With chilly weather approaching across the country, it’s time to harvest and store all the winter squash that’s been growing in your garden. When properly harvested and stored, winter squash will last for months indoors, allowing you to use them in holiday pies, casseroles, and breads. The first step is to know when to harvest. Look at the skin of your butternut, buttercup, acorn, and other winter squash varieties. When the skin color turns the mature color for that variety, it’s a good indication that the fruit is mature. There’s no problem leaving the winter squash in the field past that point, as long as the fruits don’t get touched with frost or bothered by tunneling animals such as voles. If your fruits experience a killing frost, it weakens the skin, reducing the shelf life. Animal bites on the skin or flesh open the opportunity for diseases to rot the fruits in storage.
When harvesting, leave 2-3″long stem attached to protect the fruit from diseases. If stems break off in handling, be sure to eat those winter squash first. To get ready for storage, wash the skin with a mild bleach solution to kill any disease spores. Winter squash need to cure in a warm (70 to 80 degrees F) room out of direct sunlight for two to three weeks. Not only does this “toughen” up the skin, making for longer storage time, but it starts the process of the starches converting to sugars, so when you eat the squash it will have that sweet taste you crave.
After the initial two to three weeks of curing time, store your winter squash in a cool, moist room such as a basement or cool pantry in the house with temperatures around 50 degrees F and humidity around 60 percent. Try not to have the squash touching each other, and check periodically for any rotting. Under these conditions, the squash should last for up to five months. Butternut and acorn varieties seem to store the longest, while thin-skinned delicata squash will need to be eaten sooner.