By Joanne Thomas

You might have long since passed the satisfying adult milestone of replacing your cheap knife set with a few quality chef's knives, only to still struggle when slicing through a butternut squash. Know that it's not your trusty knife's fault – even the heaviest, sharpest knife wielded with samurai-like skill meets its foe in this thick-skinned, weighty winter squash. It's enough to make you think twice about picking up a butternut squash at the market, or even consider those pricey pre-cut packages. But, there's a simple trick to cutting this delicious, nutritious vegetable with ease: just soften the whole squash first using any one of these methods.

Two halfs of a butternut squash on a old wooden garden table
credit: Zsuzsanna Békefi/Moment/GettyImages
How to Soften a Butternut Squash

First, Prepare the Squash

Before you soften a whole butternut squash, wash it and poke a few holes through the skin using the point of a sharp knife. This prevents the squash from bursting, which is unlikely but possible. Also, consider whether you want to soften the butternut squash just enough to cut it more easily, or to soften it so much that it's fully cooked. The methods are the same, but the latter calls for a longer cooking time, of course. If you're going to mash the butternut squash or blend it into a soup or sauce, you can fully cook it. If you want to dice or slice the squash for roasting (it's a great low-GI substitute for potatoes when prepared this way), then par-cook it until it's just soft enough to cut, but still quite firm. The cooking time will vary depending on the size of the squash, so test it often by inserting a sharp knife into the thickest part – the neck – and adjusting the cooking time accordingly.

Zap it in the Microwave

Softening a butternut squash in the microwave is the fastest, and often easiest, method. Place the squash on a microwave-safe plate and cook it on high for 3 to 5 minutes to par-cook, or up to 10 minutes to fully cook. Turn the squash over (using a cloth or oven glove) once or twice during this time.

Bake it in the Oven

Place a whole butternut squash on a baking sheet or in an ovenproof dish and put it in a hot oven. Although it's quite time consuming, this method is hands-off and adaptable to most oven temperatures, so you can soften a squash while baking other dishes, even a day or two in advance. A large butternut squash in the 3-to-4-pound range will be fully cooked in about an hour at 425 degrees F, or about three hours at 300 degrees. Halve these times for par-cooked squash.

Slow Cook it in a Crock Pot

A slow cooker, as its name suggests, is the slowest method of softening a butternut squash, but it can be quite convenient as long as you remember to set it early in the day. Just place the whole, washed-and-poked squash in the slow cooker and put the lid on. There's no need to add any liquid. Set it to cook on high for four to five hours or low for six to eight hours for a fully cooked squash. Reduce these cooking times for a par-cooked squash.

Use a Pressure Cooker

With an electric or stove-top pressure cooker, you can soften a butternut squash in a matter of minutes. You'll need to consult the manual for your particular model or use your own experience with the device, but the general method is to pour 1 cup of water into the pot, place the whole squash inside, and cook it at high pressure for 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how soft you want it. Start with a shorter cooking time, release the pressure and test the squash with a knife. If it needs to be softer, repeat the process and pressure cook the squash again for a few minutes at a time.

Handling a Softened Squash

When your knife-poke test tells you the butternut squash is soft enough to cut, or fully cooked if necessary, let it cool enough to handle it. Next, slice between the neck and the round part of the squash, and slice the round part in two. Scoop out the seeds and the goopy, stringy part from the middle of the round part. You can either discard this or save the seeds for roasting as a healthy snack. With a fully cooked squash, you can usually just scrape the flesh into a bowl using a spoon or knife. With a par-cooked squash, slice it into manageable sections, slice between the flesh and the skin, and chop the still-firm flesh into pieces.