Pepitas, short for pepitas de calabaza, is the Spanish word for the seeds of pumpkins and other large varieties of squash. In Mexican cuisine, pepitas are widely eaten as a snack, used as a versatile garnish for many dishes, and even to make cooking oil.
- Health: 15 percent of the recommended daily value of iron
- Also Known As: Pumpkin seeds or seeds of other large squash
- Taste: Sweet, toasty, nutty, crunchy
- Cuisine: Mexican and very versatile
What Are Pepitas?
Pepitas are the seeds of pumpkins and other large members of the squash genus, Cucurbita. In North America, people most commonly encounter a version of pepitas around Halloween, when they scoop the flesh and seeds out of their field pumpkins for carving jack-o'-lanterns. These pumpkin seeds can indeed be cleaned, roasted and eaten whole. But the real treat are the green, nutty seeds that reside inside these white shells.
And while green pepitas are packaged commercially in different forms, they are not the seeds of the common field pumpkin, which are bred solely as Halloween decorations. Rather, these pepitas come from different squash varietals, which are bred specifically for their seeds. Indeed, some cultivars lack the shells altogether.
Pepitas Vs. Pumpkin Seeds
We'll distinguish between pumpkin seeds, which are the whole seed, with the hull still on, and pepitas, which are the green seed with the hull removed. This can be confusing since the word "hulled" can refer to a seed with the hull still on, as well as a seed that's had its hull removed.
In any event, pumpkin seeds have a thick, white hull or shell. This shell is edible in the sense that the shells of peanuts and sunflower seeds are technically edible. That is, you can chew and swallow them without ill effect. But that does not mean it's pleasant to do so—at least not for more than a handful. After that, you'll get tired of chewing on what feels like a mouthful of wood.
Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult and time consuming to remove the shells from your pumpkin seeds when carving a pumpkin at home. Which means that if you want to eat your pumpkin seeds, you have to clean, dry and roast them yourself at home, and eat them whole.
If you become an expert, it's possible to crack each seed in your teeth and extract the green pepita within, but it's not necessary. Because you can buy green pepitas with the hulls removed, both raw and roasted. And they're not made from ordinary field pumpkins, which aren't bred for eating, but from cultivars that are specifically bred to yield tasty seeds.
And in any case, whether you use them as a garnish, as an ingredient in baking (see the muffin and candy recipes below), or even grind them up to make nut butter, it's the version with the shell removed that you'll be using.
Incidentally, you can also buy whole, in the shell, pumpkin seeds as well. The advantage of these is that they are industrially dried before roasting, which makes a tremendous difference. When roasting pumpkin seeds at home, it's impossible to get them dry enough, especially after rinsing off all the stubborn bits of pumpkin pulp. So what you end up with, even after roasting, is sort of a damp, oily shell with a tiny nut inside. (Either that, or they burn.) The commercially sold ones are nice and dry, making them more palatable.
While whole roasted pumpkin seeds are typically eaten as a snack, but not much else, the green pepitas can be used in a variety of ways. With their sweet, nutty flavor and high oil content, pepitas are a great substitution for pine nuts in pesto. They add flavor to breakfast cereals, granolas, and smoothies, and can be worked into whole-grain bread doughs or muffin batters for extra flavor and texture, or even used in place of other nuts in desserts or confections, such as brittle. Pepitas are also great in salads, rice pilafs, burritos, and tacos, or many other dishes that could use a pleasant crunch.
What Do They Taste Like?
Green pepitas have a sweet, nutty flavor, making them a perfect accent for most everything from soups and salads to main courses, and desserts. Pepitas are dense and oily like sunflower seeds, and taste similar too, except that pepitas are nuttier and sweeter, as well as a bit larger in size.
Where to Buy Pepitas
Packaged pepitas and pumpkin seeds can be found in Latin American grocery stores, in larger supermarkets in the aisle with packaged nuts and seeds, in gourmet and health food shops, as well as other stores and online sites that specialize in nuts and seeds.
Due to the possibility of pepitas turning rancid or soft and because a small quantity is generally used for each serving, it is best to avoid buying in bulk, unless you plan on using a lot of them in a short period of time.
Roasted pepitas can be stored in a zipper-lock plastic bag or airtight container in a dry place for six to nine months. Being naturally high in oil, they can turn rancid, so keep them cool and away from light. Roasted whole pumpkin seeds can last for up to 12 months stored in the same way. They have a slightly longer shelf life because the hull protects the more volatile inner seed from exposure to light and oxygen, which promote rancidity.