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How to tell when winter squash is ready to harvest

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

Winter squash is a favorite around our house. Its flavor complements many kinds of foods either as an ingredient or as a side dish. The recipes can be sweet or savory. It is a very nutritious food being rich in beta carotene and other vitamins and minerals. It also is a good source of lutein and zeaxanthin, two nutrients that prevent macular degeneration and cataracts.

A major reason we like it so much is because it stores so well. A well ripened and selected squash will last for months. Some varieties can last up to a year under the right conditions and still be very good to eat. It’s almost like having nature’s canned vegetable, only it’s still fresh.

This vegetable got its name because it was always eaten during the winter as opposed to summer squash, which is eaten during the summer at the immature stage.

Hard shell squash is another name for winter squash and is sold under that name by produce wholesalers that sell to restaurants. As you can guess, it’s called hard shell because of its hard external covering called the “rind”.

For best taste and optimum storage capability, squash must be harvested when it is fully ripe. I know gardeners who pick and eat their winter squash as soon as it gets its winter color. It is perfectly ok to eat it at that stage but is bland compared to the fully mature fruit.

To check your squash for ripeness, press your thumbnail against the rind. If your thumbnail easily pokes through then the squash is not fully ripe yet. If your thumbnail cannot break through the rind and leaves only a dent at the most, then it is ready to harvest and to eat or put into storage. Also, before you start poking your squash, look at the shell, if it has a shiny sheen to it, it’s not ready yet.

An immature squash may look ripe but its rind will still be tender. This one had a rind that was easily broken and began to ooze juice.
This acorn squash is fully mature. I had to really press hard just to make a shallow dent in the rind.

Optimal storage temperatures for squash  are in the mid to upper 50s.

Any nick, gouge or other damage will cause an entry point for fungus spores to enter and start to decay your fruit. The same holds true for missing stems, the fruit is not secure against mold unless the stem is still on. Use a pruning shears to separate the fruit from the vine to avoid snapping off the stem.

Use any damaged fruit and those with missing stems first.

Exposure to cold temperatures during a frost will damage squash, too. Frost damage can sometimes be seen as a slightly discolored area on the fruit on the side exposed to the air. It’s easier to spot on the lighter colored types such as butternut.

One last attribute that squash has that puts it over the top is its edible seeds. They can be roasted in the oven like pumpkin seeds for a tasty, homemade snack.