This secret will change your entire outlook on spaghetti squash.

Spaghetti squash has a unique and challenging role in the vegetable lineup. Think about it: It's a vegetable, but because of its unique texture, it's expected to stand in for pasta, one of the most beloved foods on earth. So spaghetti squash has a bit of an uphill battle to start with. It's not pasta. It's sweeter, and squashier, and would fare better in our appreciation if we stopped expecting it to be spaghetti.

But I'm convinced that the biggest challenge cooks face preparing spaghetti squash is easily fixed: You are overcooking your spaghetti squash.

It's easy to do. Most recipes approach the spaghetti squash as if it were a butternut or acorn or other smooth-fleshed squash. Cut it in half, place it cut side down, then bake until you can pierce it with a paring knife.

After cooking many spaghetti squashes this way, it dawned on me that I often baked my squash, only to turn it over and find mushy, sloppy squash strands. The longer you cook spaghetti squash, the less it resembles spaghetti.

A light bulb lit up over my head. Like spaghetti, spaghetti squash can go from perfectly cooked to overcooked in a matter of just minutes. With spaghetti, we are trained to hover near the boiling pot and test a strand when the timer goes off. But if we want our spaghetti squash to act like spaghetti, then we need to treat it like spaghetti.

Spaghetti Squash with Garlic Herb Butter
Credit: LauriPatterson / Getty Images

My spaghetti squash experience changed completely when I started taking the doneness of my squash strands as seriously as the doneness of my spaghetti.

Now, when I bake a halved squash, cut side down, I forgo stabbing the shell to see if it's done. The hard shell will take longer than the tender flesh. Instead, I set a timer for 20 minutes, then take the squash out, flip it, and use my paring knife to pry at the squash strands. Just pierce and twist. If they will separate, it is done. Think of it as checking a filet of fish, to see if it "flakes easily."

A Simple Method to Cook Spaghetti Squash Perfectly

It's much easier to hover over a pot on the stove than one in the oven. That's why I devised this method:

  1. Set up a collapsible steamer in a large pot — a Dutch oven will do.
  2. Place your spaghetti squash on the cutting board and cut it into 2-inch wide rounds-like slicing a sausage. (Cutting spaghetti squash in rounds gives you the longest strands, since the strands form in a circle around the seeds.)
  3. Use a spoon to scoop the seeds and pulp from each slice, then place in the steamer.
  4. Steam for about 8 minutes before you start testing the squash. Pierce a slice with your paring knife, and twist a little to see if it separates. Keep checking, every two minutes or so, until the squash separates.
  5. Transfer to your cutting board, let cool, then use your spoon to scoop along the shell.

Now you have al dente spaghetti squash strands, ready to sauté or add to another dish for a few minutes of cooking.

Consider How You Plan to Use the Spaghetti Squash Before You Cook

Like all foods, the way you cook your squash depends on your end use. If you plan to serve the squash as-is, right away, buttered or sauced, you want a tender bite. But if you plan to cook it further, it's good to make the noodles firm and separate.

My favorite way to enjoy spaghetti squash is to bake or steam it until it can just be separated with my paring knife, then let cool just until safe to scoop out the strands. They will still be a little crunchy, but that is OK. At this point, the squash is a prep item — ready to be finished in another dish. You can even store it in a tub in the refrigerator for up to four days, and use it as you need it. By cooking it just to al dente, you are free to finish it with a sauce, or in another recipe.

I also sauté some garlic in olive oil or butter, and toss the cooked strands in the hot pan just to coat and finish the cooking. You can also use it like cooked noodles in a stir fry or soup, add it to a casserole, or heat it with a sauce in a pan until hot.