How To Cut and Peel Hard Winter Squash

Sweet Dumpling Squash and Pattypan Squash.

Winter squashes, with their wonderful range of shapes, colors, patterns and flavors, are definitely among the sweeter treats of the cold months. But the sweetness comes at a price: first, you have to roll up your sleeves and find some way to cut and peel the lovely beasts without losing a finger to the process.

Indeed, while some — especially in the early season — boast a thin rind easily peeled with a vegetable peeler, or even one that’s edible (cue love letter to the Hokkaido squash, potimarron in French), most secure their tender flesh underneath a tough outer shell that challenges even the sharpest chef’s knife. The task is made trickier by the shape of the squash, which is rarely stable enough that you can hack at it safely. And even if you do manage to cut your way through, working your paring knife along the grooves and ridges of the rind can be awkward and time-consuming.

Ever wondered how to cut and peel hard winter squash?

Fortunately, there is an easier way, which I’ve recently adopted: it consists in par-cooking the squash for a very short time in a pan of simmering water to just soften the rind: after this treatment, only the very outside of the squash is cooked, which means you remain free to do with it as you please, whether you want to boil it, roast it, braise it, or stir-fry it (take your pick).

Here’s how to proceed:

Pattypan squash taking a simmering bath in my 4-quart Staub cocotte.

Pattypan squash taking a bath in my 4-quart Staub cocotte.

1- Scrub the squash clean, and find a cooking vessel large enough to accommodate. The squash doesn’t need to be fully immersed (see step 3 1/2 below) but it needs to be a reasonable fit.

2- With the squash sitting inside the pot (just so you know how much water to use), fill it with fresh water. Remove the squash and bring the water to a simmer.

3- Lower the squash carefully into the water, and allow to simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.

3 1/2- If the squash wasn’t entirely immersed during step 3, flip it carefully in the water so the top part is now immersed. Allow to simmer for 2 to 3 more minutes.

4- Lift the squash carefully from the pot and drain; I use two large spoons as hand extensions of sorts to lift out the squash. Obviously you want to have a secure hold on it: if you were to drop the squash back in, you may burn yourself with the splashing water. I prefer this to draining the water out as I want to save the water (see step 6).

5- You will find the squash can now be effortlessly sliced or cubed, and the rind easily peeled, using a simple vegetable peeler and without wasting the flesh that’s right underneath the skin (where a lot of the good stuff lies).

6- Reuse the water to soften the rind on any other squashes you may have on hand (I generally do several in a row, freezing the excess as needed), and/or use to make soup or stock, cook other vegetables, grains and legumes, or at the very least, once cooled, water your plants.

Note: If you prefer, the par-cooking can also be done in a steamer for 5 minutes or so.

Join the conversation!

Have you ever been intimidated by hard-rind winter squash? Have you found or developed other techniques to deal with it while keeping all your limbs attached?

Pattypan squash, easily sliced in two after simmering (using my beloved chef's knife).

Pattypan squash, easily sliced in two after simmering (using my beloved chef’s knife).

  • Marion Hayot

    Quelle super technique! Je suis toujours en galère pour éplucher ce genre de courges.
    Tu m’as sauvé de nombreuses prises de tête à venir, merci!!!

    Je testerai bientôt…. Sur le comptoir m’attendent en ce moment une butternut et un potimarron qui eux sont plutôt faciles à dompter!

    • Effectivement, le potimarron et la courge butternut sont plutôt dociles, j’imagine que ça explique leur meilleur succès commercial que le patidou ou le pâtisson d’ailleurs…

  • Wow, that’s brilliant… thanks so much for the tips!

  • This is a genius little trick for dissecting winter squash. I often abscond the heartier varieties of squash precisely for the fear of losing a finger or two, and this method greatly reduces the chance that even a klutz like me will badly hurt herself. Well done!

  • Microwave — if it fits.

  • Sara Davies

    For butternut squash, I get around peeling altogether using my new favorite method: roasting in the oven. I cut the squash in half, remove the seeds, drizzle with a little oil, salt & pepper (sometimes crushed red chili pepper) and place both halves on a sheet pan cut side down. Roast at 400F for about 45 minutes (or until a knife easily pierces the flesh); sometimes I turn over near the end to get some caramelized browning on the flesh. I can then use a large spoon to scoop out the flesh. This method is great for my two main uses – risotto and a Moroccan-spiced tomato sauce for meatballs.

