Why Some Winter Squash Tastes Better Than Others
A winter squash or edible pumpkin, after cooking, should have a delicious, sweet flavor and smooth, pleasantly dry texture. The fact that all of our winter squashes have been bred or selected for the best taste is what makes Johnny's varieties really stand out. All too often, a supermarket squash does not achieve that potential, but instead tastes flat, watery, and — to put it frankly — boring.
Dr. Brent Loy, a cucurbit breeder at the University of New Hampshire, describes the problem as "a grower's paradox."
Several factors determine the eating quality of winter squash and pumpkins and, unfortunately, those factors are not always compatible with maximum profits. That's especially true for wholesale growers, who have little incentive to go the extra mile for great-tasting squash. Direct market growers, though, have the opportunity to produce the highest quality squash and then charge a premium price for it.
If growing great-tasting squash and pumpkins is your goal, you will want to read Dr. Loy's recommendations for harvest and postharvest handling to improve eating quality. Here are the basic considerations.
Yield vs. Eating Quality
Good eating quality is determined mainly by the percentage of sugars and starch in the edible portion of the squash.
Dr. Loy distinguishes the two:
Obviously, squash with higher dry matter content is better for flavor, and dry matter content is largely determined by variety. The "grower's paradox" referred to by Dr. Loy arises because a higher percentage of dry matter means a lower fresh weight yield. As a rule of thumb, a variety with an excellent level of dry matter, say 20%, will yield considerably less than a variety with 10% dry matter. In other words, the higher quality squash varieties typically yield less than lower quality varieties.
"A grower interested in marketing the best-quality winter squash must often sacrifice fresh weight yield," Dr. Loy writes. "This is less of a problem at a retail market because a grower can highlight a quality product and price accordingly, but with lack of quality control for squash in supermarkets, a wholesale grower has little incentive to plant a variety which has the best eating quality."
Harvest & Storage
Another critical factor in eating quality is maturity of the squash at harvest.
Most small varieties reach full size by 20 days after fruit set. Accumulation of dry matter and starch content peaks at 30 to 35 days after pollination. However, the fruit is not mature until the seeds are fully developed, which occurs at about 55 days after fruit set.
Dr. Loy stresses the importance of maintaining healthy plants until at least 50 days after fruit set, because photosynthesis is essential to the development of sugars and dry matter. A squash that is picked too early will continue to develop seeds, but it does so by depleting the dry matter, thereby reducing eating quality.
Although fruit and seed maturity are similar across the three main species of edible winter squashes and pumpkins, harvest and storage recommendations vary by type.
What happens to squash fruits in storage.
At harvest, before storage, the flesh of most kinds of winter squash is dry and not very sweet. Over time, in storage, some of the flesh's complex starch (dry matter) breaks down into simple sugars and water. The result is squash with improved flavor — a sweeter and pleasantly moister taste. There is an optimal storage period, differing for each type of squash; after that, fruits may appear to be storing well, but usually the flavor will decline.
Store winter squash and pumpkin fruits at 55–60°F/12–16°C, with relative humidity between 40% and 60%. Maintain good air circulation. Sort through stored fruits biweekly and remove any that are beginning to rot.
Achieve Peak Flavor
To grow the best-tasting winter squash, look first for varieties renowned for flavor rather than yield. Don't harvest them too early, and keep them in storage long enough for the sugars to reach acceptable levels, but not so long that flavor deteriorates.
Calculate the scheduling of each type of squash before you decide which to grow, matching peak flavor to the duration of your markets in fall and winter. It would be pointless to have bins full of butternut or grey kabocha squash reaching their best eating quality after your markets close. You would be better off growing larger quantities of varieties that reach maximal flavor during your busy selling season.
By following these guidelines, you should be able to produce winter squash and edible pumpkins with excellent eating quality. Once your customers realize how great a winter squash can taste, they will be look forward to buying from you every fall.
Dr. Loy is the breeder of Honey Bear acorn squash, and cooperated with Johnny's in the development of Racer, both Johnny's Exclusives. To learn more about eating qualities and the science of breeding of winter squashes and pumpkins, see:
- Johnny's Winter Squash Storage Guide | Chart of Optimal Curing & Storage Periods »
- Plant Breeding at Johnny's, by Rob Johnston, Jr »
- Maximizing Yield & Eating Quality in Winter Squash , by Dr. Brent Loy (2011) »
- Managing Winter Squash for Fruit Quality & Storage , by Dr. Brent Loy (2009) »
- Dr. Loy's UNH Bio »