When the first leaves of autumn begin to fall, squash and pumpkins and gourds seem to spring up everywhere. They're used for decoration, carving, and food -- you can't have a proper Thanksgiving centerpiece without at least a few squashes or small gourds decorating your cornucopia. But what is a squash, anyway? And what different types are there?

Squash, Pumpkins, And Gourds: What's The Difference?

Squash, pumpkins, and gourds are all members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which encompasses over 100 genera and 700 species. Though we traditionally think of pumpkins as being big, round and orange, pumpkins and squash are, technically, the same. A pumpkin is a type of squash. However, there is a difference between gourds and squash -- the former is used primarily for decorative reasons, whereas the latter is used in cooking.

There are two different categories of squash, and they are defined depending on the season in which they grow: summer and winter. Summer squash tends to have soft, tender skin while winter squashes have thicker skin that works to preserve the inner flesh.

Here are the characteristics of the most popular squashes:

Winter Squash

Acorn Squash

This winter squash is relatively small, rarely exceeding 2 pounds. It's shaped like the oak nut it gets its name from and is often mistaken for a gourd. Acorn squashes have a dark green exterior, typically decorated with a splotch of orange.

The squash has a moist yellow-orange interior and is great for roasting, baking, mashing, sautéing and steaming. This squash is commonly baked with brown sugar for a sweet treat, but can also take a more savory path when stuffed with veggies and rice.

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Blue Hokkaido Squash

Blue Hokkaido squashes are the ultimate aesthetically pleasing pumpkin -- the exterior is a beautiful blue-gray color while the inside is bright orange. The taste is naturally very nutty, so this squash is tasty after simply roasting in garlic and salt and pepper.

Butternut Squash

Perhaps the most common of winter squashes, butternut squash is identifiable by its bell-shape and butterscotch-colored skin. It is the sweetest squash and its thin skin makes it easy to peel, and because the interior has no thick fibrous strands, it purees smoothly and is perfect for making dense, creamy soup that will give you a boost in vitamins A and C.

Cheese Pumpkins

The Long Island cheese pumpkin resembles a wheel of cheese in shape, color, and even texture. Due to its sweet flavor, the pumpkin is particularly popular for pies -- if you can find it. This subspecies is much more difficult to get your hands on than other squash varieties if you live outside of New York.

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Delicata Squash

These squashes look like fat cucumbers, with pale skin decorated with vertical green stripes. Like the butternut squash, delicata squash have very thin skins that are uniquely edible. The interior taste resembles dry sweet potatoes and is best served stuffed or roasted in butter.

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Hubbard Squash

Hubbard squashes are the biggest squash around -- they have been known to tip the scales at 20 pounds. This type of squash can come in colors ranging from bright orange to a gray-blue, but all are filled with yellow flesh inside their extra-thick skin. They're great roasted in spices or puréed into a pie filling.

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Kabocha Squash

This squash looks like a green pumpkin, though not a pumpkin. Kabocha squash originated in Japan and has a very sweet, slightly nutty flavor. This squash is drier and denser than most winter squashes, and works well when used in soups or when baked, roasted with spices or steamed.

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Pumpkins

There is no food that encapsulates autumn quite like the pumpkin. The traditional orange pumpkin is everywhere throughout the season -- from being carved out and transformed into a spooky jack-o-lantern for Halloween to being served in a pie for Thanksgiving dessert. Pumpkins are versatile when it comes to cooking and most of its parts are edible. The seeds in particular are very tasty when roasted.

Red Kuri Squash

Red kuri squash resembles a bright orange pumpkin, minus the ridges. The skin is thick and hard, and inside lies firm flesh with a mellow, almost chestnut-like flavor that tastes best when prepared with butter and herbs. It works well in soups, stews and casseroles, and because of its sweet flavor the squash can also be used in cakes, pies, muffins and other baked goods.

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Spaghetti Squash

Despite what you might guess, spaghetti squash doesn't get its name from its yellow exterior, a color that closely resembles pasta. The name is because of what lies beneath the yellow skin -- a flesh that, when cooked, breaks away into stringy, noodle-like yellow strands. In fact, this mild-tasting squash is often used as a pasta substitute and topped with tomato sauce.

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Sweet Dumpling Squash

The exterior of this squash resembles delicata squash -- pale yellow with long dark green stripes. However, sweet dumpling squashes are much smaller than the elongated delicata squash and, because of their small size, are best prepared stuffed with rice and roasted.

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Summer Squash

Crookneck Squash

When you think of a squash, you might first picture something resembling the crookneck. Its bumpy, yellow skin and curved neck make it easily identifiable and it is commonly referred to simply as "yellow summer squash," and are delicious when roasted.

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Pattypan Squash

Pattypan squash are tiny, round, grooved and shallow. The squash can be yellow, green or white and has incredibly tender flesh that is tasty and fresh sautéed with herbs and butter or roasted.

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Straightneck Squash

This summer squash is also a bright yellow color with a mild, watery flesh. This squash is very similar to crookneck squash and the recipes are often interchangeable between the two, with roasting being a safe method of preparation.

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Zucchini

Perhaps the most well-known summer squash (or squash in general), zucchinis are usually served cooked (unlike cucumbers) can be prepared in many different ways -- steamed, boiled, fried, grilled, stuffed or baked. It can be baked into bread. It can be puréed into soups. It can be served as part of the main dish or come on the side. The possibilities are nearly limitless.

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