If you planted summer squash in your garden, the time of plenty is now. You’ve likely got more green zucchinis (and maybe even some varieties like castera, cocozelle, 8-ball, and gold) than you ever bargained for, even after planting just a few seeds. Chances are your neighbor is pushing their squash surplus on you too. But fear and waste not, the summer squash is a versatile fruit.
Despite their many shapes, colors, and sizes, zucchini and other varieties of summer squash react similarly under various cooking techniques. Although some varieties will be less watery and some will have more seeds than others, what typically sets individual zucchinis apart from each other with cooking is their size. For this reason, I’ll discuss how to approach cooking three general size classifications of zucchinis.
Sweet and Small Length: 2 to 6 inches Diameter: ½ to 1 inch
These delicate little ones are the epitome of garden-fresh, summertime flavor. Use a mandolin or peeler to make thin shavings for raw, lightly dressed salads. A simple vinaigrette of oil and vinegar with some herbs accompanied by your favorite salad toppings will really let this seasonal vegetable shine.
Slice into rounds or half-moons, add to a hot pan with the fat of your choosing for a quick sauté, and season accordingly. Be sure not to overcook. When a zucchini is this small, it doesn’t need much time on heat, just enough to soften them up and enhance the flavor. Add to pasta, eggs, or simply enjoy as a side dish.
If you have more small squash than you can eat before they expire, pickling is a great way to preserve your harvest. Check out Danielle Prewett’s favorite quick pickle brine for easy refrigerator pickles. Zucchinis are like cucumbers in that they take a brine really well. The only difference is that their texture is slightly “meatier” due to the lower water content. I recently made some with extra chili flake and garlic in the brine that made an excellent, spicy accoutrement.
The Standard Length: 6 to 10 inches Diameter: 1 to 2 inches
This is the size of zucchini that you typically find in grocery stores throughout the year. There’s a nice balance between flesh and seeds that makes it potentially the most versatile size. Don’t be afraid to bring the heat on this size veggie; they aren’t as delicate as the smaller ones and can benefit from longer exposure to higher temps. This size zucchini can handle a 20-minute roast in a 400°F oven or longer sautés with other seasonal ingredients to release complex flavors.
But, when summer squash really begin to ripen up, it’s typically the time of year when I don’t want to cook inside often. Grilling is one of the best ways to prepare the standard-sized zucchini. Cut lengthwise strips about ¼- to ½-inch thick. Coat these in a marinade of oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and chili flake. Place directly onto a hot grill and the zucchini will soak up the sweetness of the balsamic which in turn gives great, caramelized grill marks.
However, my favorite way to cook average-sized squash, disregarding the heat and calories, is probably fried. Slice them into rounds, dip into egg wash, then flour, and place into a hot, well-greased pan. Fry until golden brown and flip. Season and enjoy.
For a healthier take, try making zucchini noodles or “zoodles.” If you have the specific kitchen gadget to create zoodles, great. If not, try using a food processor or peeler to create long, thin strands. These can be eaten raw with a light dressing or lightly sautéed for a more pasta-like feel.
Similarly, a mandolin or peeler can be used to create flat, wide strips of zucchini. You can layer them across each other, wrap up meat and cheese, then bake with herbed oil for appetizer bites. This can also be used to substitute tortillas in enchiladas or noodles in place of stuffed shells. Keep in mind that zucchini will release some water in the cooking process, so be sure to use thicker enchilada or marinara sauces.
Heavy Hitters Length: 10 inches and up Diameter: 2 inches and up
If the zucchini you’re going to cook with looks like it could slug a home run as easy as it could feed a whole family, you need to drastically change the technique. First, I like to cut these big squashes lengthwise to see what the innards look like. If the interior looks hollow with big seeds, it’s best to core them out. If the seeds are large enough, they can be roasted like pumpkin seeds or saved to plant next year.
Once the squash is hollowed out, it will likely have a shell that is about ¼-inch thick and should resemble a canoe. You can stuff with Italian venison sausage and top with marinara and mozzarella cheese, use as a taco boat, or fill with breakfast sausage, eggs, and cheddar. Be sure to bake at 400°F for at least 30 minutes or until a butter knife can easily slide though that tough outer edge.
If you cut through the zucchini and it’s meaty throughout, the best thing is to shred the entire thing. This can be used to make zucchini bread or fritters. If you choose to make fritters, place the salt and the shredded zucchini in a colander lined with cheesecloth. Be sure to collect the vibrant green zucchini water that strains out from this process. It makes a really unique and seasonal addition to a martini.
For the fritters, simply add an egg and flour to the shredded and strained zucchini, season accordingly, and mix well. Shallow fry small patties in a high-heat oil until golden brown. Serve with your favorite dipping sauce and a zucchini martini.
How to Cook Zucchini These size classes are generalizations, but it doesn’t mean that techniques can’t cross over between them. This simply provides an outline for how to best deal with your garden’s bounty in different manners based off size. It’s important to avoid monotony in the midst of a zucchini abundance. Switching up textures and flavors when cooking this late summer gold is key to success.