Butternut squash is one of my favorite vegetables both to grow and to eat, and so I have a vested interest in educating people in how to use it. But I still encounter people who don’t. One example is a local restaurant that serves it as a side-dish, steamed and still chalky-crunchy. An acquaintance I talked to recently also told me “I always just steam it. It’s kind of boring.” And a family member tried to make a recipe I gave her for Butternut Muffins but did not cook the squash long enough before preparing the batter, resulting in muffins she described as “horrible”.
Butternut is a very versatile vegetable (VVV): it can be baked, boiled, steamed or stewed. But IMHO, it should never, ever be crunchy.
By far the fastest, easiest, and arguably tastiest way to cook Butternut is to bake it. You can do this in one of two basic ways:
- Unpeeled, cut in half and baked face down on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper is by far the easiest. You don’t even need to remove the seeds before cooking. Cook at 400 degrees — hot — until the squash releases its juices and they are bubbly and brown around the edges. This is a sign that the sugars in the squash have caramelized and its flavor concentrated. Depending on the size of the squash and on your oven, this will take 30-45 minutes. Allow the squash to cool and then remove the skin and seedy pulp. Butternut cooked this way can be served as a side-dish, stirred into soups and pureed, or turned into batter for baked goods like muffins or coffee cakes. If you have leftovers, it can also be frozen for a second use.
- Peel the uncooked squash (carefully), remove the seedy pulp, and then cut into slices or cubes. Brush or toss the pieces with oil and salt — or experiment with a different marinade. Roast the squash directly on a baking sheet at 425 degrees, turning once or twice to brown and caramelize. It should be slightly crisp on the outside and completely soft inside. Cooked this way, it is a delicious side-dish but is also great used in place of croutons on a salad of sturdy greens like spinach, kale or cabbage.
If you are choose to boil or steam Butternut, you are foregoing the wonderful transformation that it undergoes when its watery flavor and starchy texture are transformed by the process of caramelization. (You can caramelize it in a frying pan, but it is difficult and time-consuming). So, you should only do so if you are going to use it in a recipe with lots of other flavors.
As I mentioned above, it’s actually easier to prepare Butternut for a soup by baking it — because you don’t have to peel it in advance. So I’m going to say that the only reason to use it without baking it first is if you want a soup or stew that is not pureed. For example, it is a great addition to spicy chili or mole when peeled and de-seeded and then diced. Slow-cooked this way, it absorbs the complex flavors while retaining its shape and some of its texture. When you bite into those now-soft cubes, they release the flavors back while mellowing the spiciness.