Zucchini and Summer Squash: What’s the Difference?

From July to September, summer squash is abundant in farmers markets and widely harvested in home gardens.

Vertical image of assorted fresh vegetables, with text in the middle and on the bottom.

One day at the local farmstand, I stood before bins overflowing with green, yellow, striped, and bicolor cylinders, rounds, tapers, and scallop-edged squashes.

I had always bought zucchini, but I wanted to branch out on this particular day and try something different. So, I selected bright yellow cylinder-shaped squash and proudly carried them home – only to learn later that they, too, were zucchini.

Has this happened to you? Then it’s time to learn more!

Read on to discover what I learned about zucchini and summer squash, and make the most of the season’s delicious selections.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Let’s jump right in.

What Is Summer Squash?

Summer squash, aka yellow squash, has ancient roots in Central America and Mexico. Today’s varieties fall into the following groups: cocozelle, crookneck, scallop, straightneck, and zucchini.

Vertical top-down image of assorted fresh vegetables in a large bowl.

The color palette includes bicolor, green, orange, white, and yellow, with bumpy or smooth skin.

Let’s consider each of these.

Cocozelles are dark green with light green stripes and a cylinder shape. They have a rich nutty flavor.

Horizontal image of a hand holding a cocozelle
Hand holding a freshly picked cocozelle.

Crooknecks have a bent upper portion and a bulb-shaped bottom. They have a sweeter taste, more like pumpkin and other winter varieties.

Horizontal image of yellow crooknecks.
Yellow crooknecks.

Scallops, aka pattypans, are disk-like with scalloped edges. Some call them flying saucer or UFO squash. They are sweet and mild.

Horizontal image of washing assorted pattypans in a colander.
Assorted pattypans.

Straightnecks have a club-like shape. They are mildly sweet and buttery.

Horizontal image of yellow straightnecks.
Yellow straightnecks.

Within the straightneck group you’ll find a cultivar known as ‘Zephyr,’ a green and yellow hybrid. These are mildly sweet with grassy undertones.

Horizontal image of zephyr in a wooden bowl.
Zephyr straightnecks.

Summer squash is harvested in as few as 50 days, when it is immature and has thin, edible skins, tender pale yellow to pale green flesh, and soft seeds. You can learn more about growing your own on our sister site, Gardener’s Path.

There are also winter varieties, like acorn, butternut, Hubbard, peanut, and pumpkin, that may take up to 120 days to mature. These have firm, inedible skin, yellow to orange flesh, and hard seeds that are palatable when toasted or roasted. They have a more pronounced, sweet, pumpkin-like flavor.

And while we serve squash as a vegetable, biologically, it is a fruit. Specifically, it is a berry called a “pepo,” hence the botanical name, Cucurbita pepo subsp. pepo.

A Zucchini Is Born

Zucchini is a unique type of summer squash. It dates to Italy in the 1500s. At that time, the fruits had not only arrived in Europe, they were already under cultivation and had become a household staple in Milan.

Horizontal image of a fresh green zucchini with flowers.

One day, believed to be in 1850, it seems Mother Nature worked her magic, and a mutation appeared in a squash patch. This time, as the first pollinated blossom receded, a cylindrical green vegetable sprouted instead of a yellow one.

Apparently, the name itself was already in use and referred to a bottle gourd that was also green and consumed when young and tender. Soon the new green vegetable was being called a zucchini, and the gourd waned in popularity.

Horizontal image of assorted fresh zucchini.

Today, in addition to traditional green, modern cultivars come in other colors, like the bright yellow ones I bought, as well as light green and orange varieties.

Horizontal image of bulbous zucchini.

While similar in flavor to other types of summer squash, they has earthy undertones that impart a subtle savory quality.

A Note on Cucurbitacins

While rarely found in commercially grown zucchini, cucurbitacins may be present. These bitter-tasting biochemical compounds deter herbivores from feasting on wild versions of zucchini.

Environmental stress and cross-pollination with a wild plant may cause an overabundance of cucurbitacins in cultivated plants.

Always err on the side of caution and discard bitter fruits to avoid gastrointestinal upset.

In essence, this is similar overall to the common refrain to explain that a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square. Zucchini are in fact a particular variety of summer squash.

Shopping and Storing

When making your purchases, choose fruits that are firm under gentle pressure. There should be no scratches, nicks, soft spots, or discoloration.

Horizontal image of frozen vegetables in assorted preparations in bags in the freezer drawer.

