Squashes, how do they work?
September 13, 2013 6:12 AM   Subscribe

There has got to be a better way to deal with winter squashes than the hacking/swearing/brute-force method I'm using right now. What is it?

For Butternuts, Acorn squash and Spaghetti squash I am at a loss for simple way of processing that doesn't require me to have the strength of three Sasquatches. Right now what I do is hack at the ends with a meat cleaver, which is basically like chopping down a small tree, turn the squash on its now flattened end and use a big serrated blade to start sawing the veg down the middle. Once I've made a decent incursion (with the blade often sticking and having to be pulled out with some force), I go back to the meat cleaver to split the squash in two. This requires a scary amount of pressure, one I'm not really comfortable with where blades and my fingers are involved. There must be some simpler way to do this with less risk of maiming.

I should also add that this takes about an hour, even for pretty small squashes.

I have: a decent steel knife set of the never-needs-sharpening variety that contains one long serrated bread knife, one long knife for giant beasts or something I guess; one thicker "chef's" knife, a heavier meat cleaver, an electric knife with two blades--one thin one for meat and one thicker one for bread, I think; one ceramic knife of the larger "chef's" knife dimension. Am I going to need a chainsaw?
posted by Kitty Stardust to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This bugs me too. Instead of hacking the things in two lengthwise I usually cut them into slices (à la toast) with a serrated knife, and then cut the skin off the outside of each slice individually. You need more cuts than if you do the whole thing at one, but less force.
posted by katrielalex at 6:21 AM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: What I've found that helps a lot is microwaving the whole squash for about 2 minutes before going at the hacking process. That softens everything up so it's a lot easier to cut into.
posted by Empidonax at 6:22 AM on September 13, 2013 [18 favorites]

This may or may not be easier for you, but it works for me. For butternuts, I hack them in half the short way right through the narrow middle so I've got two small squash that are round with one flat end each. The I stand each one on the flat end and hack it down the middle lengthwise. Scoop the guts out, put all four quarters face down in a baking pan with a bit of water, and bake until tender.

If I'm doing something where I want to preserve the classic "butternut half" shape, which is rare, I reassemble the quarters into halves in the pan and then again in the serving dish.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:28 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

OK, this is going to sound completely moronic but I swear to you it's what you want. Get a cheap pumpkin carving kit. Those flat, serrated knives are the best thing for opening a hard-shelled squash. They have pull serration, that's the key.

I discovered this several years ago while trying to bore my way into a butternut squash, cursing obscenities at it. On my way into the other room to get a hammer and nail (no joke), I stopped at my craft box and thought, hey, I wonder if pumpkin carving tools would work.

They do. And they work SO MUCH BETTER than any other "real" knife. And bonus, you can probably get them right now at Walgreens.
posted by phunniemee at 6:30 AM on September 13, 2013 [16 favorites]

Best answer: Microwaving it first for a few minutes as Empidonax advised above is really the way to go. The trick is to do it long enough so that it's soft, but not too long so it's too hot to handle. For a medium sized spaghetti squash the magic timing is 3 minutes using a relatively high powered microwave. I then wrap it in plastic wrap and cook it about five minutes or so. This ensures that the time in the oven goes down considerably, but the squash still gets nice and brown and that rich roasted flavor.
posted by Kimberly at 6:34 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like Empidonax, I either microwave or bake the whole squash before cutting it. Keep an eye on it, though, especially in the microwave. Without going into the sordid details, let's just say it's not much fun ridding the inside of the microwave of exploded spaghetti squash.
posted by DrGail at 6:36 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I use a very sharp chef's knife and a kitchen towel for grip to make sure nothing slides around. When the flesh is very hard, I get things started with an ulu. The ulu, used for cutting frozen meat and fish, makes it easier to get a foothold.
posted by Nothing at 6:38 AM on September 13, 2013

I was going to suggest a drywall saw, but phunniemee's suggestion works on the same principle and is a lot safer.
posted by holgate at 6:38 AM on September 13, 2013

Pumpkin carving kit saw every time. You will be amazed.
posted by BenPens at 6:42 AM on September 13, 2013

Reading this I'm thinking your knives probably aren't sharp enough. Try using a really heavy, really sharp chef's knife -- rock it back and forth to get some purchase in the flesh, then push down, and if it's sharp enough and heavy enough it should just slide through without you needing to apply too much pressure, because the squash will "crack" around it.
posted by ostro at 6:55 AM on September 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

Peeling is easily achived using a potato peeler.
posted by BenPens at 6:58 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you're mostly making puree'd squash, you can just chop it into hunks, scoop out seeds, and then steam the whole thing with the skin on. That's what I do with pumpkin and the flesh comes right off easily when it's done. Or just cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and roast it, then scoop the roast flesh out and puree as usual.

