Each year, when the first crisp days of fall arrive, I turn to butternut squash as my “go-to” vegetable of the season. That’s because when it’s cooked properly, it can be so many things at once—golden, sweet, nutty, and buttery. But I’ve found that you need to coax these flavors from butternut; otherwise, this squash can end up tasting bland and boring (this is what my husband thought until I converted him into a fan). The trick is to choose the right cooking method. I don’t boil or steam butternut, because neither of these methods will intensify its flavor. Instead, I usually roast or sauté the squash; the high, dry heat of the oven and skillet gives it a golden, crisp exterior and deep, rich flavor.
Butternut squash also pairs well with a variety of flavors. It can go sweet or spicy, and it likes both nuts and herbs. The side dish recipes here—two that use the roasting method and two stovetop sautés—offer some ideas for great flavor pairings for butternut. But before you start cooking, here are a few tips for getting the best browning.
First, peel and cut the butternut into small, uniform cubes. For all of the recipes that follow, I cut the butternut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes, which is just the right size to let it develop a bit of color in the time it takes to get tender.
Square off the ends and cut the squash in two just above the bulbous end. Stand the sections on the flat ends and use a sharp knife (or vegetable peeler) to remove the tough outer peel, slicing from top to bottom.
Cut the rounded end in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.
Cut the squash into uniform 1/2- or 3/4-inch cubes, so they’ll cook evenly.
My recipes call for specific amounts of cubed squash, so you may have some left over. You might want to sauté the extra cubes and use them in a salad or a frittata.
Choose the right equipment. When sautéing the squash, don’t use a nonstick pan, because it will prevent the butternut from browning quickly. Instead, opt for a straight-sided sauté pan with a stainless interior. For roasting, I’ve found that a good-quality rimmed metal baking sheet (instead of a deeper Pyrex or metal baking dish) gives the best results: golden-roasted cubes of rich butternut.