While other varieties of squash have been eaten for 10,000 years, butternut squash is a relative newcomer, hitting grocery stores for the first time in 1944. Now one of the most popular squash on produce shelves, it has certainly made up for lost time.
Aptly named, butternut is a peanut-shaped fruit (though, of course, we enjoy it as a vegetable) with smooth, beige skin and vivid orange flesh. It's a staple in South African cuisine and is known as butternut pumpkin in Australia and New Zealand.
Butternut squash is an excellent source of vitamins A and C and a good source of dietary fiber, potassium and magnesium. It also provides calcium and iron.
A member of the winter squash family, the most popular butternut variety is the Waltham Butternut, a thick-necked, uniform specimen with pale yellow to tan skin and sweet orange flesh. Other varieties include: Butterbush (an early variety with pale orange skin and deep orange, buttery flesh), Atlas (a uniform fruit with dark orange flesh and a better-than-average shelf life), Ponca (a good storer that arrives extra early and has a small seed cavity), Puritan (a uniform, blocky, smallish variety), Supreme (a thick-necked, uniform, especially sweet butternut), Argonaut (burnt orange, with a very long neck and deep orange flesh, weighing up to 30 pounds), and Quantum (a very uniform specimen, with a thick neck and small seed cavity).
Sweet, moist and nutty tasting, the flavor of butternut squash is a bit like sweet potatoes—or, some say, butterscotch. Because it's so dense, you get more servings per fruit than you might with other squash varieties. The rind is edible (once cooked), but it's more commonly peeled away. The seeds are edible, too, either raw or roasted, salted or sans seasoning.
There are so many delectable ways to prepare butternut squash. Simply cut in half, seed, and grill, bake, broil or roast it as a side dish. Add a bit of sweetener, spice or cheese to enhance, if you like. Or stuff the "bowl" of the squash with grains, mushrooms, dried or fresh fruits, onions or shallots, seasonings and breadcrumbs.
Slice or dice the seedless "neck" and roast for tossing onto green salads. Purée the flesh as the basis for soups, soufflés, breads, muffins and pies. Because it's not a stringy squash, it's an especially good choice for recipes in which it's creamed, like this rich and smooth Butternut Apple Bisque, seasoned with curry. Chunks of butternut are a natural when plopped in soups and stews, too, like this colorful autumnal Harvest Stew.
For delicious flavor and texture, add butternut squash to lasagna, risotto or casseroles, like this anything-but-ho-hum Mac and Cheese or this Winter Squash and Apple Bake, which pairs lovely layers of sliced butternut and Granny Smith apples with maple syrup, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.
Butternut shines in Butternut Squash and Pear Sauté, with white wine stock, Anjou pears, goat cheese and pecans. As a side for turkey or breakfast eggs, check out this recipe for Squash, Bacon and Apple Hash.
Butternut even makes a luscious condiment when cooked al dente for this Squash, Cabbage and Kale Kimchi, in which it's paired with robust cabbage and kale and seasoned with red pepper flakes and garlic.
Available year round, the peak season for butternut squash is August through March, and the highest quality fruits are available September through November.
Choose a butternut squash that's heavy for its size, firm and smooth, with blemish-free skin that's not easily nicked or scraped with a fingernail. It should be evenly colored and matte rather than glossy. Avoid squash with soft spots or wrinkled skin. The stem should be dry and tan (fresh green or damp stems are telltale signs that the squash was harvested before its time). One pound of butternut will yield about two cups of peeled, chopped squash.
Storing squash couldn't be easier. Simply place the whole squash in a cool, dark place for up to three months. Once cut, wrap it in plastic or place in an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to five days.
To freeze, peel the squash and dice. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet placed in the freezer, then transfer the pieces to freezer bags or containers. Squash that's been cooked can also be frozen in containers, and puréed squash can be frozen in ice cube trays and then placed in freezer bags. Squash should keep well in the freezer for up to a year.