Although I still don't have quite that much trouble - I'm also inclined to think your knives aren't that sharp. Try getting them professionally sharpened, in a cooking supply store or something, rather than using one of these kinds of sharpeners where you stick the blade in a groove and pull; those work differently than a professional sharpener, and while you will get some improved sharpness, it actually isn't that good for the knife long-term.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:03 AM on September 13, 2013

I usually just stab the squash a few times, rub it in olive oil, and then bake or grill it at low heat whole for about an hour while I cook other stuff. After it's cooked and cool enough, I take it apart and do whatever I was going to do with it...soup, risotto, or just chunk it up and eat it like that.
posted by justjess at 7:19 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here's a good method.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:19 AM on September 13, 2013

I live on squash in the winter and I am a smallish woman who could have more upper body strength. I also have no microwave, though this is usually the good first step (puncture the skin in a few places to not have explodosquash). A few things that work for me

- do nothing, just bake the damned thing in the skin and scoop out the guts later
- peel it with a nice peeler (good for butternut and kabocha and buttercup types of squashes)
- eat the peel (you can do this with delicata and other thin skinned squashes)
- poke a hole and expand - I do this with squashes that I need to cut lengthwise, basically stab the thing and then rotate the knife downwards sort of lever-like

I also have an ulu and I use it for cutting slices once I'm done with opening the thing up. Have you tried the electric knife?
posted by jessamyn at 7:24 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, your knives aren't sharp enough. One sharp, recently-steeled, 10-12" chef's knife should do the trick. I say this as a person with zero upper body strength but very sharp knives and an affinity for squash.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:28 AM on September 13, 2013

I read some instructions that suggested dropping your pumpkin/squash, to make that initial fracture. I think they are always easier to cut by starting with a stab to the heart, and splitting the beast into two or more sections; splitting those into manageable sections; top and tailing; and then finally shaving off the skin with a large, sharp knife. A big sharp knife that you can put some weight behind and get two hands on (one on handle, the other on the middle of the blade) makes the whole thing easier.
posted by Kaleidoscope at 7:34 AM on September 13, 2013

Oh, yeah, if I want it peeled I absolutely do not peel it raw. Through some kind of chemical reaction my simple simian brain hasn't bothered to learn about, that leaves my hands red, painful, and sometimes even blistered. Maybe that means I'm a witch, I dunno. But I always cook it in the peel and then scoop the meat out afterwards if desired. Less effort and easier on the skin.

A good, weighty French knife (chef's knife) is all I've ever needed, but the punkin-carving kit tools sound fascinating and ideal! They're usually on the cheap side, too. Makes me think of the year my parents waited too long to get pumpkins and we ended up carving little green acorn squash with steak knives instead.

About your "never-needs-sharpening" knife set: are they working well for all other purposes? If squash is the only area where they're giving you grief, that's one thing. But if they're not really giving satisfaction in general, maybe the "never-needs-sharpening" part is kind of like the Pirate Code: more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:39 AM on September 13, 2013

Okay, thing number one is, a serrated knife is not a saw. It's serrations are not ground like saw teeth, and they do not work like saw teeth. Forget that approach. Serrated knives are worthless for anything not soft enough to flex out of the way.

A meat cleaver sucks for this too, because the squash is too rigid to bend out of the way of such a thick blade, so the edge, regardless of how sharp, is only cutting for the first quarter of an inch; after that you're basically trying to split it like firewood but using the wrong tool to do so.

I use a reasonably (but not surgically) sharp chef's knife. I lay the squash on its side on a wooden cutting board. I hold the knife vertically, and stick it into the side of the squash right in the middle, with the edge facing either the stem or the blossom end of the squash. I push it all the way though (or almost all the way), then change my hand position so I can rock the blade down through the end of the squash that the edge is facing (the woody stem will split easily). Withdraw knife, rotate squash 180 degrees, and repeat with the other end. Takes about 15 seconds.
posted by jon1270 at 7:43 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you are roasting them and plan to scoop out the flesh -- don't cut before cooking. Heat up the oven, cover a baking pan with tin foil, put the whole squash on the foil, poke the top of the squash a few times with a fork (I'm not convinced the pokes are necessary, but I do it anyway), shove the pan in the oven.

Come back in an hour, take it out, cut it open, scoop out the seeds, eat.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:46 AM on September 13, 2013

Your problem is that you are bringing a knife to a saw fight.

My dad, who is awesome, made a squash-cutting tool for my mom by taking a hacksaw blade and screwing two pieces of wood to either side of the already-existing holes on it to make a handle. This thing can cut through a squash in about 15 seconds. He's also made one for me.

But you can skip the handyman stuff and just buy a small saw. The fact that it's technically "hardware" and not a kitchen tool doesn't disqualify it from kitchen use.
posted by Shepherd at 7:57 AM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

You need a better (read, sharper and the right weight and balance for you) knife. You should not have to hack away for an hour to open a winter squash. I have a fancy hand-forged santouku knife that slides through winter squashes without getting stuck or requiring a lot of pressure. And I'm soooo not a strong lady.
posted by joan_holloway at 7:58 AM on September 13, 2013

I think it's all about where you're cutting. Particularly with a long squash, like a spaghetti, I never start cutting at the ends. I use the biggest chef's knife I have (nothing fancy, less than $10 at the grocery store) and start by inserting it point-first, vertically, into the middle of the squash, with the blade facing the end, not the blossom, which is the toughest point. Then, holding the blossom end of the squash with my left hand, I use my right hand to bring the handle of the knife down towards a parallel position, cutting from mid-squash to end.

