A few years ago, this magazine ran a tip on how to break down a large, dense winter squash such as Hubbard: Place it in a zipper-lock bag and drop it onto asphalt from chest height, smashing it to pieces. It sounds severe, but taking a knife to a giant rock‑hard squash (even a modest-size butternut can be a struggle) isn’t for the faint of heart, never mind that peeling its tough skin is a real chore.
Allow me to suggest an alternative: crenellated, creamy yellow delicata squash. These beauties, which are available from late summer through early winter, boast thin, edible striped skin that softens when cooked. Their small size means they are relatively easy to cut and seed, which makes preparation a snap. What’s more, they offer a delicate, nutty taste that’s entirely different from the pronounced sweetness of most winter squashes.
Mild delicata is complemented by flavorful browning. That can be achieved by sautéing slices, but doing so requires multiple batches since each flat side needs to be touching the pan to pick up color. Oven roasting is a better option since you can prepare enough squash to serve four on a single baking sheet. The squash can then be finished with fresh herbs or a simple sauce.
Most recipes call for simply arranging oiled squash slices on a baking sheet and roasting. But as the squash cooks, its water evaporates, leaving each piece with a leathery surface and a dry interior. I figured I’d have better luck with the technique that we use for other hard vegetables such as carrots: Oven-steam the squash until tender, and then brown the exterior.
I halved and seeded three squashes, sliced them ½ inch thick—skin and all—and tossed them with oil and salt. After spreading the slices into an even layer on a baking sheet, I covered the sheet with aluminum foil and placed it on the middle rack of a 425-degree oven. The foil trapped steam and helped the slices cook evenly without becoming desiccated. After half an hour, the slices were tender, so I removed the foil. Within minutes, any residual moisture evaporated and the starches and sugars on the surface of the squash began to brown. After 15 minutes, I flipped the slices and then let the second side turn deep golden brown, which took about 15 minutes longer.
These squash slices were tender and moist, but I was sure I could speed up the cooking and coax an even fuller, richer flavor from the delicata. I moved the oven rack to the lowest position so that the baking sheet would be closer to the heat source. This shaved 15 minutes off the total time and deepened the browning.
To reinforce the delicata’s unique nuttiness, I dotted it with butter for the final 10 minutes—enough time for it to brown with no risk of burning. These tender, golden slices looked gorgeous, and each bite featured a slightly resilient strip of skin and toasty squash flavor—all without breaking a sweat.