Unlike its summer cousins zucchini and yellow crookneck, butternut squash, or butternut pumpkin as it is sometimes called in Australia and New Zealand, is a winter squash. This simply means that it is harvested late in the season after it has developed a tough outer shell that allows it to be stored longer for use in cold weather. Its ancestry is in North America, where it was one of the three main crops (maize, beans and squash) planted by Native Americans, who prized it for its long shelf life. Today’s most popular variety, Waltham Butternut, was developed in Massachusetts in the 1940s and given its name because it is “smooth as butter and sweet as nut.”

Preparing a butternut squash for cooking is a more daunting task than actually cooking it. The primary challenge is removing that hard outer shell. Here are some tips for getting your squash ready for the pot:

  • First you must purchase your specimen. Butternuts come in sizes that range from 1 to 5 pounds, with most averaging between 2 and 3 pounds. Pick a squash that is a uniform beige color without deep cuts or bruises, although a few surface scratches are acceptable. Deep punctures or brown spots may suggest that bacteria or mold are present. Locally grown squash is seasonal and harvested in the fall, but it will keep in a cool, dark place for several weeks without refrigeration.
  • Now for the surgery. This will require a steady hand and a sturdy chef’s knife. If your hands are weak, or if you’re using a wimpy knife, you can try first zapping the squash in the microwave; pierce the squash with a fork in several places the microwave it for 2 minutes. This, hopefully, will loosen the skin and make peeling easier.
  • Slice an inch or so off both ends of the squash, then cut it in half, crosswise, at about the point where the thinner stem end widens to create the bulb at the bottom end. Place the halves flat side down on a cutting board and, using a sharp serrated peeler or a paring knife, peel the skin with downward strokes. Peel until the white or green color is completely gone and all that remains is the orange flesh.
  • After the squash is peeled, your final chore is to remove the seeds. Cut the bulbous end in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a large metal spoon. (Reserve the seeds, if you like, for roasting.) Your squash is now ready for slicing or dicing as you see fit.
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