The Absolute Best Way to Cook Butternut Squash

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Butternut Squash

In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She’s boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and seared more Porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles the butternut squash.


In October of 2022, Michigan-based farmer Derek Ruthrouff claimed the Guiness World Record for the heaviest butternut squash. Ruthrouff presented a hulking specimen that weighed in at just above one hundred and four pounds. Three weeks later, I consumed roughly the same volume of butternut squash. I did not win an award for it.

Squash was first cultivated more than 8,000 years ago in Mexico and Peru, but the butternut variety was bred by a man in Massachusetts in the middle of the twentieth century. It has a lamp-shaped body and flesh the color of American cheese, and when prepared deftly, it tastes like a sweetened, concentrated pumpkin—a touch vegetal, and noticeably nutty. There is little more that is winter-affirming than a perfectly cooked butternut squash, soft and candy-like, buttery and rich. Good butternut squash can be revelatory. Good butternut squash can turn around your whole day. Which I know, because three weeks after Rutherouff won that fancy award—and international glory—for his enormous home-grown contribution to the butternut canon, I dropped two full sheet pans of roasted squash onto my living room floor and my (bare) feet.

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All of this to say, I may not have come out of the latest round of Absolute Best Tests with a trophy, but I did come away from my battlefield (my home, which is now covered in smears of squash in places you couldn’t dream of) with hard-earned intel and the discovery that a perfect bite of squash soothes all ills. Even the kind of ill where you thought you washed your feet thoroughly but hours later you look down to find another little bit of squash on your toe. Let’s dive in:

I cooked eight butternut squashes of roughly the same size, about two pounds apiece. Yes, my husband did look at the kitchen counter and then at me and, saying nothing, delivered just a swift shake of his head, before he silently walked from the room.

For methods that required the squash to be peeled and cut down, I did as follows:

Peel squash with a vegetable peeler. To cut squash in half lengthwise, slice about ½ inch off the top and bottom to make flat sides; stand the squash up on a cutting board and carefully slide down the center with a large, sharp knife to make two roughly-even halves. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon.

For cooking methods that involved using a fat, I used extra-virgin olive oil. I seasoned only with Diamond Crystal kosher salt.

1. Roast Whole

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium butternut squash
¾ to 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal Kosher salt

Heat oven to 425°F.
Rub whole squash all over with oil then season with salt. Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan or baking dish and poke it in about 10 places, all over, with a sharp knife or fork.

Roast about 55 to 85 minutes (depending on size), turning once midway through, until the skin is brown and bubbled, and a knife easily pierces the squash all the way through.
Remove from oven; let cool enough to handle, then slide in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.

Findings:
The Roast Whole specimen was tender all the way through, with flesh a consistency closer to canned pumpkin than cantaloupe. This method would be excellent if intended as a fuss-free way to generate easily mashable squash for a second use, like as one component of a butternut squash cheese sauce for pasta. A primary benefit of roasting a squash whole is that there arises no need to risk chopping off an extremity trying to saw through a whole, raw butternut upfront; once cooked, the squash was easy as butter to slice. The only downside — beyond a slightly longer cook time than other methods — was that because the squash went in whole, it wasn’t seasoned until after the roast, which meant the seasoning didn’t have a chance to bind as well and sink beneath the surface. (The skin, however, was delicious.)

2. Roast in Halves

Ingredients:
1 ½ to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium butternut squash
1 ½ teaspoons Diamond Crystal Kosher salt

Heat oven to 425°F.
Cut squash in half lengthwise: slice about ½ inch off the top and bottom to make flat sides; then, stand the squash up and carefully cut down the center to make two roughly even halves. Rub halves all over with oil then season with salt. Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan or baking dish, cut side down.
Roast until the halves are blistered and easily pierced all the way through with a knife, 40 to 50 minutes (depending on size).
Remove from oven; let cool enough to handle, then scrape out the seeds with a spoon.

Findings:
The Roast in Halves method produced beautifully seasoned squash with a healthy amount of browning, which meant a meaningfully better flavor than the Roast Whole squash. Roasting squash in halves is an excellent choice for home cooks who wish to generate a visually dramatic centerpiece for a meal; the roasted halves could serve as vessels for a long-simmering sugo di carne, or a warm, perky grain salad.

3. Roast in Cubes

Ingredients:
1 ½ to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium butternut squash
1 1/2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal Kosher salt

Heat oven to 425°F. Peel squash with a vegetable peeler. Cut squash in half lengthwise: slice about ½ inch off the top and bottom to make flat sides; then, stand the squash up and carefully cut down the center to make two roughly even halves. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Cut each half into 1–inch-thick slices, then cut in the other direction to make 1-inch cubes.
On a parchment-lined sheet pan or in a baking dish, toss cubes with olive oil and salt until coated. Arrange in a single layer. Roast until squash is tender and browned and easily pierced with a fork, flipping cubes occasionally, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Findings:
The Roast in Cubes method provided the best specimen for Crisp Maximalists, since each side of each tiny cube was given ample opportunity to firm up against the hot pan. The cubed squash was also wonderfully rich, since there was much more surface area available for oil and salt than with most of the other methods. I can’t count the shortened cook time as a plus though, because the upfront peeling and chopping meant the overall process actually took longer than the Roast in Halves batch.

