The term "summer squash" is thrown around quite a lot this time of year. It encompasses both zucchini and yellow squash, so it's understandable why so many assume the two are exactly the same except for the shade of their skin. That's actually not true. Here's what you need to know about how they differ.
The Difference Between Zucchini and Yellow Squash
Besides the color, the main difference between the two vegetables is the shape. Zucchini is straight, while yellow squash has a fat bottom and tapers towards the neck. Yellow squash can also have more seeds in its flesh. Flavor-wise, both are mild-tasting with a hint of vegetable sweetness.
We chatted with Cara Mangini, the author of The Vegetable Butcher cookbook, for further insights on this common summer produce question.
The term summer squash encompasses many varieties of fresh squash harvested mostly in the summer months. These summer squash varieties include zucchini, many types of yellow summer squash, and pattypans. They should be prepared soon after picking — they begin to perish fairly quickly. You'll benefit from peak flavor within a week of harvest. And if you buy summer squash in its prime, it can last for a couple weeks or so in your vegetable bin. (Winter squash varieties have thicker skins and can be cured and then stored for months.)
Ultimately, I think maturity has the biggest impact on flavor and texture in all varieties. Large, more mature summer squash produce larger seeds and more watery flesh than younger squash. Typically, small to medium (young to middle-aged) summer squash of all varieties and colors offer prime texture and flavor — thin, crisp skin and tender, mildly sweet and nutty flesh.
Also known as courgette, zucchini classically has a deep green skin and soft white flesh. Other varieties of zucchini exist, however, that make the matter a little more confusing — there's a golden zucchini variety that has a yellow skin and is a bit sweeter than green zucchini.
The easiest way to distinguish yellow squash, even beyond its color, is its shape. Yellow squash has a fat bottom and tapers towards the neck; unlike zucchini, which is straight throughout. Some yellow squash can even curve at the neck. "I find that most cylindrical, straight-neck yellow summer squash varieties are quite similar to classic zucchini varieties in flavor and texture if they are harvested at the same stage of maturity," says Mangini. "Use them interchangeably and, even better, together for a mix of colors."
What about crookneck squash and pattypans?
"The yellow crookneck summer squash can present thicker, waxier skin and seeds, as it is usually left to mature longer to produce the curved neck. I think this variety has given yellow summer squash its reputation because it really can't be compared to classic zucchini. It certainly complements zucchini and other types of summer squash, but it isn't exactly interchangeable," says Cara.
"I prefer pattypans to be harvested quite young, too, when their seeds are still small and their skin and flesh are still tender. At this stage, I like to quarter them, then sauté, grill, or roast them."
Both zucchini and younger yellow squash can be used interchangeably in recipes and in combination with each other. Try swapping in yellow squash in your favorite zucchini bread recipe or spiralizing both for a colorful bowl of vegetable noodles.
Want more veggie tips? You can learn more about your favorite produce and the smartest way to prep them in our series on vegetable butchery with Cara Mangini.