Store fruits in the vegetable crisper drawer of the fridge and plan to use them within the week. Wash them just before use.

You can freeze any extras.

Coin or cube the fruits and blanch them in boiling water for three to five minutes, cool them completely, and place the cooled cubes in zippered plastic bags. Gently press out excess air and seal. Use within three months.

In addition, you can puree the fruits and freeze them to make your own baby food or soup ingredients.

Cook and puree the fruits, cool the puree, and pour it into ice cube tray sections and freeze. Once they are completely frozen, release them from the tray.

Place the frozen cubes in a single layer in a zippered plastic bag. Squeeze out excess air and seal. Use within three months.

In the Kitchen

Per the USDA, the nutritional content is the same for zucchini and other types of summer squash.

Horizontal image of sliced yellow squash on a wooden cutting board.

A 100-gram raw, skin-on portion of any type, in addition to other vitamins and minerals, contains about:

  • 17 kcals (calories)
  • 94.8 grams of water
  • 1.21 grams of protein
  • 3.11 grams of carbohydrates
  • 1 gram of dietary fiber
  • 2.5 grams of total sugar
  • 261 milligrams of potassium
  • 200 micrograms of vitamin A
  • 17.9 milligrams of vitamin C

All types may be used interchangeably in prepared foods, like breads, side dishes, and soups. You can bake, broil, fry, grill, roast, saute, or steam them.

However, some lend themselves to specific recipes better than others,

For example, if a recipe calls for stuffing the fruit, scallop types and other round options are suited to creating a fillable well with a top “cap.”

Straightnecks and other long, skinny varieties make attractive and tasty scooped-out, open-top “boats” topped with melted cheese or toasted breadcrumbs.

Horizontal image of a white plate with two thick slices of green squash topped with colorful chopped vegetables and a melted white cheese.
Photo credit: Meghan Yager.

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They also fit nicely into a manual or power spiralizer for making a low-cal, low-carb alternative to pasta, aka zoodles or courgetti!  You can also use a vegetable peeler or mandoline for the same approach, creating long ribbons ideal for serving with a fresh sauce.

And if you run out of cucumber for your salad, raw summer squash can serve as a substitute in a pinch.

Horizontal image of a wooden bowl filled with a pile of cooked thinly sliced vegetables covered in a vibrant green sauce and fresh herb garnish next to a blue towel, wooden spoons, lemon slices.
Photo credit: Fanny Slater.

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Ideally, freshly harvested crops are young, tender, and flavorful. However, if you find yourself with an older veggie, you can remove the large seeds and use only the flesh by slicing it open lengthwise and scooping them out.

It may not be as flavorful, and the texture may be more fibrous, but like overripe bananas, it’s still suitable for making bread. Try this recipe for zucchini bread, or a decadent chocolate version.

Horizontal oblique overhead image of a loaf of chocolate quick bread on a white plastic cutting board, on top of a metal cooling rack on a white surface.
Photo credit: Kelli McGrane

Chocolate Zucchini Bread – Get the Recipe Now
The blossoms are also edible. Remove the stem and inner portions if desired, and enjoy them batter-dipped and fried, or stuffed and baked on the day of purchase or harvest. Stick with the male flowers if picking your own, leaving the females on the vines to produce fruit.

Sample and Savor

I’ve been a zucchini devotee since childhood. We purchased it weekly when it was in season, never so much as glancing at the pattypans or crooknecks.

Horizontal image of a basket full of freshly picked yellow and green vegetables.

It’s common to follow our family’s food traditions without realizing we’re failing to give new foods a chance.

I hope I’ve inspired you to broaden your squash horizons. While the flavor differences may be subtle, the varied shapes and colors bring new excitement to the table.

Are you ready to try robust recipes for late-season fare, like hot chili marmalade, sweet and tangy summer squash quinoa, summer squash soup, and crispy veggie fries?

Let us know what you’re cooking! And be sure to check out our article on 11 tasty ideas for a bumper summer zucchini crop.

If you found this guide informative and would like to learn about other fruits we eat as vegetables, we recommend the following next:

Photos by Meghan Yager, Fanny Slater, and Kelli McGrane, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Nan Schiller

Nan Schiller is a writer from southeastern Pennsylvania. When she’s not in the garden, she’s in the kitchen preparing imaginative gluten- and dairy-free meals. With a background in business, writing, editing, and photography, Nan writes humorous and informative articles on gardening, food, parenting, and real estate topics. Having celiac disease has only served to inspire her to continue to explore creative ways to provide her family with nutritious locally-sourced food.

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