4. Roast in Cubes (Low Temp)

Ingredients:
1 ½ to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium butternut squash
1 ½ teaspoons Diamond Crystal Kosher salt

Heat oven to 350°F.
Peel squash with a vegetable peeler. Cut squash in half lengthwise: slice about ½ inch off the top and bottom to make flat sides; then, stand the squash up and carefully cut down the center to make two roughly even halves. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Cut each half into 1-inch-thick slices, then cut in the other direction to make 1-inch cubes.
On a parchment-lined sheet pan or in a baking dish, toss cubes with olive oil and salt until coated. Arrange in a single layer.
Roast until squash is tender, browned, and easily pierced with a fork, about 45-55 minutes.

Findings:
This batch of squash was overall quite similar to the Roast in Cubes (high heat) batch, but less crispy. Where it lacked in sharp edge, it made up for in flavor—because of the longer cook time, these cubes had a noticeably more concentrated, sweet flavor.

5. Roast in Wedges

Ingredients:
1 ½ to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium butternut squash
1 ½ teaspoons Diamond Crystal Kosher salt

Heat oven to 425°F.
Peel squash with a vegetable peeler. Cut squash in half lengthwise: slice about ½ inch off the top and bottom to make flat sides; then, stand the squash up and carefully cut down the center to make two roughly even halves. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Cut each half into 1-inch-thick crescents.

On a parchment-lined sheet pan or in a baking dish, toss wedges with olive oil and salt until coated. Arrange in a single layer.
Roast for about 30 to 40 minutes until squash is caramelized and tender. Remove from oven.

Findings:
Roast in Wedges squash offers a number of advantages: it cooks more quickly than halved or whole squash, offers a huge amount of surface area for crisping and seasoning, and it looks sort of fancy. It’s no more annoying to prep than the cubes, so overall, it is a hair faster than the Roast in Halves thanks to the shorter oven jaunt. I would employ this method if I wanted crispy, flavorful squash with enough surface area to complement a sauce, or if the squash were the entree, broiled cheese and seasoned panko.

1. Microwave

Ingredients:
1 medium butternut squash
1 to 1 ½ teaspoons Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, to taste

Cut squash in half lengthwise: slice about ½ inch off the top and bottom to make flat sides; then, stand the squash up and carefully cut down the center to make two roughly even halves. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Place each half, cut side down, on a microwave-safe plate. (You can line it with parchment paper for easy clean up.)

Place the plate or parchment paper into the microwave. Microwave for 15 to 20 minutes on 100 percent power in roughly 5 minute increments, until the squash is easily pierced with a knife.
Let cool enough to handle, then scoop the squash from the skin with a spoon and season with salt.

Findings:
The Microwave squash was sweet and vegetal, and mostly the texture of baby food, with a few spots that cooked unevenly and were tougher. I was as surprised as the next guy (my husband) to find that I enjoyed it nearly as much as the Roast Whole squash, I suppose because the Roast Whole also didn’t get oil on its flesh. This method would be useful to me if I didn’t have access to a stove or oven, and I needed the flesh of the squash for a dish in which it would get seasoned and mashed (like a riff on Thanksgiving sweet potatoes, but with squash).

2. Steam

Ingredients:
1 medium butternut squash
1 to 1 ½ teaspoons Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, to taste

Peel squash with a vegetable peeler. Cut squash in half lengthwise: slice about ½ inch off the top and bottom to make flat sides; then, stand the squash up and carefully cut down the center to make two roughly even halves. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Cut each half into 1-inch-thick slices, then cut in the other direction to make 1-inch cubes.

Bring 2 inches of water to boil in a large saucepan fitted with a steamer basket, making sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the basket. Add cubes to steamer basket, cover, and steam until tender all the way through, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the steamer; season with salt.

Findings:
The Steam squash cubes were beautiful, a darker orange and less opaque than any of the other trials. They had the most distinctly vegetal flavor, and were less sweet (since the squash did not make contact with a hot surface to brown). This method would work best if you intended to use the squash in a dish where too much sweet squashy flavor would overwhelm the other components (like, as a topping to a chirashi bowl), or in some sort of salad or agridolce where the squash will absorb the flavors of a dressing.

3. Roast Then Pan Fry

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon
1 medium butternut squash
1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, plus one 1 teaspoon

Heat oven to 425°F. Rub whole squash all over with 1 tablespoon oil then season with salt. Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan or baking dish and poke it in about 10 places, all over, with a sharp knife or fork.
Roast about 55 to 85 minutes (depending on size), turning once midway through, until the skin is brown and bubbled, and a knife easily pierces the squash all the way through. Let cool enough to handle. Then, lay the cooked squash on a cutting board and slice the squash lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon and discard. Scoop out flesh and set aside.

Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to a cast iron skillet. Once hot, add the soft, roasted squash flesh, and season all over with salt. (You can eat the roasted, salted skin for a snack!) Sauté, moving squash around every few minutes with a wooden spoon, until browned in places, like a softened hash.

Findings:
Oh my! This was a delight. As proof, it is the first squash I went back to after the Sheet Pan Drop and Splatter Incident of 2022, for comfort. The resulting squash was deeply sweet, with a concentrated nutty flavor complemented by all of the oil, salt, and extra exposure to a hot pan. I would love to eat a large vat of Roast Then Pan Fry every night until March. It would be a stand out dinner side, or a perfect base for fried eggs.

The overall best methods for evenly crispy squash with flavorful flesh and maximal seasoning were:

Roast in Cubes and Roast in Wedges (use a lower oven temp if you prefer extra sweetness to crisp).
If you want to arrive at similar results but save yourself all the peeling and chopping time, Roast in Halves is your saving grace this season.
If you aren’t pressed for time and love a sweet, rich squash dish, Roast Then Pan Fry was the clear, overall hero of this test.

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