This story was originally published in October 2020.
Pumpkin puree is a fall kitchen staple, whether you are preparing pies for Thanksgiving or adding an autumnal touch to a weeknight risotto. If the grocery store is out of cans, or if you’re lucky enough to have a fresh harvest of scrumptious sugary gourds, making your own pumpkin puree is an easy way to bring more flavor to your favorite fall dishes.
When fall rolls around, some grocery stores tend to run out of pumpkin puree. This year, as enthusiastic bakers and pandemic stockists collide, the availability of canned pumpkin puree may be even more limited than usual.
“Finding canned pumpkin every other year (including this one) lately has been a challenge,” said Jay Demers, department chair of culinary arts and restaurant food service management at Eastern Maine Community College.
Making your own pumpkin puree also allows for a fresher flavor.
“The benefits are going to be freshness,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. “A low-acid canned food like pumpkin was cooked, packed into that can, sealed up, cooked again. When you cook it in your pie, that pumpkin puree has now been cooked three times as opposed to you cooking it one time. When you take control of the process yourself, you definitely get better flavor.”
Step 1: Choose your pumpkins (or gourds)
Aside from the classic sugar pumpkins, many different gourds can be used to create flavorful purees. Dumas pointed out that, in fact, most canned pumpkin available at the grocery store is made of more butternut squash puree than sugar pumpkin. Dumas also recommended varieties like the New England pie pumpkin, red kuri squash and kabocha, which is sometimes sold as sunshine squash.
You can’t just use any old gourd for pumpkin puree, though. For example, the pumpkins that you use to carve jack o’ lanterns are not going to be good for puree. Dumas said they are high in water content and low in sugar, so the puree tastes bland.
If you’re using home-grown pumpkins, Dumas said to be cognizant of their aging. Like most winter squash, pumpkins are best after they are “cured,” or stored in a well-ventilated area for a few weeks after harvesting so that the squash can release excess moisture and concentrate its sugars.
“Most pumpkins tend to improve in flavor with the time that they’ve been in storage to a degree,” Dumas said. “Think about your curing time. Just because there’s a light crisp to the air doesn’t mean you should be eating pumpkin immediately. They improve a little bit with age.”
Size also matters when you are choosing pumpkins for puree.
“The best [ones are] less than four pounds, smaller than a volleyball,” Demers said. “They [are] sweeter and less stringy.”
Step 2: Prep your pumpkins
Wash the pumpkins thoroughly. Cut them in half from the end where the blossom used to be all the way to the stem, or “North Pole to South Pole,” as Dumas said. Scoop out the seeds and strings. You can compost the bits of the pumpkin flesh that you do not wind up using. You can compost the seeds (Demers warned that they may sprout in your pile), but you can also dry and save the seeds for next year or use them creatively in the kitchen.
“Most pumpkin seeds are edible,” Dumas said. “Experiment with toasting up those seeds, [or you can make] pumpkin seed butter instead of peanut butter.”
Oil each half lightly (Dumas said that a neutral flavor oil like vegetable or grapeseed is preferable to olive oil) and sprinkle it with salt. Dumas said you can also add a little bit of spice based on what you plan to use it for.
Place the cut sides of the halved gourds down on roasting pans lined with parchment paper. Otherwise, oils in the pumpkin and the caramelization from the sugar will stay behind on the pan and make it hard to clean.
Step 3: Roast your pumpkins
Set the oven between 400 and 425 degrees.
“I have a convection oven, so I roast it around 400 [degrees Fahrenheit],” Dumas said. “If you have a regular oven that doesn’t have a fan, you might want to roast it around 425 [degrees Fahrenheit]. You want to drive off that excess moisture. Some people complain homemade puree is soupier, and my suspicion is that they didn’t roast it hot enough to cook off that moisture.”
Cook until tender. Dumas said that the flesh should be soft and easy to scoop with a spoon. The cooking time will vary depending on what you are roasting and how you are roasting it.
“The density of the pumpkins or squashes will dictate your roasting time, as well as the number you put in there,” Dumas said. “One pumpkin [might take] 45 minutes, but a whole tray will take a little bit longer.”
Let the gourds rest outside of the oven. Once they are cool enough to handle, remove and discard stem and skin, which Dumas said should peel right off.
You can transfer the pumpkin flesh to a food processor fit with a metal blade and puree until smooth, but Dumas said this step may be unnecessary.
“It depends on what you’re using it for,” Dumas said. “For most applications, I would say no, you do not need to puree it further. You could take it in a bowl with a fork and stir it really aggressively.”
Step 4: Store your pumpkin puree
If you plan to use your pumpkin puree within the week, store it in the refrigerator. For longer-term storage, it can be frozen or pressure canned.
“[Canned pumpkin] is a good thing to have on hand and I think it’s something that people should eat more of outside of pie,” Dumas said. “Pumpkin is good for you. We serve it at Thanksgiving and that’s it, and that’s too bad.”
Dumas also suggested embracing the beauty of winter squashes’ long shelf life outside of canning and other forms of preservation.
“For me the beauty of a pumpkin is that I don’t have to put it in a fridge or a can,” Dumas said. “I just have a basement full of pumpkins. To me, it’s the ultimate lazy gardening vegetable.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to fully identify Rob Dumas.