First off, the pumpkins you cook with are not to be confused with the ones used to carve jack-o'-lanterns. Pumpkins carved at Halloween are watery, mealy, and not great for recipes — they're best suited for decoration or festive containers for soups or stews. Instead, you're more likely to find recipes that call for sugar pumpkins, canned pumpkin, or pumpkin seeds.
Also called pie pumpkins or sweet pumpkins, sugar pumpkins are smaller, sweeter, and less fibrous, which makes them a great choice for cooking. They belong to the winter squash family (as do butternut and acorn squash, and kabocha), and are delicious prepared in similar ways.
Sugar pumpkins don't just look like October — they taste like it, too. Their solid texture turns creamy with roasting, steaming, sautéing, or pureeing. And their sweet-savory flavor works as well with sweet ingredients (like honey, maple, brown sugar, and molasses) as it does with savory ones (like dried crushed red pepper, salty cheeses, and wild mushrooms). Assertive herbs such as cilantro, rosemary, and sage are wonderful with sugar pumpkin. As you'd expect, so are baking spices like ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
While you can certainly make pumpkin desserts with fresh pumpkin, canned pureed pumpkin that you can purchase at the grocery store can be more consistent — and convenient. Don't confuse with the already sweetened and spiced "pie mix."
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Pumpkin seeds have a light, nutty flavor once they are removed and roasted. When sold under their Spanish name, pepitas, their white outer hull has usually been removed and the green seeds are available either roasted and salted or raw.
How to buy and store
Look for a pumpkin that's smaller and rounder with less defined ridges than jack-o'-lantern pumpkins. Choose firm ones that feel heavy for their size and have dull, not glossy, skin. Inspect the whole pumpkin, especially the stem area, and pass on any with bruising or cracks. Stored at room temperature, whole unpeeled sugar pumpkins will last for at least three weeks.
The bright orange color is a tip-off: sugar pumpkin is rich in vitamin A. It's also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. Eating sugar pumpkin may help support eye health, as well as cardiovascular and digestive health. In addition, it may assist in preventing certain kinds of cancer.
5 quick recipes to try
Halve, seed, and peel the sugar pumpkins, then proceed as directed.
- Side: Coat chunks of sugar pumpkin with olive oil, butter, salt, pepper, and lime juice. Roast until tender; sprinkle with fresh thyme.
- Salad: Toss chunks of roasted sugar pumpkin into a salad of frisée, endive, and radicchio; accompany with a balsamic vinaigrette.
- Pilaf: Stir cubes of roasted sugar pumpkin into wild rice toward the end of cooking; season with rosemary.
- Soup: Simmer cubed sugar pumpkin in vegetable stock, along with sautéed onions, chopped sage, salt, and pepper, until pumpkin is tender. Puree, thinning with more stock, if desired.
- Gratin: In a buttered baking dish, mix slices of roasted sugar pumpkin with sautéed leeks, goat cheese, and chopped toasted hazelnuts. Drizzle with cream; bake gratin until heated through.