    • Thanks for sharing your method! The butternut squashes I find here are thin-skinned enough that I can just peel them with a vegetable peeler. But roasting certainly improves their flavor!

  • Papillon

    I love butternut squash, but develop a rash from an enzyme under the flesh when it’s raw. I typically roast in the oven and eat it pureed, however sometimes I want it cubed (such as for your Butternut Squash and Lentil Soup). I just tried this method and am hoping I won’t break out in a rash! Before I used rubber gloves to handle which is awkward when slicing!

    Some people have similar contact dermetitis reactions to acorn squash or mangos.

    • Sorry to hear about that allergy — indeed, it’s awkward enough to handle winter squashes without needing to throw in rubber gloves! How did it go — rash or no rash?

      • Papillon

        Sadly there is a rash, but it is very mild and tolerable.

        • Sorry it’s not the miracle solution, but good if it lessens the symptoms!

  • Valerie Michaleski

    I microwave them as well. For a kabocha size squash I microwave it for 3-4 minutes and then check it by sticking a fork into it to see if the rind is getting a little soft. If the rind is still hard I will microwave it 2-3 minutes more until it gets to that point. It will be really hot so use a pot holder to take it out and then let it cool. Once it’s cool it slices easily and is also easy to peel.

  • Tami

    Thanks, Clothilde! I’m going to try your technique!

  • Nathalie d’Abbadie

    Thank you for this advice! It is much appreciated and it is so nice to know that you take your readers’ comments into account when writing new posts! :)

  • You know, I never thought to peel the harder winter squash varieties this way. Great idea, can’t wait to give this a try.

  • Haniya Ahmad

    Some people have similar contact dermetitis reactions to acorn squash or mangos. good
    morning quotes

  • Neil_hyg

    Butternut or acorn squash. Either way, I wash them off, then I use a very long knife to chop them into big pieces. Focus your attention on saving your fingers; don’t worry about the shape of the squash pieces. For me, the goal is to get all the pieces into a pot of boiling water. Test with a butter knife after 20 or 25 minutes. If the small pieces finish first, remove them from the water and let the bigger pieces have another 5 minutes.

    The last time, the whole butternut squash didn’t fit into the pot, even after chopping it up. So I used the same hot water for two rounds of boiling.

    Let the pieces all cool off a bit to you can handle them without burning the fingers you just saved. So easy at that point to scoop all the squash out of the skins with a tablespoon. I’m not much of a cook, so it’s just going to be mashed with salt and butter. But you could get some properly shaped chunks at that point, too, if you need them for your artisan soup.

    My first-hand experience demonstrates that even a caveman can do it my way. And it avoids the vegetable peeler! That hurts just to think about it! I’ve hardly ever hurt myself with a tablespoon.

    Biggest hazard is a pumpkin. Consider its size, consider your knife, visualize how you’re going to attack before you dive in and hurt yourself. It may be dangerous, but pumpkins are so worth it. But you need a plan, a little manual dexterity, and patience.

    Whichever the winter squash, seeds should be removed, sprayed with olive oil, pinch of salt, and tossed into the toaster oven. I guess 300 degrees until they start to toast. Caveman says don’t worry about cleaning off the stringy connective “fiber” from the seeds — that would be unnecessary work and that stuff will toast also, get crunchy, and can also be eaten. Caveman eats seeds, and has ideas about dealing with the seed shells: If you toast them all well enough, the seeds — shells and all — will be nice and crunchy and can be eaten — the other choice (peeling off the shells) is just too much work.

    The important thing to remember is that every winter squash is wonderful. Taste and healthfulness. All the shades from gold to red are beta-carotene. Lots of fiber. Each has it’s own taste, related to the other varieties, but different. None so different than the pumpkin, and my mouth starts watering just thinking about it. You know you’re a real health-food junkie if you can scoop the squash out of its skin and eat it plain and unadulterated. Either that or a caveman.

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