Squashes are among the most varied of vegetables, ranging from moist and tender zucchini and pattypans to oversized autumn behemoths such as banana squash. Both can be prepared ahead of time as a convenient way to speed your meal preparation. As with any other ingredient, it just requires a basic knowledge of safe food handling.
Summer and winter squashes are part of the extended family of cucurbits, along with cucumbers and melons. They're seed-bearing fruit that grow on large, sprawling vines. Like their cousins, squashes surround their seeds with a thick layer of tasty flesh and a colorful, protective skin. In summer squashes, the skin usually remains thin and tender enough to eat, and the flesh is juicy and delicately flavored. Winter squashes mature with a hard, woody skin and dense, vividly colored flesh. Both are tasty, nutritious and versatile.
Preparing Summer Squash
Summer squashes are often cooked lightly, either stir-fried or grilled until just tender. If you're planning that kind of dish for the next day, quickly par-cooking them in a minimal amount of oil and draining them is all the preparation you need. However, some dishes call for zucchini or other summer squashes to be cooked for a long time at low temperatures. This cooks off the excess moisture, softening the squash and concentrating its flavors remarkably. This can take 30 to 60 minutes, depending on your patience and cooking temperature, and is often more practical if it's done ahead of time.
Preparing Winter Squash
Cooking ahead is more advantageous with winter squashes, which are dense and hard and generally take longer to cook. Small and mid-sized squashes can be cored and cooked whole, then scooped and mashed when they're done. Larger squashes can be baked in chunks or in slices, either plain or glazed. Winter squash can also be peeled, diced and either roasted or steamed until tender. Squash prepared by any of these methods can be used the next day, as long as it's properly cooled and refrigerated.
Safe Cooling and Storage
Your squash is food safe when it's first cooked, because its temperature is above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. When it drops below that temperature, it enters the food safety "danger zone," where hazardous microorganisms can reproduce. To store foods for later, you need to quickly chill them to below 40 F, a temperature that slows the reproduction of most bacteria. Package your cooked squash into small, flat containers or bags as soon as it cools to room temperature, then place the packages in your refrigerator. Don't stack the portions, because they'll retain heat. Instead, spread them around your refrigerator as evenly as possible. You should refrigerate your squash within two hours of cooking it.
When you're putting your meal together the next day, the squash will also need to be reheated to an appropriately food-safe temperature. For any cooked food that's being reheated, that temperature is 165 F regardless of whether you're heating the squash on its own or as part of a larger dish. Any meal that visibly simmers is above that temperature; otherwise, it's safest to use an instant-read thermometer to check the food.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: Leftovers and Food Safety
- Photo Credit Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images