Mexican squash and zucchini are two types of summer squash that look very similar but have some key differences. Both are oblong shaped with edible skins and seeds, but Mexican squash tends to be lighter green and more tapered on the ends while zucchini is darker green and more cylindrical.
Some quick answers to common questions about Mexican squash vs. zucchini:
- Mexican squash has a nuttier, sweeter flavor compared to zucchini which is more bland.
- Mexican squash grows on a vine while zucchini grows on a bush.
- Mexican squash has harder skin that holds its shape better when cooked.
- Zucchini is more widely available year-round while Mexican squash is a more seasonal crop.
- Mexican squash is common in Latin American and Southwestern U.S. cuisine.
Appearance and Size
While Mexican squash and zucchini look very similar, there are some subtle differences in appearance:
- Mexican squash tends to be lighter green, sometimes with white stripes or speckles.
- Zucchini is a deeper, darker green.
- Mexican squash often has a tapered or club-like shape with a narrower neck and bulbous end.
- Zucchini is generally straight and cylindrical in shape.
- On average, Mexican squash grows to be slightly smaller than zucchini.
However, there can be overlap in size and shape. A small, young zucchini could be mistaken for a Mexican squash and vice versa. The color and texture of the skin are better indicators – Mexican squash has a firmer skin while zucchini is softer.
When it comes to flavor, Mexican squash is sweeter with more nutty, squash-like undertones compared to zucchini:
- Mexican squash has a rich, sweet flavor reminiscent of butternut squash.
- Zucchini is milder tasting with a delicate flavor.
- Mexican squash carries more umami, nutty notes while zucchini is watery and bland by comparison.
- The seeds and flesh of Mexican squash are equally sweet and edible.
- Zucchini flesh has a higher water content and seeds are less flavorful.
So when cooked, Mexican squash holds its texture and flavor better than watery zucchini. It can be used in both savory and sweet preparations for a sweet squash kick.
Mexican squash and zucchini plants differ in their growing habits:
- Mexican squash grows on squash vines that trail along the ground or climb trellises.
- Zucchini grows on compact bushes close to the ground.
- Mexican squash vines can spread over 15 feet while zucchini plants take up about 3 feet of space.
- Mexican squash requires more space and trellising compared to zucchini plants.
- Zucchini sets fruit without pollination but Mexican squash flowers must be pollinated to produce fruit.
So Mexican squash requires more room and care to grow properly. However, both crops yield prolific amounts of fruit when healthy and happy!
Mexican squash and zucchini can generally be used interchangeably in recipes, but here are some best uses based on their characteristics:
- Mexican squash – roasting, sautéing, baking, grilling, soups, stews, tacos, enchiladas, tamales, empanadas, breads, muffins, cakes
- Zucchini – raw in salads and slaws, vegetable noodles, baked goods, pan frying, stuffing, light soups, roasted
Mexican squash’s sweet flavor and firm texture make it ideal for cooking applications where it will hold its shape. Zucchini is best lightly cooked or used raw to avoid becoming watery and mushy.
Mexican squash and zucchini have different peak seasons and availability:
- Mexican squash is in season during the summer months and best harvested young.
- Zucchini is available year-round and often grown in greenhouses during cooler months.
- Mexican squash can be harder to find outside its summer growing season.
- Zucchini is widely available at most grocery stores year-round.
So if making a recipe that calls for Mexican squash in the off-season, zucchini may be used as an acceptable substitute. But for peak flavor, seek out fresh Mexican squash in summer and early fall.
Mexican squash and zucchini have very similar nutritional profiles. Both are low in calories and high in beneficial vitamins and minerals:
- Calories – Mexican squash has 16 calories per cup; zucchini has 19 calories
- Carbs – Mexican squash has 3g net carbs; zucchini has 4g
- Vitamin C – Mexican squash has 33% DV; zucchini has 35%
- Vitamin A – Mexican squash has 5% DV; zucchini has 3%
- Manganese – Mexican squash has 9% DV; zucchini has 10%
- Riboflavin – Mexican squash has 11% DV; zucchini has 9%
Both are packed with antioxidants, vision protecting lutein, and small amounts of fiber and protein. Low carb and low calorie, they are nutritious additions to any diet.
One notable difference between the two squashes are the seeds:
- Mexican squash seeds are edible, soft, and sweet when young and raw.
