Butter, cheese and cracker crumbs—these casserole components are so favored by Southerners, you’d almost think they were the main ingredients. But when it does come to main ingredients, hands-down, yellow squash ranks right up there with macaroni as a top contender for casserole VIP. With its mild, sweet flavor profile, it is the perfect sponge for soaking up liquids and melding them into a creamy, cheesy pan of deliciousness. Squash casserole is a staple of meat-and-three establishments across the state as well as Southern dinner tables. Potlucks and church suppers wouldn’t be nearly as tasty without at least one in the mix.
A vegetable native to the U.S., squash dates back to 7000 B.C., according to experts. Yellow varieties—the kind that goes into squash casserole—can be straight-necked or crook-necked. They are rich in all kinds of nutrients, including vitamins A, B6 and C, along with some folate, riboflavin, potassium, magnesium, beta carotene and fiber.
Also known as summer squash, the crop grows in South Carolina from April through August. For the freshest flavor, choose Certified SC Grown squash offered at local farmers markets, roadside stands and grocers. You can find a list of growers and retailers here.
When selecting squash for your casserole, choose those with glossy, smooth skins that are small to medium in size. Real butter and a good-quality sharp cheddar are musts as well. When it comes to a topping, some cooks prefer breadcrumbs while others go for the extra crunch of cracker crumbs.
One of the most important points to remember when assembling a squash casserole is to make sure the precooked squash is not watery. If you steam it, let it cool a little, then gently press the water out using a colander. If sauteing it in a pan, make sure there’s plenty of room so the squash doesn’t steam, which will result in more liquid. And don’t overcook the squash. In fact, it’s probably best to undercook it a little. Remember that it still has to take a turn in the oven. The aim is to get a creamy casserole that has some texture, rather than one that’s watery and mushy.
Here’s a recipe that is everything you dream a Southern squash casserole should be. Hint: This is one casserole that will taste just as wonderful the next day, so double the recipe if you wish. You can bet everyone will want seconds, too.
Southern Squash Casserole
2 pounds SC yellow squash, sliced
½ cup butter, divided
½ cup chopped onion
2 eggs, well-beaten
½ cup milk
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
12 saltine crackers, crumbled
Butter for coating baking dish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a casserole dish. Wash and slice the squash into 1-inch thick pieces. Cook in a small amount of water until slightly tender. Drain well in a colander and gently press to remove any excess water. Melt 1/4 cup butter in a skillet and saute the onions until tender. In a mixing bowl, blend milk, eggs, cheese, salt and pepper. Fold in the onion and squash along with half the crumbled saltines. Mix with a spoon and transfer to the buttered baking dish. Top with the rest of the crumbled crackers. Dot with the remaining butter. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until bubbly and brown.
If it's too hot to crank up the oven, you're still in luck. Because South Carolinians adore squash casserole, you can get your fill at a number of restaurants across the state. Here are a few with a knack for baking up mouthwatering squash casserole:
Duke's Bar-B-Que, Aiken
Lizard's Thicket, Columbia area and Florence
Paula Deen's Family Kitchen, Myrtle Beach
Roger's BBQ House, Florence
Smoke on the Water, Greenville
Stono Market & The Tomato Shed, Johns Island
Sullivan's, Sullivan's Island
Virginia's on King, Charleston