There are few things that satisfy the fall and winter dinner table like pumpkins and winter squash. It’s even more rewarding to grow them yourself. With the right knowledge, you can turn your harvest into delicious and nutritious fare for months.
Check for Ripeness
Since you can’t just open the squash on the vine to see if it’s ripe, you have to rely on some outside indicators. Checking the color, sheen, and hardness of the rind is the best way to determine ripeness. Most squash change color when right, such as butternut that changes from a cream color to a rich tan. Many varieties also lose their glossy coat to a duller tone when ripe. Still not sure? Try denting the skin with your fingernail; a ripe pumpkin or squash may dent, but it won't poke through easily. The condition of the foliage and stems are other ripeness indicators. If the squash is ready, the leaves will be turning yellow and the stems will be hard, starting to crack, or turn brown. For cooler regions of the country, you’ll see squash ripening around September and October. Warmer, southern climates should plan squash planting times so that they mature in September/October as cooler fall temperatures produce a better quality of squash.
Even though cooler temperatures make tastier squash, you still should harvest them before the first hard frost (at least three hours of temperatures below 28ºF). When ripe, cut the vine, leaving a 2-inch stem, and keep them in the garden or field if temperatures are 75º–80ºF. If a hard frost is forecasted, bring the squash to a warm and humid spot indoors to cure. If you have unripened squash that needs to be protected from frost, pick the green ones, leaving a 4-inch stem, and bring them indoors. While you are carrying the squash indoors, remember do not use the stem as a handle. The stem can break easily, leaving you with a smashed squash or a squashed foot.
Sanitizing your squash will ensure a longer storage life. If squash is stored properly, it can last for several months to half of a year. First, wash the squash with soap and water to remove any dirt on the surface. To sanitize the squash, either spray it with a 1:10 bleach to water dilution, or dip it in 140°F water for three minutes. Either way, allow the squash to completely dry before storing. Then, move the squash to a cool (50ºF–60ºF) location with high humidity (75%). Set squash side-by-side, not stacked, and avoid storing squash near apples and pears in particular (apples and pears release ethylene gas that speeds up the decomposition process). Check your squash weekly to make sure that they are still firm and not rotting. If you prefer, squash can also be roasted or mashed and then frozen. If you plan on canning your squash, can steamed, cubed pieces of squash, not pureed, so it doesn’t spoil.