In the U.S., where most fruits and vegetables are now available year round, pumpkins remain steadfastly seasonal. In early August, they are virtually non-existent, but as soon as a hint of autumn fills the air, these vibrant orange orbs show up by the score; not just at the market, but in everything from muffins and pies to lattes and ales. You name it; we’ll put pumpkin in it. Meanwhile, makeshift pumpkin patches spring up everywhere to the delight of children. In late October, jack-o’-lanterns will adorn porches far and wide. By the time Thanksgiving and Christmas have passed, we’ll have eaten some 50 million pumpkin pies. And then, just as quickly as they came, pumpkins will be gone.
The story of pumpkin is uniquely American and partly one of mistaken identity. Commonly considered a vegetable, it is technically a fruit that falls into a genus of plant called Cucurbita, which includes everything from acorn squash to zucchini. We generally refer to pumpkins as winter squash, but at the end of the day, botanist consider all of these plants to be members of the gourd family. Unlike the more delicate summer variety, winter squash are planted in summer and harvested in fall after their seeds have fully matured and their skins have hardened. In the Untied States, what separates pumpkin from other winter squash, like butternut and acorn, is largely artificial—an American construct that is embedded in our national story. To many in the world, there is no difference. All winter squash are pumpkins, and all pumpkins are winter squash. So any discussion about one invariably spills over into the other.
A native of Central America, winter squash, not maize, are widely believed to have been the first domesticated plants in the Americas. Seeds found in the Oaxaca region of Mexico date back to some time between 7000 and 5500 BC; a good 2,000 years before corn. Because they could be stored through the winter without rotting, squash were an important part of the Native American diet. Easily cultivated, they eventually disseminated throughout North America.
There are dozens of varieties of pumpkin. Seed merchant Johnny Selected Seeds lists over 60 different types on their website, and here again, the line between pumpkin and winter squash is blurry. Few would mistake the green striped Cushaw, with its long curved neck, for a pumpkin, but that’s just what it is. The Rouge Vif D’Etampes, a vivid fiery colored cultivar that looks like a slightly flattened pumpkin, is actually a squash.
For the home cook, it’s best to categorize pumpkins into three groups: ornamentals; Jack-o’-lanterns, or carving pumpkins; and cooking pumpkins.
Ornamentals are usually any small pumpkin, or pumpkin-like gourd, weighing less than three pounds. A favorite with children, these varieties usually have names like Jack Be Littles, Munchkins and Hooligans. They look great adorning a windowsill, as part of a centerpiece, or as a “side kick” to a jack-o’-lantern. Those at the larger end of the scale can do double-duty as cooking pumpkins or as individual soup bowls.
Carving Pumpkins range between 15 and 25 pounds and have deep orange color, well defined ribs and strong stems or handles. Most are variations of the Connecticut Field, which some claim is the “original” Halloween pumpkin and dates back to 1871. The Howden Field pumpkin is the most common carving pumpkin sold today. The Pankow’s Field pumpkin is recognizable by its tremendously thick stem.
Large white varieties like the Lumina, Cotton Candy, and the Full Moon, make for a “ghostly” alternative to the classic orange jack-o’-lantern.
All pumpkins are edible, but those that weigh between three and ten pounds are the best choice for cooking and baking. Often referred to as pie or sugar pumpkins, they have firm, sweet flesh that is less stringy than larger varieties. Look for names like Baby Bear, Baby Pam, Winter Luxury, and the New England Pie.
There are several heirlooms worth mentioning.
Buying & Storing
When selecting a pumpkin for cooking, your best options are smaller, sweeter varieties commonly called “pie pumpkins” (see Varieties above). However, larger jack-o’-lantern pumpkins will do fine in most preparations. The rinds should be hard and free of bruises, blemishes and soft spots. The stem is a good indication of the health of a pumpkin. According to The University of Illinois Extension, pumpkins with short stems decay quickly and may be decaying at the time of purchase. They advice looking for a stem that’s at least one to two inches in length.
To determine how large a pumpkin you will need, remember that a pound of pumpkin will produce about a cup of puree.
Most winter squash will store for 2-3 months in a cool, dry place with good ventilation. The optimal temperature is about 50°F (10°C) wth moderate humidity. Low humidity will dry a pumpkin out, while high humidity will encourage decay. During autumn, most people will store pumpkins outside. This is fine provided temperatures don’t get too hot or cold.
Once cut open, they can be stored in the refrigerator for several days wrapped in plastic kept inside an air-tight container.
Preparing & Cooking
Always rinse pumpkins thoroughly with cool water before cooking with them. If necessary, use a vegetable brush to remove dirt or debris.
While pumpkin can be roasted, most varieties are too stringy and lack the depth of flavor found in other winter squash. They are best suited for baking or in soups and sauces, which requires the pumpkin meat to be pureed first. Peeling a pumpkin is challenging to say the least. This is probably why most home cooks prefer puree from a can. For an easy homemade method, we recommend this technique wherein the pumpkin is cooked right inside the rind and then scraped out.
Roasted pumpkin seeds make a delicious snack, are high in protein, and super easy to make. For crunchier results, try boiling the seeds for 10 minutes prior to roasting, as in this method from Whole Foods.
Because of their moderately sweet taste, pumpkins are commonly paired with warm spices—such as allspice, cinnamon, cloves and ginger—to impart flavor. In the U.S., pumpkin’s flavor is more synonymous with these spices than with the fruit itself. Many pumpkin-flavored foods and beverages contain no actual pumpkin. Other natural affinities include brown sugar, butter, cheese, cream, dark rum, lemons, oranges, maple syrup, and vanilla. For something more global, try pairing with apples and curry.