The middle of the squash is not as tough, so it's easy enough to get the knife in, and then I use leverage to increase the force. There is usually a point, just in the middle of or just past the very bottom of the squash, where it pops and becomes easy. Then I reverse the squash on the cutting board, hold the cut-in-half-bottom in my left hand, and use leverage again to deal with the top half of the squash. To deal with the tough blossom, I either cut slightly uneven halves so I don't have to cut through it at all, or cut it off (easy, now that the rest of the squash is cut in half).
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:08 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seem to takes less effort and/or you get better leverage if you poke a thinish (I'd go for your long carving knife) well-sharpened knife into the middle and see-saw your way around. This way you are only cutting through one thickness of wall at a time, and not 2 thickness as happens when you put your knife at the top and go straight down. The wall is also usually thinner in the middle and thicker at the ends, so if you try to press straight down through one end you're working against the thickest part of the squash.
posted by drlith at 8:11 AM on September 13, 2013

Yeah, I'm not clear on why you need to cut up and skin the things to begin with. As mentioned above, just cook them whole and either open and enjoy or scrape out the seeds and peel off the (now very tender) flesh and puree or whatever.

You can also just buy bags of precut squash, but maybe that's cheating.
posted by mrfuga0 at 8:28 AM on September 13, 2013

Ha, The Underpants Monster, this was one of my questions here a long time ago!

Note: I generally only cook butternut squash. I always peel mine first (because I like to roast chunks of butternut squash) and then use a santoku knife to cut. Maybe because it's the sharpest knife I own, but it works okay. I haven't chopped off a finger yet.

But I'm definitely going to get a pumpkin carving kit now!
posted by pyjammy at 8:32 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a video of how to cut an acorn squash. This is basically what I do. I then roast and peel.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:52 AM on September 13, 2013

Butternut squashes are a pain to cut through but generally not as much of a pain as you're describing. I don't think your knife is sharp enough.

I have been able to cut through them relatively easily with a non-serrated Kiwi Brand knife (very good inexpensive knives from Thailand; they're generally even cheaper in shops in Chinatown, if you can find them there.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:46 AM on September 13, 2013

Winter squash is the one thing I feel justified in purchasing pre-prepped. Not cooked! Just cut and peeled already. It's slightly more expensive but really, only slightly--and how much are your intact fingers worth? Trader Joe's almost always has butternut squash, and sometimes others. Whole Foods generally has prepped boxes of any squash they're selling whole. Come to the dark side!
posted by like_a_friend at 10:54 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Definitely a better and sharper knife is in order. I remember having trouble hacking through squash and rutabagas with my old crappy stamped Farberware knives. When I got a new and sharper set (Wusthof, if you're curious), suddenly I could cut all the things! Without feeling like I was taking my life into my own hands! It was wonderful. You, too, deserve that feeling.
posted by Andrhia at 11:36 AM on September 13, 2013

Butternut squash is easily peeled with a standard veggie peeler, except you might need to make two passes to get down to the flesh. It should be fairly easy to cut after it's peeled. I eat a lot of winter squash and I've never considered it difficult to prepare.
posted by jrichards at 12:58 PM on September 13, 2013

I use a very sharp santoku and I can cut through an acorn squash in one slice and a butternut in two or three. The trick with that is not letting it roll under your blade. You should not have to remove your knife or use excessive force. I also think your knives are not sharp enough.

But I do think a small saw would be much more efficient.
posted by epanalepsis at 1:23 PM on September 13, 2013

I got a really nice sharp peeler, and the squash is very easy to break down with a regular chef's knife after it's peeled. (I remember the days when i first cooking squash and didn't realize it could be peeled -- ugh!) Seriously -- we grew butternut squash last year and somehow wound up with 20+ and ate squash twice a week all winter, and peeling before cutting is the way to go.
posted by oh really at 2:24 PM on September 13, 2013

A fairly large, cheap, not super-sharp kitchen knife does me - large enough that it's half-way to being a machete. I think it's the weight and balance of it. 2 sec microwave seems a good idea too.
posted by glasseyes at 5:19 PM on September 13, 2013

Prepping butternut squash used to be the bane of my life. Normal potato peelers were useless on the tough skin. And cutting through the thing with the skin on, even with a sharp knife, risked a trip to A&E.

That's until we got a Swiss-style peeler, which makes mincemeat of the skin in a minute or two, depending on how fast you go. Once it's peeled, the solid flesh on its own should be far, far easier to cut. You will still need a sharp knife; cutting tough stuff like this will blunt your blades fast, but we got one of those cheapo knife sharpening stone gizmos at Ikea and it's worked a charm.

I've trimmed down my squash prepping time from close to an hour to about 10 minutes now. The right tools in the right order should yield you similar results.
posted by macdara at 2:57 AM on September 14, 2013

Response by poster: I had great success with a spaghetti squash by stabbing it a few times (to prevent steam-powered explosions), microwaving for 3 minutes and then cutting once it had cooled. Thanks, hivemind!
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:05 PM on September 19, 2013

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