- Zucchini seeds are edible but bland in flavor and spongy texture.
- Mexican squash seeds get tougher and not as enjoyable as the squash matures.
- Both types of seeds can be roasted for snacks but Mexican squash seeds taste better.
So the seeds and surrounding flesh should be enjoyed in young, tender Mexican squash. But they can be scooped out and discarded in mature zucchini or Mexican squash to avoid unpleasant texture.
Mexican squash and zucchini are used globally but especially common in the following cuisines:
- Mexican squash – tacos, enchiladas, soups, stews, tamales, salsa, tortilla chips and dips, stir fries, rice bowls
- Zucchini – ratatouille, Italian stuffed zucchini, baked zucchini fries, zucchini bread and muffins, zucchini noodles
Their popularity in certain regional cuisines stems from availability and suitability to different flavor profiles.
Mexican and Southwestern Cuisine
Mexican squash is an integral ingredient in Mexican and Southwestern U.S. cooking. Its hearty texture and sweet flavor stands up well to bold seasonings and spices. It’s commonly used in flavorful preparations like:
- Tacos – grilled or sautéed with onion and peppers
- Enchiladas – stuffed tortillas baked with sauce and cheese
- Chilaquiles – fried and simmered with salsa and eggs
- Quesadillas – grilled with cheese in tortillas
- Tamales – shredded squash combined with masa dough
The sweetness balances spicy chiles and savory meats and cheeses. It’s right at home in the big, bold flavors of the region.
Zucchini is prized in Italian cooking and used in lighter preparations that let its delicate flavor shine:
- Stuffed zucchini – hollowed out and filled with meat, rice, cheese
- Zucchini noodles – spiralized raw zucchini as a pasta swap
- Zucchini salad – thin slices or cubes added to fresh vegetable salads
- Ratatouille – simmered in a vegetable stew with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers
- Zucchini fritters – grated and pan fried into savory pancakes
Its soft texture works well in baked pasta dishes or gently cooked stews. Raw zucchini adds moisture and crunch to salads and antipasto spreads.
While especially popular regionally, both squashes work in a variety of cuisines:
- Indian – Mexican squash curry, sautéed zucchini subji
- Middle Eastern – zucchini fritters, stuffed Mexican squash
- Asian – tempura zucchini, Mexican squash stir fry
- Greek – zucchini tomato salad, Mexican squash moussaka
- Southern U.S. – fried zucchini, Mexican squash casserole
Their mild flavors let them take on the tastes of any cuisine. Adjust cooking methods and seasonings to suit the dish.
Mexican squash and zucchini can generally substitute for one another in recipes. Keep these tips in mind:
- Because Mexican squash holds its shape better, use it instead of zucchini when the recipe calls for firmer squash chunks.
- If zucchini is better raw, sub Mexican squash which is sweeter and denser.
- Adjust cook times as Mexican squash takes slightly longer than more delicate zucchini.
- Replace any seasonings like herbs or spices to complement the different flavors.
Other summer squash like yellow squash or pattypan squash can also substitute. Just account for differences in flavor, texture, and moisture content.
Storage and Handling
To store fresh squash:
- Leave whole squash uncut for longest shelf life. Cut squash deteriorates faster.
- Refrigerate unwashed in plastic bags up to 5 days for zucchini, 3 days for Mexican.
- Wash just before use – moisture speeds up spoilage.
- Check for shriveling skin, mold, or very soft texture as signs they’ve spoiled.
- Freeze grated or chopped squash up to 10-12 months for later use.
Handle squash gently to avoid bruising which leads to faster spoiling. Store cut squash in airtight containers and use within 3 days.
Mexican squash and zucchini come from two different species but their similarities make them interchangeable in many recipes. Key differences like flavor, texture, and best uses impact how they can best be substituted for one another.
Mexican squash shines in cooked preparations where its sweet, squashy flavor and firm flesh are assets. Zucchini is perfect raw, roasted whole or pan-fried for a more delicate texture.
Both are nutritious, versatile additions to any diet. Mexican squash offers more flavor and character that pairs wonderfully with bold seasonings. Subtle zucchini lets other ingredients shine. With some simple considerations for texture and seasoning, both can be enjoyed readily in a wide array of global cuisines.