America is obsessed with all things pumpkin. Every fall we dust off the loaf pans, cookie sheets, and pancake griddles, and fill our kitchens with pumpkin-y baked goods. And every fall, for what feels like the last handful of years, we hear rumors of a canned pumpkin shortage.
Last year, the pumpkin shortage rumors were dispelled by Libby: What seemed like a nationwide shortage was actually just a slight delay in production, due to a later-than-planned pumpkin harvest. (“You can’t rush Mother Nature,” they noted in an Instagram post.) Although this year’s fall baking season is just getting started, rumors are already swirling, from chatter on social media to supermarket talk. News outlets were covering the purported pumpkin shortage as early as June. But is the 2021 canned pumpkin shortage real? Or is it just another spooky story? We spoke to the team at Libby’s, the number one canned pumpkin brand, to find out. (They’ve harvested upwards of 650,000 tons over the last five years alone!)
Is There a Canned Pumpkin Shortage this Year?
The news is anticlimactic, but good: There is no canned pumpkin shortage in 2021, according to Kristin Mitchell, Libby’s Brand Manager. Of course, smaller producers may be experiencing a shortage due to agricultural or supply chain issues — but because Libby’s has such a prominent place on grocery store shelves, your pumpkin pie plans likely won’t be affected. Libby’s crop is “growing as expected at this time of the year,” and canned pumpkin is starting to appear on shelves. While it may have been alarming in August or September to discover your grocery store shelves were swept clean, the reality is that canned pumpkin typically doesn’t start to fill the shelves until early fall. Canned pumpkin is shelf-stable, but in the fall it is a fresh product; harvest, cleaned, cooked, and canned within a matter of days. So everything is, happily, right on track (even if Starbucks does release the #PSL as early as August).
Why Do Canned Pumpkin Shortages Occur?
In years when there are canned pumpkin shortages, it’s largely due to growing issues — not hoarding by pumpkin-crazy customers. Pumpkins for canning are typically produced en masse in the Midwest (Libby’s are grown in Morton, Illinois), and are planted in the spring. But a lot can happen between May and the harvest season. Most pumpkin growers, including Libby’s, routinely hand-test the soil and identify agricultural problems early-on, so they can course correct before it’s too late to plant more, or address issues. Pumpkins take 120 days on average to ripen from seed to harvest, although that timeline can be altered in drought years.
What Can You Substitute for Canned Pumpkin?
If you’re having trouble finding canned pumpkin in your area, there are still some workarounds. Most other winter squashes can be used in place of pumpkin, including butternut squash, acorn squash, and hubbard squash. All these substitutions will have slight variations in taste and texture. Buttercup squash, for example, is creamier and sweeter than pumpkin. Sweet potato is also a great substitute for pumpkin, and it will give your baked goods a similar cozy orange color.
For all winter squash and sweet potato swaps, you can plan on a 1:1 ratio — so if a recipe calls for one cup of pumpkin purée, you can use 1 cup of cooked and puréed butternut squash. You’ll likely encounter slight variations in thickness from classic canned pumpkin, but not enough to throw a recipe’s baking chemistry off balance. Additionally, most recipes that call for pumpkin purée, like quick breads and cookies, are forgiving — an extra teaspoon’s worth of moisture won’t ruin your hard work.
You can also use fresh pumpkin! Look for “pie pumpkins” in your grocery stores or at the farmers markets, which are smaller and denser than carving pumpkins. They are also “much tastier and have a more pleasant texture than your average Jack O' Lantern,” according to Mitchell. Fresh cooked pumpkin is looser and wetter than canned pumpkin — Libby’s notes that their pumpkins undergo a “special process” to reduce the water content before canning. At home, you can drain the cooked pumpkin in a fine mesh sieve, or cook it on the stovetop, stirring to evaporate water and reduce the flesh.
How to Store Pumpkin Purée
Finally, once you do get your hands on that precious pumpkin purée, make every bit of it count. Canned pumpkin keeps well even after it's been opened. Mitchell notes that when transferred to an airtight plastic container, pumpkin purée will last for a week in the refrigerator, or three months in the freezer.