Don’t store other fruits in the same area where you store pumpkins and squash. For example, apples and pears release ethylene gas, which shortens the life of pumpkins and squash. Regularly check your stash; promptly remove any fruit that shows signs of decay or softening (these can go to the compost bin). I have heard about a “curing” process for pumpkins and winter squash. In my opinion, it’s a bit fussy—it involves keeping the fruit at 80-85 degrees and at around 80% humidity for a period of 10-20 days, after which you lower the humidity and temperature for long term storage. I personally don’t have a reliable humidity control system anywhere in my house, and if the temperature gets to 85 I tend to crank up the fans, if not the air conditioner. Which brings me to my next favorite option: freezing.
According to the USDA, the safest and best way to preserve pumpkin and winter squash is to freeze it. Luckily, it is also the easiest—much easier than canning would be.
As with any food preservation process, safety is paramount. People always think about food safety when canning, but they tend to get a bit lax when freezing food—after all, don’t the freezing temperatures kill bacteria? Isn’t it the heat that makes bacteria thrive? In a word, no. Bacteria are well equipped to survive extreme temperatures, hot or cold. With that in mind, once they’re cut, don’t let pumpkins or squash sit out at room temperature longer than two hours, and make sure your work surfaces, knives, etc. are clean.
To freeze pumpkin and winter squash, simply wash the produce, remove the seeds, the stringy insides (a serrated grapefruit spoon is a good tool for this job), and the rind, then cut the meat into 1” x 1” chunks. Cook the chunks in boiling water, or steam them, until fork tender. After draining and mashing, let the stuff cool in the refrigerator. Pack it into containers with rigid sides (Chinese take out containers are great) and leave room at the top for it to expand. Label and date the containers, then pop them into the freezer. I do not add spices before freezing, although you can. I’d rather use fresh spices when I cook it up.
An even easier option is to cut the fruit in half and remove its seeds and strings. Put the halves, cut side down, in a baking dish with a bit of water (about ¼”). Bake uncovered at 400 degrees until tender, about 45 minutes, and then follow the same instructions (above) for freezing boiled squash.
You should use your frozen squash and pumpkin within 8–12 months for best quality. The only problem I’ve had with fresh-frozen pumpkin and squash is that it tends to be watery when it’s thawed. I let it drain for a couple hours in a colander in the fridge (put a bowl underneath to catch the juice). You can use fresh-frozen pumpkin and squash the same way you use the fresh product. My favorite way to use pumpkin is a classic pumpkin pie and my favorite way to use squash is to heat it through (on top of the stove) and add butter, grated fresh ginger, and a shake of sea salt (all to taste). Both are also perfect for your favorite quick bread recipe.
Hold the Seeds!
Everyone knows about roasted pumpkin seeds, but did you know roasted butternut and acorn squash seeds are also delicious? Wash your seeds with cold water (make sure you get all the pulpy strings off ) and put them in a single layer on a greased baking sheet. You can use vegetable oil, olive oil, or even non-stick cooking spray. Bake them for about 20–30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so, at 325 degrees. Tasty toppings are only limited by your imagination. I love to toss them with a bit of melted butter and Parmesan cheese; a friend likes melted butter and curry powder. How about some olive oil and fresh herbs? I’ve even heard of cinnamon and sugar (which makes sense when you consider pie spices). My kids eat them with just a sprinkle of sea salt.
And one more thing: before you preserve pumpkins and squash, use them in a festive fall display. Wash, thoroughly dry, and then “buff” them up with some olive oil. (Did you know it has naturally occurring antibacterial properties?) Bring the outdoors in by arranging them on a silver tray with a smattering of fall leaves and throw in a couple handfuls of cranberries for a “pop” of color. When you’re done with the display, cook it up and chow down!