Canned vs. Fresh Pumpkin

by Elizabeth Skipper | October 30th, 2012 | Ask the Chef

Pumpkin is everywhere right now, which I love. At home, I try to use it more often, making breads, pies, and more. However, I always use canned pumpkin, which seems contradictory, as the reason pumpkin is popular now is that it is in season. From what I’ve read, working with fresh pumpkin is time-consuming. What I’m wondering is if it is worth the time to use fresh instead of canned.

We’ve come a long way from the colonists of America, one of whom wrote of pumpkins around 1630,

“We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon; if it were not for pumpkins we should be undone.”

Pumpkins (and squash) were one of the native crops, along with beans and corn, that the colonists learned of from the Native Americans. They grow well, are prolific, and keep well dried. The poem reflects the fact that often pumpkins kept the colonists from starvation. That’s a far cry from today, when we typically think of pumpkins only at Halloween and Thanksgiving. Once we’ve carved a jack o’lantern and made pumpkin pie, the season is pretty much over for a year.

If that’s the case at your house, is it worth it to cook your own pumpkin? Financially, given that canned pumpkin is often a loss leader at the stores in fall, it’s probably not. However, if you (a) enjoy the sense of self-satisfaction that comes from doing it yourself, and (b) want to do something with pumpkin that doesn’t involve purée, you’d do well to start cooking.

Be sure to get the proper pumpkin variety. The large varieties used for carving aren’t what you want. Look for little ones labeled “sugar” or “pie” pumpkin. The flesh is sweeter, firmer, and less stringy than those big ones. Typically they yield about the same amount of cooked purée as one can, about a pound. They can be cooked several different ways.

Native Americans cooked them whole, in embers (no ovens, remember?) before opening them and removing the seeds. Today’s cooks usually remove the top and scoop out the seeds before baking. You can also cut up the pumpkin and boil (not recommended), steam, or roast the pieces. I’m partial to roasting, which involves less moisture and concentrates the flavor via caramelization. Once the pumpkin is cooked, it’s easy to peel and purée the flesh in a food mill, blender, or food processor.

Rinse the seeds and roast them; that’s another reason to do it yourself. They’re tasty and nutritious, delicious to eat roasted, added to trail mix, or made into sauces or dips. I like to put them in a Mexican sauce called pipián, which calls for ground pumpkin seeds, hull and all. I’ve never tried hulling them myself, although there are directions online for doing so. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s tried it. In fact, I think I’m inspired to try it this year – I got a pretty little sugar pumpkin from my CSA that should be perfect to experiment on.

Back to the pumpkin itself, what can you do with it other than make pie, mousse, cheesecake, muffins, quick breads, or cookies? You can make soup and serve it in the pumpkin, something you can’t do with canned.

Almost any place you’d use squash is a good place to use pumpkin. Pumpkin is great as a filling for raviolis instead of butternut squash. In fact, butternut squash is a substitute here for what’s used in Italy, which is a kind of pumpkin! Roast some chunks as a vegetable, in olive oil with herbs like thyme or rosemary. Parboil some chunks of pumpkin and grill for a flavor twist. How about using raw grated pumpkin in a take-off of Jewish latkes?

Try adding some peeled, diced pumpkin to baked beans while they’re cooking, or to a beef stew. Make a meatloaf mixture and bake it in a pumpkin shell. There’s even an old recipe for spiced pumpkin cooked in sugar, vinegar, and spices, to be served as a relish alongside meats. I hope these suggestions inspire you to start experimenting with fresh pumpkin; there are so many ways to use it other than canned.

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