panic. You can still eat squashes that are harvested after the frost. They will actually taste sweeter and a bit more tender.
However, they just won’t last as long in storage as ones that did not take a frost. You’ll want to use them up first or preserve them in some other way (like freezing) to make sure they don’t go bad on you.
When you’re harvesting winter squash, you will need to cut the squash away from the vine with a set of pruners. You can use your hands to do this, but I don’t recommend it for two reasons. The first is that the vine is prickly and will make your hand irritated and itchy (that’s why I always wear gloves when I’m working with or around my squashes).
The second is that pulling the squashes off the vine by hand can damage the vine and impair the longevity of the squash. If you damage the vine before the rest of the squashes have had a chance to mature, they might never do so.
When you cut the squash off the vine, leave a stem that’s about two- to four-inches long. Leaving the stem on the fruit will help it cure better, whereas simply pulling the fruit off the vine can sometimes leave behind a damaging wound that will lead to rot.
There’s one exception to this, though – and that’s Hubbard squash. When you are storing Hubbard squash, you’ll want to completely remove the stem.
Before putting your squashes in storage, wipe them down with a dry towel, getting rid of any dirt and debris. You can also pull off a blossom, if there’s still one on the plant.
It might be tempting to give your winter squashes a good rinse in the sink, but try to avoid the urge! You should keep the squash as dry as possible when you harvest (if it’s wet when you harvest, make sure you dry it off – if you can avoid harvesting when wet, that’s even better).
Try to avoid handling or harvesting fruit that is wet at all, and take the time to inspect your winter squashes for damage. You should only store squashes that are mostly free from blemishes or damages.
Some people will say not to cure or store squashes with any kind of noticeable issue, but I find this advice to be a bit outdated and impractical.
Chances are, you’re going to have a nick or ding here or there on almost every single one of your squashes. The good news is that curing can help heal most scratches and cuts, when done properly, so you really don’t need to be so nitpicky.
Now, what should you do if you find yourself in the predicament I always inevitably do in the early fall, when frost threatens but I have a few winter squashes that have still yet to mature?
It’s simple – harvest them anyway. If it’s just a light frost coming through, you may be able to get by with simply covering your plants with row covers or old blankets. However, if you think winter is on its way to stay, you may just want to harvest any fruits that are slightly immature. You may still be able to cure and store them just as you would fully mature squashes.
How to Cure Winter Squash
Here comes the fun part – curing your squash! When you harvest winter squash, it’s not simply a matter of yanking them off the vine and tossing them in cold storage. You need to add in one extra step – curing your squash.
Curing is absolutely essential. It sounds complicated, but really, it’s just a form of drying that lets extra moisture in the squash evaporate. It also slows down the respiration rate of the fruit, which is again, essential for long term storage. It concentrates all the natural sugars in the squash and will allow it to taste much better (and sweeter).
Another function of curing is that it causes the rind of your squashes to harden up. This will protect ths quash from rot, slow respiration and spoilage, and also allow for long term storage.
All kinds of winter squash can and should be cured – with the sole exception of acorn squash, which should not be cured and can instead be put right into storage.
To cure your winter squash, you’re going to need to start by finding the ideal location. I’ve cured winter squashes in several ways (including one ill-planned year when I cured squashes outside, on my porch – not a great idea!).Audible Gift Memberships
What has worked best for me is stashing my squashes in my greenhouse, where the daytime temperatures in the fall rise to about 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. You could also cure winter squashes in places such as:
- In a field (as long as they won’t freeze, get wet, or get in the way of your garden chores)
- An attic
- Near a sunny window
- A sun room
- A sunny windowsill
- A cabinet with a thermostatically controlled electric heater
- A warm shed or garage with a fan for ventilation
Ideally, your temperatures in your “curing” location should be around 80 degrees, with a relatively humidity of about 80-85%. They need at least one to two weeks of sunlight, dry conditions, and warmth in order to cure properly.
While your squashes are curing, you have to do literally nothing else – just wait and be patient! It will take some time, during which your fruits will require good air circulation. You can put the fruits on an elevated drying rack, a mesh frame, or simply just let them be.
If you don’t put them on some kind of elevated or aerated surface, I recommend turning them every day or so to make sure they stay evenly dry.
How to Store Winter Squash
The next part is easy – all you have to do now is find a final resting spot for your winter squash and put them there. You can store winter squash in any cool, dry place, ideally with temperatures of around 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit. Your relative humidity should be around 50-70%, as too much moisture can cause the fruits to rot.
Don’t place your squashes directly on the floor – this can also promote the growth of bacteria and fungi. Instead, put them on a drying rack, shelf, or in a crate. You can even stack them on pallets. Just make sure they have plenty of good ventilation.
It’s totally fine to store your winter squash near other produce that you’ve harvested, but don’t put them near apples, bananas, pears, or most other kinds of fruit. They release ethylene gas, which can cause the squashes to rot prematurely.
Try to make a habit, once a week, of inspecting your winter squash for rot. Any that have started to develop bad spots should be moved away from the others (to prevent them from going bad, too) and used as quickly as possible.
When stored properly, winter squash can last quite some time. Acorn and spaghetti squash will last at least one month, while butternut can last two to three. Hubbard squash, buttercup, and banana squashes can last up to six months, while pumpkins can be stored two to three months.
These are minimum storage times, though – I’ve kept spaghetti and butternut squash in my basement, in crates, for up to six months and still found them tasty and rot-free. So don’t panic if you realize you’ve left some of your squashes in storage longer than you initially planned!
Other Ways to Preserve Winter Squash
I personally think curing and storing winter squash in a cool location is the easiest and most convenient way to preserve it. However, I also recognize that for some people, that might not be an option (maybe you don’t have the space or time to cure the squash properly – I get that!).
Fortunately, there are other ways you can extend the shelf life of your harvest, too.
All types of winter squash can be frozen – here are some tips on how to do it. Most kinds of winter squash can also be canned, but you’ll need to use a pressure canner and you should not mash or puree it, which can affect the quality and safety of your finished product.
Here are tips on canning winter squash safely.
Best Winter Squash Recipes
I’m obsessed with winter squash, not only because it’s a super tasty vegetable, but because it’s also incredibly nutritious and easy to use. I’m also guilty of using it in a ton of different baked goods recipes – life is all about balance, right?
Do you grow and store your own winter squash? What are your favorite tips and tricks? Let me know in the comments!
Want to learn more about farming? Be sure to take a look at these other articles.
- How to Cut Up A Chicken For the Freezer
- How to Make Your Own Sourdough Bread
- 20 Resourceful Recipes to Use Up Leftover Pickles
- 6 Absolutely Tantalizing Radish Recipes You Need to Try Tonight
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