Winter squash is abundant this time of year, and I’m constantly tempted to load my grocery basket with all the shapes and sizes. Butternut, spaghetti, delicata, Kuri, acorn, pumpkins, and the like—they are beautiful and delicious, so it’s no surprise I’m stocking up.
As you begin to explore this autumnal bounty, take note of one thing experts recommend you do before preparing winter squash.
According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), each year nearly 48 million people get sick from contaminated food. Though raw meat is a big culprit for transmitting harmful germs, fresh produce causes major outbreaks too.
Glenda Lewis, a foodborne illness expert with the FDA, explains that fresh produce like pumpkins and butternut squash become contaminated during the various stages before you eat it—growing, harvesting, transporting, and even while you prepare it. Just imagine the number of people that have handled, say, for example, the large pumpkin before you bring it home. It’s even likely the pumpkin sat on the ground during transportation or the floor of the grocery store at some point too.
That’s why it’s important that you wash all winter squash with warm water and soap before you place it on the cutting board for prep. When you place an unwashed squash on your cutting board or cut through the potentially contaminated surface with your knife, you’re pulling germs right into the part you’re going to eat.
Consider the following winter squash food safety tips from Michigan State University’s food safety expert Laurie Messing:
- When buying winter squash, make sure the stem is not shriveled and there are no visible mold, rot, or cracks on the surface—germs can enter the inside through any openings.
- There is no need to wash the squash the moment you bring it home. If you do, make sure to dry it well before storing it because moisture can cause the squash to rot faster. When stored in a cool, dry place, winter squash will keep for a long time, some varieties even up to four months.
- Wash your hands after handling unwashed fresh produce so that you don’t accidentally cross-contaminate. You don’t want any potentially harmful germs to get on your kitchen surfaces or other foods.
How To Store Winter Squash
If you are bringing home whole squash, store it in a cool spot in your pantry until you want to use it. If you are lucky enough to have a root cellar or cold storage, feel free to stock up; squash can last months. Don’t store whole ones in the fridge, because that level of cold isn’t really necessary and they take up too much valuable real estate.
Once you cut into your squash and have leftovers, you can refrigerate the flesh in a zip-top bag lined with a slightly damp paper towel to prevent it from drying out. It should last up to a week in your crisper drawer. As long as the pieces are dry to the touch, not slimy, and smell fresh, they are OK to consume.
A version of this article originally appeared on MyRecipes.com.