Why This Recipe Works
- Cutting the squash crosswise instead of lengthwise creates long spaghetti-like strands.
- Cutting off the stem and flower ends of the squash create more air circulation in the interior cavity of the squash and promote water evaporation during roasting.
- Roasting the squash until it’s crisp-tender ensures the squash will hold up to being tossed with a range of sauces or dressings for serving.
- Waiting to salt the squash until after it’s cooked guarantees that it roasts evenly, as salt draws out excess moisture that can lead to uneven cooking.
A dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a professional recipe-writer, visited while I was knee-deep in development for this recipe. She looked around my kitchen, stocked with a dozen spaghetti squashes and littered with scribbled-on testing notepads, and assured me she could help with the project. I looked at her with hopeful eyes, as I was in dire need of an aha! moment. This was her professional advice: “Take the spaghetti squash, throw it in the trash, and cook up a box of real spaghetti.”
While she didn’t get me any closer to closing the case of the perfect roasted spaghetti squash recipe, she did help me arrive at an important realization. Spaghetti squash is not, and will never be, a proper spaghetti substitute. Let’s let go of that unrealistic ambition off the bat. It will never be doughy, silky, or springy. As Daniel reminds us in his spaghetti squash slaw recipe, spaghetti squash is a member of the cucurbita family, and has textures, flavors, and aromas reminiscent of its cousin, the cucumber. The plant is not one bit wheat adjacent, so we shouldn’t fault it for not being pasta-y any more than we would long strands of human hair (which, for the record, also make for a terrible pasta substitute).
When roasted, the squash’s flesh shreds into strands that have a mild and slightly sweet flavor. The texture should be uniformly crisp-tender with every bit. But I’ve found in my spaghetti squash cooking experience that the texture can vary greatly depending on how you prepare and cook it. Of all the varieties of squash I’ve cooked in my career, spaghetti squash is the most challenging. You could cook three different squash and have three totally different results: One may roast up soft and tender, the next wet and mushy, and the third turn out downright crunchy. Once during testing I somehow roasted a squash where the roasted strands were both raw and over-cooked at the same time! It made for an unpleasant eating experience.
After cooking my way through these unpleasant trials, I eventually was able to produce consistently good results. I found a method that created long, distinct, fluffy strands of spaghetti squash with an al dente texture in every strand. No, these successful tests didn’t magically produce squash that tasted like spaghetti, but I did produce perfectly roasted al dente spaghetti squash that would absorb and cling well to a range of flavorful sauces or dressings, which, as much as I’m loathe to admit, is at least in that way similar to real spaghetti.
What to Look for When Buying Spaghetti Squash
You can find spaghetti squash year-round in most grocery stores, but its peak season runs from early fall through winter. In general, you want to look for a firm, odorless squash without spots on the flesh. If you’re following this recipe, look for a squash between three and three-and-a-half pounds. If you’re preparing more than one squash at once, make sure they are similar in size so they roast at the same rate.
I learned the hard way that even if it looks, feels, and smells like a healthy, fresh squash, there could still be a bad apple–or in this case, squash–in the bunch. One time I sliced a good-looking squash open to find strands that had already shredded themselves–they were falling off as I de-seeded the raw inner cavity. I went ahead and roasted it anyway. When I tasted it, I was sure I had some sort of cleaning chemical residue on my fork. The flavor was acrid and astringent. After a little research, I learned why this happened.
It turns out winter squashes aren’t the rough and tumble cold-lovers I thought they were. As Harold McGee points out in On Food and Cooking, they are best stored at a temperature around 55 degrees Fahrenheit or they can suffer from “cold injury” (On Food and Cooking, 333). If a winter squash experiences extreme cold (or other environmental stressor), it may produce increased levels of cucurbitacin, a chemical found in this family of plants that, you guessed it, has an extremely bitter flavor. I don’t know if that particularly awful squash described above had a problematic past in a chilly field or if it was accidentally refrigerated during transport or storage, but it certainly had signs of “cold injury.” Luckily, the extremely bitter spaghetti squash is the exception and not the rule.
How to Cut Spaghetti Squash for Roasting
In the early stages of my testing, I routinely cut the elongated oval-shaped squash lengthwise. This is how I’d been trained to cut other winter squashes, like butternut squash. However, I noticed that the roasted spaghetti squash strands were very short. After looking into the grain of how the strands run around the squash, I realized that they circled the squash like latitude lines on a globe. This meant I was unintentionally cutting them in half by slicing pole-to-pole (i.e., stem end to flower end). So, I experimented with cutting the squash crosswise, right across its equator. Sure enough, the resulting strands were twice as long as when I cut the squash lengthwise!
This was a nice start, but cutting the squash in half through the equator created a new problem: the narrow, deep bowls of each squash half trapped more moisture as they cooked. This led to uneven cooking. I tried pricking the skin with a fork to let the moisture escape, but it was hard to get the fork prongs all the way through the thick flesh and even once I managed it, the liquid wasn’t fully draining. Ultimately, I decided to cut off the stem and flower ends of the squash, which made two deep, hollow rings of squash. This allowed excess moisture to escape, which promoted even roasting, and avoided uneven steaming (from any trapped water) of the squash.
With this cutting method, I was able to get the longest spaghetti squash strands that were also perfectly cooked.
Texture, Trials, and Tribulations
When roasting butternut or acorn squashes, you want deep, dark caramelization to accentuate their earthy and sweet flavors. But spaghetti squash has a subtle vegetable flavor with delicate floral flavor notes, which is very different from its fellow winter squash varieties. Less a flavor powerhouse in its own right, spaghetti squash is much better thought of as a neutral base for dressing and sauces. With this in mind, I knew that I was not trying to achieve deep browning like I would with other squash varieties, but instead a consistent al dente texture.
Ultimately, the best texture resulted from minimizing steam (by removing the ends of the squash) and the additional trick of seasoning the squash with salt only after it was cooked and shredded. I realized this second technique after seasoning the squash with salt before roasting, as one often does with food: the added salt just encouraged the squash to leach out more water during roasting, which we were trying to avoid. Plus I found that it was challenging to season the squash evenly due to its bowl-like shape. Once the squash was roasted and shredded, it was easier to sprinkle salt all over every strand and toss to combine. I now had well seasoned, crisp-tender roasted spaghetti squash ready to pair with a sauce of my choosing, or or even with a little butter or olive oil simply as-is.
How to Roast Spaghetti Squash
Toss crisp-tender roasted spaghetti squash with your favorite sauce or enjoy it as is. The secret to success? Our unusual cutting method.
- One 3 to 3 1/2-pound (1.4 to 1.6kg) spaghetti squash
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Cut off both ends (about 1 to 1 1/2 inches from each end) of the spaghetti squash, so you can just see the opening of the seed cavity. Discard squash ends. Cut squash in half crosswise through its equator, then scrape out and discard seeds and any loose stringy fibers. Drizzle with oil, rubbing all over until both flesh and skin of squash are evenly coated. Arrange squash halves, cut side down, on the prepared baking sheet.
Roast squash until its flesh is fork-tender, 40 to 45 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly, about 10 minutes.
Use a fork to separate and loosen the squash flesh from the skins. Discard skins. Using 2 forks, gently separate flesh into long spaghetti-like strands. Transfer strands of spaghetti squash to a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss with butter, extra-virgin olive oil, or sauce of your choosing. Serve.
The roasted spaghetti squash can be tossed with a flavorful sauce in a skillet over high heat to coat and warm through, or tossed with a vinaigrette and cooled down for a refreshing salad.
This recipe can be doubled and all four squash halves cooked on one baking sheet.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Roasted squash can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
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