What Is Honeynut Squash, and Why Is It So Popular?
A butternut in miniature, that's what the "Honeynut" squash looks like. It's hand-sized (when fingers are outstretched) and features handsome vertical stripes, morphing from dark green to deep apricot. Though a relative newcomer to the produce section, it has gained serious traction in the food-influencer and chef-driven world of social media. So, what's the story behind this petite winter squash?
The Origin Story
The succinct version of this photogenic squash's backstory is about kismet: Dan Barber, a chef with star power and a magnificent vegetable garden, met Dr. Michael Mazourek, a young vegetable breeder from Cornell University, and invited him into his kitchen at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. There, he held up a regular-sized butternut sqaush and famously dissed it. The chef demanded a better butternut. Two years later, he got it. Enter Honeynut. Genomics, DNA sequencing, and its increasing affordability (as well as its exponential progress) makes possible in years or months what used to take growers, market gardeners, and even scientists, full generations. In an approach known as marker-assisted selection, old-fashioned plant breeding is combined with rapidly improving tools for examining what is going on inside a plant at a molecular level.
It is not genetic engineering, clarifies Michael Mazourek, the breeder who breathed life into Honeynut. "Genetic engineering isn't nearly as effective as traditional plant breeding when it comes to complex traits like flavor, nutrition, or holistic plant resilience," he explains. Despite the relative speed with which the Honeynut appeared, it was built on decades of research at Cornell. "With the Honeynut we made fantastic progress in two years and give the continuity of seed work a lot of credit. Anywhere you have a new cultivar, there are generations behind it." What Cornell had lacked before was public demand for miniature squash to drive development. With high profile support, that changed. It is representative of a significant new trend in vegetable breeding that moves away from large growers' needs (like a tomato that can travel forever), to the needs of cooks and famous chefs. What they're looking for? A plant that actually tastes good.
What's So Good About the Honeynut Squash?
In addition to being bred for better flavor, Honeynut boasts an unusual trait for a winter squash: You can tell when it's ripe by looking at it. As it ripens its striking green stripes disappear into deep orange signaling time to cook—no more premature squash disappointment. The little Honeynut has another advantage. Unlike its bulkier butternut cousin, it is a perfect portion size. It's sort of like having a Cornish hen to yourself after staring down a chicken.
There are even tinier, new generation butternuts arriving at market, also out of Michael Mazourek's lab: the little Brûlée, which is palm-sized, and the enigmatically named 898, still experimental, that is bred to be sweeter and longer-lasting in storage than the Honeynut.
How to Cook Honeynut, and Is it Better Than Butternut?
So does the Honeynut taste better than the everyday butternut? Food writer and editor Jill Fergus thinks so. She prefers the Honeynut because of its lower water content, "making it more flavorful and rich in texture and color." She says that "they really don't require any seasoning beyond maybe flaky sea salt and fresh ground pepper." And she loves how they caramelize when roasted. New York gelato maven and farmers market connoisseur Meredith Kurzman considers the Honeynut "much less starchy" than the butternut. She likes roasting them with pimentón, rosemary, chicken stock, and grated orange zest. Me? I tested standard butternut (sliced) side-by-side with Honeynut and Brûlée (halved). Our verdict? After a test, we found that butternut is sweet and smooth, Honeynut is less sweet but firmer, and Brûlée is a slightly watery third. Each had caramel edges after being roasted with olive oil and salt and a squeeze of blood orange juice.
The answer to these differences may lie in storage-time. There's a good chance the ordinary butternuts purchased at your local grocery have been there for months, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Among all the winter squash, butternuts actually improve in flavor and nutritional content with time. They taste better after months than straight off the vine. Honeynut squash ripen faster and do not seem to store as well. So, why seek out a Honeynut? A final word on this popular and very pretty little squash goes to Fergus: "They're so darn cute, it's impossible to pass them up when I see them at the market!"