The pumpkin is a familiar sight each autumn in the United States, and even more so in Illinois, the state that grows the most pumpkins to be processed for canned pie fillings. The other top pumpkin growing states are California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. While you might associate this variety of squash with Halloween decorations and holiday pumpkin pies, it's a surprisingly diverse ingredient that is grown on every continent, except Antarctica. Pumpkins can be cooked into a variety of sweet and savory dishes, from bread and muffins to soups and casseroles.
What Is Pumpkin?
The pumpkin is a variety of winter squash, a member of the gourd family, and comes in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. The fruit grows on vines and is ready to be harvested in early autumn. Orange-skinned, round pumpkins are the most familiar varieties that fill pumpkin patches. These are better for carving and decoration than eating. Pie pumpkins and sugar pumpkins are the best choices for cooking.
Though the skin is not edible (a characteristic of winter squash), the sweet flesh inside the pumpkin and the fruit's seeds and blossoms are used in cooking. Pumpkins are generally easy to prepare, inexpensive, and they can be found in cuisines throughout the world.
How to Cook With Pumpkin
Most often, the key to using pumpkin in recipes is to create a puree of the fruit's flesh. The pumpkin must be cooked first, which is done by boiling, roasting, or steaming pieces of pumpkin after removing the seeds and pulp. The flesh is then removed from the rind (which is discarded) and pureed in a food processor.
Pumpkin seeds are also a popular ingredient. These are typically dried with salt or roasted and can be eaten as a healthy snack, a crunchy garnish for salads and other dishes, or blended into sauces for a smooth, clingy texture and nutty flavor. Before the fruit begins to grow on the vine, you can harvest the blossoms to make fried squash blossoms or use it as an ingredient in other dishes.
What Does It Taste Like?
The smaller pumpkins are sweeter than the larger carving pumpkins. The flesh is mildly sweet and gets softer, caramelized, and nuttier when roasted. It's similar in flavor to a sweet potato but with more pronounced squash notes.
Pumpkin pies are not the only way to enjoy this fruit—they're perfect in everything from savory soups and pasta to innovative desserts.
Where to Buy Pumpkin
During the autumn months, pumpkins are easy to find at grocery stores. Picking them from a pumpkin patch, stopping by a farmers market or roadside produce stand, or growing your own will result in the freshest pumpkin. Just be sure that the fruit stays on the vine as long as possible.
When selecting pumpkins for cooking, look for small fruits between four and eight pounds that are blemish-free. There should not be any soft spots, and the pumpkin should feel heavier than it looks.
If fresh pumpkins are not available, grocery stores usually carry canned pumpkin (cooked, pureed pumpkin), pumpkin pie filling (cooked, pureed pumpkin with sugar and spices), and frozen cubed pumpkin. And they sell pumpkin seeds for snacking too.
Store whole pumpkins in a cool, dry, and dark place. Thoroughly wash and dry the pumpkin after bringing it home. Rather than placing pumpkins directly on cement in your garage or in your basement, place cardboard or wood underneath them to avoid premature rot. Avoid picking up or carrying a pumpkin by its stem. If it breaks off, the resulting exposed flesh may begin to rot. In general, you can store a pumpkin for one to three months.
Pumpkin also freezes very well, just be sure to roast it first and remove the rind. You can also preserve pumpkin chunks with pressure canning. For safety reasons, the National Center for Home Preservation recommends never canning mashed or pureed pumpkin and avoiding boiling water canning, oven canning, and open-kettle canning methods.
You can make flavorful snacks that store for up to a month at room temperature or up to a year tightly wrapped in the freezer, such as pumpkin leather that's dried in an electric dehydrator. Blanch thin strips of pumpkin, give it a quick dip in cold water, and dry until brittle, or add honey and pumpkin pie spices to a cooked, strained puree, spread it thin and then dry it. And pumpkin seeds store well too in airtight containers (three months at room temperature and up to a year in the refrigerator). Just toss the seeds with oil and salt, and bake at 250 degrees for about 15 minutes.
Pumpkin vs. Squash
Pumpkin is a type of squash, but there are some differences that primarily have to do with color and shape. Many of the most common types of squash are long or pear-shaped, though some do have the round shape of a typical pumpkin. The outer skin and flesh come in a variety of colors as well.
The flavor of different types of squash will also vary. If you're looking for a substitute for pumpkin, your best bets are acorn, buttercup, butternut, calabaza, and Hubbard. And sweet potatoes make a flavorful substitute as well.
There are countless varieties of pumpkins, and more hybrids are being cultivated all the time. Sugar, pie, cheese, and kabocha (aka Japanese) pumpkins are preferred for cooking. Cinderella and fairy tale pumpkins, as well as white Lumina pumpkins, are also delicious. If you find yourself in doubt at the produce stand or farmers market, ask the grower whether a particular variety of pumpkin is good for eating.