By Bethany Hayes
Winter squashes are one of the few foods that will last for months just the way that they are without any extra preservation method needed. To store squash for the months to come, you first have to try curing squash, which is a lot easier than you might think.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time reading Little House in the Big Woods, and one of the scenes that I remember well is Laura and Mary playing in the attic, surrounded by large pumpkins, squash, and other foods that their parents preserved. I was fascinated by that, and it influenced me as I grew.
Could you keep pumpkins, squash, and all kinds of other foods in an attic all winter long?
Yes, you sure can! It all starts with harvesting your squash correctly, and then you can cure it and store it for the months to come. Let’s take a look at how you can do this at your home!
What Does Winter Squash Include?
Some people get confused about what we mean when we say winter squash. These don’t include things such as zucchini, luffas, or gourds. Summer squashes, no matter the variety, cannot be stored for the long-term. When we say long-term, we mean an average of 4-6 months or potentially longer.
Winter squashes include:
When we saw winter squash, it’s the squashes that you plant after the danger of frost passes, and you don’t harvest until the fall for winter storage. They typically require a lot more days to reach maturity than summer squash.
For example, an average zucchini that I grow takes between 55-60 days to reach maturity, but winter squashes can take 90-120 days.
Some people are surprised that pumpkins are considered a winter squash, but they really are. There is a reason why the settlers and our ancestors devoted large portions of their gardens to pumpkins – they store incredibly well and are full of rich nutrients.
Average Squash Storage Life By Type
How long your squashes will last in storage depends on the type that you’re growing. Here are the average shelf life after proper curing.
|Acorn Squash||1-2 Months – Do NOT Cure|
|Spaghetti Squash||2 Months|
|Hubbard Types||3-6 Months|
How to Properly Harvest Winter Squashes
Harvesting occurs when the fruits are mature, but how do you know it’s time to harvest them? Here are some signs they’re ready to be picked.
- You kept track of your days to maturity and reached those on your calendar.
- The vines attaching to the squash are dried, allowing you to harvest with ease.
- Depending on the variety, the rind reached the proper color.
- You cannot scratch the rind with your thumbnail.
- Harvest before the nighttime temperatures dip into the 40’s and before the first frost. While they can survive a light frost and taste sweeter, it reduces how long they can stay in storage.
Once you know it’s time to harvest, you want to do so in the correct way. You’ll need pruners or a garden knife to cut through the vine cleanly. Don’t yank the vines! Make sure to cut 2-4 inches above the fruit, leaving some of the squash stems to cure as well. Also, broken or loose stems make the squash won’t store well, so take care!
Of course, there is always an exception to remember. Hubbard squash store best with the stem completely removed.
Curing Squash: What You Need to Do
Once you harvest the squash, you have to get it ready for curing and storage. The first step is to clean the fruits with a dry towel, removing dirt and debris. You shouldn’t use water to clean the skins; the squash needs to stay dry.
Inspect each one thoroughly. You want blemish-free squashes for storage; any bruises, punctures, or deep cuts will reduce how long they can store. Minor cuts or scratches will be healed with curing, but if it seems like it’s too deep, stay on the side of caution and plan to eat it sooner.
What Is Curing?
You might be wondering – what is curing, and why do I need to take the time to do so?
The preparation process for storage is called curing, and it truly doesn’t take much effort on your end at all. If you want the fruits for long storage, then curing is an essential step.
Curing is similar to a drying process. During this time, excess moisture evaporates, and the fruit’s respiration rate slows. These are two steps that must happen for storage. As evaporation takes place, it helps concentrate the natural sugars inside the fruit, leading to a delicious, sweet-tasting squash.
Simultaneously, the skin (or rind) will continue to get harder as respiration slows down. The respiration reduction reduces how vulnerable your squashes are to rot and collapse so that they can store for even longer.
Pretty cool, right?
How to Cure Squash for Storage
I promise; the steps are so easy. You don’t need any previous experience to cure squash correctly. Here are the steps you need to know.
- Squashes and pumpkins need to be stored for ten days between 80-85℉ and humidity levels between 80-85%.
- For 10-14 days, you need to leave your squash in a warm location with good air circulation. Ideally, you’ll have chicken wire underneath or a window screen, but it’s not a requirement.
- If you have significantly large fruits, you’ll need to make sure you rotate them unless you have a screen underneath. It could take up to 4 weeks in total for large pumpkins and other squashes to cure and harden.
- The fruits must be kept dry during the curing process.
- Ideally, you’ll cure outside, but if you don’t have an appropriate location, a small cabinet that has an electric heater works, as well as a warm shed or garage with a fan or the door left open for air circulation.
Sometimes, you have to be creative if you want to keep them outside, and remember, it’s only 10-14 days! You can move them if it’s going to rain and put them in a sheltered location. I put some of my squash inside my shed, and I also have a slatted table near a fence where I place a few. It’s right near my porch, so I can grab them if it starts to rain.
Once the fruits are cured, you can do one of two things before putting them into their final spot in storage. You can either polish the fruits with olive oil using a cheesecloth, creating a moisture-prevention finish. Another option is to use a water and bleach solution that wards off bacteria.
It’s important to note that you shouldn’t cure acorn squash. It actually reduces their storage life.
Storing Squash for the Months to Come
Once cured, you can move the winter squash into a cool, dry place for winter storage. They should be kept in a location that is around 50-55℉, with a relative humidity between 50-70 percent. You don’t want the humidity level much higher, or it’ll lead to the fruits rotting.
Keep your cured squash on a shelf or a rack rather than the floor, which might have bacteria or the dampness could cause rotting. The skins must always stay dry to reduce the risk of bacteria or fungi taking over.
Each week, take a quick look at your squashes. If you notice any spots developing, move them away from the other ones, and use them quickly. That could be a sign that it might start to rot.
The Best Time to Eat Each Type of Squash
Many are ready to eat when they’re mature at harvest time, but some do better with time in storage for the best flavor. Remember that the process increases the natural sweetness, so it’s typically recommended that you wait between 50 to 55 days before eating.
Here are some suggestions based on when their flavor is the best!
- Acorn Squash
These fruits can be eaten at harvest, and the best quality for eating is within 2.5 months after harvest.
- Spaghetti Squash
You can eat spaghetti squash as soon as you harvest them, and they store well for about 2.5 months. That tends to be the peak of their flavor.
This type of squash is often best consumed when you harvest them, and they maintain this quality for up to 3 months after harvesting.
- Hubbards & Smaller Kabocha
You could cook these right when you harvest them if you picked when they were mature and ready. However, you’ll find that the flavor stays consistent for up to 4 months.
- Larger Kabocha & Buttercup
You’ll find they have the best flavor after about 1.5-2 months in storage, but they store well for up to 6 months.
- Hubbard & Butternut
The best time to eat these squashes is two months into storage, but they’ll keep well for up to 6 months. You have plenty of time to enjoy these. Most save them for last!
Curing squash isn’t a complicated process, but it does take several days or weeks to complete. When done correctly, your winter squashes can last for months without spoiling or rotting in storage, feeding your family delicious, nutritious meals all winter long.