What's the Difference Between Pumpkin Puree and Pumpkin Pie Filling?

Photo of Classic Spiced Pumpkin Pie
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So you've decided to use canned pumpkin puree instead of making your own from scratch. Congratulations! It's a wise choice, considering that the alternative involves choosing the right pumpkins, slicing, seeding, and roasting them, scooping out the pulp—you get the idea.

These sorts of labor-intensive tasks are exactly what you don't need to take on as you head into the holiday season. Save that time for baking cookies and hanging out with family.

It feels even sillier to go through all that trouble since canned pumpkin puree is a wonderful product. It's been roasted, pureed, and drained by professional pumpkin people who know exactly how to do it, helping to concentrate all that wonderful squash flavor for your pies, soups, and yes, pumpkin spice lattes.

But what exactly is in canned pumpkin puree? Is it the same thing as pumpkin pie filling? (The fast answer is no.) And what to do when you accidentally buy one instead of the other? Let's take a look.

What Is Pumpkin Puree?

Pumpkin puree is the cooked and pureed flesh of any number of different varieties of squash—yes, squash. Most people don't realize that pumpkin is not a true botanical term. 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.

It turns out that canned pumpkin puree is actually a blend of winter squashes, some of them proprietary (such as the Dickinson squash, which is owned by the Libby's brand). Surprisingly, 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 pumpkin (again, technically a squash) isn't particularly good for eating no matter how it's cooked or pureed.

This product can be sold as 100% pure pumpkin, pumpkin puree, solid pack pumpkin, or sometimes simply "pumpkin." Regardless of what it's called, one thing it won't contain is any sort of seasonings or sugar—it's just cooked pumpkin. If you use it, it's up to you to season and sweeten as you see fit. In most cases that's exactly what you want. But not always.

What Is Pumpkin Pie Filling?

Sometimes you want to bake a pumpkin pie, but you're not looking to reinvent the wheel to do it. Maybe you've used up all of your culinary energy making the perfect crust and now you just want to get something in the oven.

If that's the case, pumpkin pie filling is the easy solution. In addition to the assortment of cooked squash (a.k.a. pumpkin) we were talking about a moment ago, this product is also sweetened as well as seasoned with the usual blend of warming fall spices like cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and so on.

With canned pumpkin pie filling, all of that work is already done for you. It's got all the flavors you would add to plain canned pumpkin with none of the tedious measuring involved. And why not take a shortcut? If you've ever tasted a homemade pumpkin pie where someone went overboard on the nutmeg or cloves, you know there's something to be said for using a product with the proper proportions of spices.

What to Do If You Buy the Wrong Kind

Now, because both products come in cans and both have the word "pumpkin" on the label, it's possible that you might buy the wrong kind. If you meant to purchase pumpkin pie filling, but accidentally grabbed plain pumpkin puree, it's easy enough to sweeten and season the pumpkin.

Generally speaking, a 15-ounce can of pumpkin will need a 12-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk along with two eggs, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves. Here's a classic pumpkin pie recipe that starts with plain canned pumpkin.

Of course, you can also purchase pre-blended pumpkin pie spice and simply add it to your canned pumpkin, along with the other ingredients. (Note that simple evaporated milk is totally different from sweetened condensed milk.)

If you err in the opposite direction—that is, you buy pumpkin pie filling instead of plain pumpkin puree—you can, of course, return the can. But if you'd rather use it and don't feel like baking a pie, there are always pumpkin cookies, cupcakes, bread, or even creme brulee.