You will come across many types of squash fruits on the culinary journey of your life. While they all come from the same genus Cucurbita, there are a number of unique varieties that deserve individual attention. The herbaceous vine bushes on which squash grow are native to Mesoamerica, but have now been naturalized and are widely cultivated in other parts of the world, including Asia, Africa, and Europe. Other similar types of fruits, with an indistinguishable appearance, are native to Africa and technically belong to a different genus.
What is Squash?
Squash is also widely referred to as gourds or pumpkins, depending on the area of the world you are in, but there are some distinct species. Of the 27 species that are widely recognized within the Cucurbita genus, these have been widely domesticated – C. pepo, C. moschata, C. ficifolia, C. maxima and C. argyrosperma. C. pepo is the oldest domesticated variety, with evidence that it has been an important staple fruit for nearly 10,000 years in certain areas of Mexico.
Currently, squash has become an important component of diets and culinary traditions around the world, thanks to the rich nutrient profile of these fruits and their versatility in many different meals. Squash can also range in size and color, from the size of a tomato up to massive pumpkins weighing hundreds of pounds. Generally, squash fruits are round or oval in shape with a hard outer rind, they come in different colors – green, yellow, orange, white, brown or mottled. Most squash fruits have similar nutrient compositions, including high levels of vitamin A and vitamin C. They contain varying amounts of minerals and vitamins, and an impressive concentration of polyphenolic compounds and other antioxidants, such as cucurbitacin, the active ingredient in the fruit of the Cucurbita genus.
Types of Squash
While there are dozens of types of squash varieties, the most common and highly recommended, based on nutrient density and ease of preparation, include butternut squash, hubbard squash, spaghetti squash, and pumpkins, among others.
This squash is a favorite in Japan, where it goes by a number of names, but in the countries near America, you may also recognize it as a buttercup squash. With a thick, blue-gray rind and bright yellow flesh inside, this squash is not only unique in appearance but is also delicious.
This squash is particularly popular because it is extremely low in calories and carbohydrates, while also delivering high levels of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B1, beta-carotene and other antioxidants. Many people also choose kabocha squash for digestive issues, as it has a moderate level of dietary fiber.
When it comes to types of squash that live up to their name, spaghetti squash fits in the category. When the rich, yellow flesh of spaghetti squash is cooked, it begins to separate into thin strands, similar to spaghetti. As a whole fruit, it resembles a watermelon in terms of size and shape and usually has a light-yellow or a cream exterior. The flavor is often described as nutty, making it a favorite side dish for savory meals.
Spaghetti squash is high in fiber, and low in calories and fat. As always, it contains a good amount of vitamin A and C, as well as numerous B vitamins, as well as magnesium, sodium, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. This squash has been linked to a reduction in hypertension, improved nervous system function, stronger bones and a more resilient immune system.
Similar in appearance to a pumpkin, a calabaza squash is typically in light or dark green color and is commonly found in areas of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean, and other countries that import exotic fruits. In some areas, this type of squash is known as ayote, and has a somewhat soft interior flesh, making it an excellent addition to soups, stews, curries and in the making of pies.
Like many other species in this genus, calabaza squash is high in vitamin C and vitamin B1, while also offering moderate levels of vitamin A and potassium. There are low levels of protein and fat found in this type of squash, which can also help in growth and development, and even improving heart health. Other common health associations of calabaza squash are its ability to improve bone density, boost the immune system, optimize hormone and enzyme production, and help to regulate blood pressure.
One of the most nutrient-dense varieties of squash, acorn squash is so named because of its physical appearance, which is quite similar to a large, yellowish acorn. It has a sweet flavor that pairs well with savory dishes and meats, so it is often prepared in the autumn and winter. Also, it is a winter squash, so it is not harvested until later in the year.
Acorn squash is rich in dietary fiber, as well as vitamin A, vitamin C, and various B vitamins, as well as significant levels of potassium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. Most importantly, acorn squash is well-known for its antioxidants, particularly beta-carotene. As a result of this excellent nutrient profile, acorn squash is known to improve digestive efficiency, stimulate the immune system and improve bone mineral density, which can help to prevent osteoporosis. Furthermore, acorn squash can help to prevent chronic disease and oxidative stress, strengthen vision and reduce blood pressure when consumed in moderation.
Perhaps, the most famous variety of squash, butternut squash is rather tall and shaped like a vase, and has light brown, pale skin. The interior flesh is slightly softer and juicier than other squash varieties and is orange in color. The more orange a butternut squash is, the sweeter and softer the flesh will be, making it an ideal ingredient in curries, soups, and stews.
This squash variety also boasts an impressive nutrient package, including a huge amount of vitamin A, a large concentration of vitamin C, a low level of calories, and moderate levels of potassium, magnesium, vitamin E, manganese, and a number of B vitamins. This is in addition to the antioxidants found in butternut squash, which can neutralize free radicals in the body. Butternut squash is associated with a reduction in inflammation, a lowered risk of cancer, healthy bones, a reduction in blood pressure, reduce depression during menstruation and more effective weight loss efforts.
As one of the less well-known types of squash, delicata squash has often been compared to sweet potatoes in terms of taste and consistency. Usually long, and often in the shape of a peanut, this squash also goes by the common names peanut squash and Bohemian squash. Unlike many other types of squash, the rind on a delicata squash is quite thin and prone to bruising, so it tends to be consumed near its area of cultivation, which may explain its rarity in certain areas.
Delicata squash contains only 40 calories in a cup of fresh fruit, which is great if you are trying to watch your calorie intake. Furthermore, this squash is low in carbs with a moderate amount of fiber, in addition to vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium, and iron. It contains a number of key antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can lead to chronic disease. Delicata squash is also associated with better digestion, improved blood circulation, strong bones and a supported immune system.
Although Hubbard squash is a bit strange in appearance, round and bumpy, with dark purple, blue or gray skin, as well as warts and imperfections, it is packed with nutrients and is an extremely hardy fruit. The rind is one of the thickest of any squash, so this is one of the best types of squash to store during winter. These squash can grow to an enormous size, and their flesh is quite dense, so they are commonly available in stores in pre-cut or packaged sizes.
Hubbard squash has thick, inedible skin surrounding dense flesh that is rich in vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Most impressively, a single serving provides roughly 250% of your daily recommended intake of vitamin A, which acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body. These properties lower your risk of chronic disease and cancer, as well as improve your vision health and reduce sleep issues.
This legendary member of the Cucurbita genus can grow to mammoth proportions but tends to be around 5-10 pounds with a rich orange exterior when it is ripe. The rind is thick, hard and inedible, and the flesh is rather dense, like an uncooked sweet potato. The seeds can also be removed and cooked in various ways, as they are similarly packed with nutrients and antioxidants.
Pumpkins contain good levels of dietary fiber, as well as moderate amounts of potassium, copper, calcium, iron, magnesium, and manganese. This goes along with high levels of vitamin C, vitamin A and a variety of B vitamins. All of these vitamins can help reduce oxidative stress, improve metabolic speed, and lower your risk of chronic disease.