Harvesting winter squash is probably my favorite fall garden activity. There is something so satisfying about bringing winter squash in from the garden, whether it is the sheer array of colors and textures or just the more primal urge to hoard food for the winter like an oversized squirrel.
Squash can keep for months under the right conditions, which means that I get to enjoy the taste of homegrown squash all winter long. So, how do you convince squash to stick around? You cure it. Here are the steps you need to take to cure your squash and ensure that your bumper crop doesn’t go to waste.
Harvest Squash For Storage
The first step might seem obvious, but it is actually very important. Before you can cure your squash, you need to harvest it.
Harvesting your squash at the optimum time improves its shelf life. If you’ve been growing squash for a while, you probably already know how to tell when a squash is ripe, but this can be tricky for new gardeners or for gardeners trying out a new variety.
The first clue that a squash is ripe is the stem. Green, living stems indicate that a squash is still maturing, so come back for these fruits later. The stem brings all of the vital nutrients to the fruit as it develops. A ripe squash is done growing, which means that the stem is no longer needed. The stems of ripe squash appear brown and hard.
Some gardeners can tell a squash is done by slapping the fruit. Ripe fruits make a hollow sound, but I have never fully trusted my squash slapping judgment. I prefer the fingernail test. If you carefully press your fingernail into the fruit, the skin should dent but not puncture. The skin also loses the sheen of youth as it matures, giving mature squash a tell-tale dull look that screams “pick me.”
Harvest your squash with a knife or clippers and leave 3-4 inches of stem, especially for pumpkins (you can get away with 2-3 inches for other varieties), but be careful when harvesting as these stems can damage neighboring squash. Never handle them by the stems, either – stems might look like a convenient handle, but they are not as sturdy as they seem. Punctures or bruising during harvest can lead to trouble with mold and fungus down the road.
Occasionally the elements conspire against us. If an early frost threatens your squash before they are ready, don’t panic. You have two options.
- Simply harvest them with a slightly longer stem. Include some of the main stem as well as the 4-inch stem you would normally leave so that your squash looks like it has a T-shaped handle.
- Cover your squash in the garden with a tarp, blanket, row cover, or some other protective layer and buy yourself a little more time
Cure Squash For Storage
Now that you have labored in the fields to bring in your squash, it is time to cure them. Wipe off dirt from your squash with a rag but refrain from washing them. You don’t want your squash getting wet during the curing stage.
Squash cure in sunlight. This hardens the skins to create a long-lasting seal around your fruits and also intensifies the flavor. You might also notice that the color deepens, giving you squash you might be more tempted to display than eat.
Cure your squash by placing them in a greenhouse or a sunny windowsill. Let them sit for two weeks in the sun and then flip them over and let the other side cure for another two weeks. When the squash are done curing, buff them with a polish of olive oil. This creates a moisture-tight barrier between your squash and the outside world, although it not absolutely necessary.
It takes about a month to cure squash, but all that time is worth it, as it means that you will have squash for the colder months to come.
Store the Squash
Now that you have a beautiful stash of cured squash, how do you store it? Squash actually keep at room temperature (ideally between 50°F and 68°F), which is great because it means you don’t need to clear out more room in the root cellar. A spare room in your house or a frost-free shed will work well for storing squash.
There are a few things to keep in mind as you put your squash away for the winter. Like most vegetables, squash prefer dry, well-ventilated settings. You will need to make sure that there is adequate air circulation around each of the fruits to prevent any moisture from building up. Squash also object to being stored directly on the ground or hard surfaces. Store your squash on racks or wire mesh, and cushion them with a layer of newspaper or straw.
Resist the urge to stack your squash. Stacking creates pressure points that can damage your fruit and also limits air circulation. Take the time to build some simple racks or shelves out of chicken wire, and no matter where you store them, keep an eye out for rodent damage and check on them occasionally. Remove any spoiled squash.
I enjoy the curing process. It gives me more time to admire my crop and reflect on the hard work and effort that went into them. Sometimes I even take a step back from this self-congratulating and offer up thanks in honor of the season — preferably over a freshly roasted butternut.