Canned pumpkin is a convenient ingredient that can save lots of time and effort when making a recipe, but the pumpkin section of the canned goods aisle can be a little confusing. While the labels look almost identical, there are some differences between pumpkin pie filling and pumpkin puree.
Commonly called for in pumpkin recipes, puree is the cooked and mashed flesh of any number of different varieties of squash—yes, squash. There are soft-skinned summer squash, like zucchini and yellow squash, and there are hard-skinned winter varieties like acorn squash, butternut squash, and the various orange ones we lump together as pumpkins.
Canned pumpkin puree is a blend of winter squashes, some of them proprietary (such as the Dickinson squash, which is owned by the Libby's brand). The one type of squash you won't find in a can is the standard field pumpkin that's used for making Halloween jack-o'-lanterns. While edible, this type of squash isn't particularly good for eating no matter how it's cooked or pureed.
Pumpkin puree can be labeled as 100% pure pumpkin, pumpkin puree, solid pack pumpkin, or simply "pumpkin." Regardless of what it's called, one thing pumpkin puree won't contain is any sort of seasonings or sugar—it's just cooked and mashed squash. Most recipes call for pumpkin puree and also call for adding seasonings to flavor the dish.
Pumpkin puree can be used to make pies, cakes, muffins, breads, soups, and much more. You can also make your own puree at home.
Pumpkin Pie Filling
Pumpkin pie filling is a mixture of cooked, mashed winter squash that is blended with sweetener and spices. It's a convenient ingredient to use if you're planning to make a pumpkin pie and you're short on time. Instead of measuring sugar and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, the pie filling is already preseasoned and ready to go.
While pumpkin pie filling is a time-saver, it's also not as customizable as pumpkin puree. You may find a brand too sweet for your taste or too heavy on a spice. Cooking with plain pumpkin puree allows you to adjust the seasonings to your liking.
What to Do If You Buy the Wrong Kind
Because both products come in cans and both have the word "pumpkin" on the label, it's possible to buy the wrong kind by accident.
If you meant to purchase pumpkin pie filling but accidentally grabbed a can of plain pumpkin, it's easy to sweeten and season the puree. Follow a good pumpkin pie recipe (there's usually a recipe printed right on the label) and add sugar and spices to the puree along with other ingredients like eggs before baking.
If you erred in the opposite direction—you bought pumpkin pie filling instead of plain pumpkin puree—you may want to return to the store for an exchange. Pumpkin pie filling shouldn't be used in place of pumpkin puree since the finished dish will be too sweet. You can always set the can aside to make a quick pumpkin pie another day.