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Winter Squash

The prospect of making a pie from a real live pumpkin can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never done it before. It’s even more intimidating when added to the challenge of roasting a turkey, making stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and all the other sides. Not to mention all of the stress that goes along with hosting.

Preparing this once-a-year feast requires many of us to flex our culinary muscles in a way that we just don’t have time for the rest of the year. It’s easy in the midst of all the other cooking challenges to decide to take the easy route and use canned pumpkin for the pie. But here’s the thing: making pumpkin pie from scratch is totally worth it, and it’s really not as hard asyou might think. Plus the flavor of the pie (not to mention the satisfaction you’ll feel eating it) are impossible to get out of a can.

Turning a whole pumpkin (or squash) into puree to use in your favorite pie recipe can be achieved in four simple steps: 

1. Cut the squash open and scoop out the seeds. 

2. Roast (flesh side down) in a 400ºF oven until the squash is super soft.

3. Cool and remove the skin.

4. Puree the flesh until it’s silky
 smooth.

One easy way to avoid extra work during the rush to get Thanksgiving dinner on the table is to make your puree ahead of time and freeze it in gallon freezer bags until you’re ready to put the pie together. This can also be useful trick if you pick a pumpkin or squash that’s too big for your Thanksgiving pie needs. If you have extra puree in the freezer, it can be easily used for all sorts of delicious winter baking projects (pumpkin pancakes on a cold January morning? Don’t mind if I do!) 

So, now that you know the technique, how do you pick your pumpkin—or should you use a pumpkin at all? What we call pumpkins are in fact just certain varieties of winter squash, not their own botanical entity at all. To help you find the pumpkin or squash that’s right for you, here’s a breakdown of the most popular varieties of winter squash by species and cooking characteristics. 

Happy baking!

Cucurbita pepo 

Includes: Acorn Squash, Pie Pumpkins, Traditional Carving Pumpkins, Delicata Squash, Spaghetti Squash, (also Zucchini, Summer Squash, and Decorative Gourds).

This species is extremely diverse in appearance, ranging from all shapes and sizes of summer squash, to the traditional carving pumpkins of Halloween. Acorn, delicata, and pie pumpkins can all be made into pie, however, they tend to have a relatively high-moisture content so to attain a good texture for pie, it’s a good idea to strain the pulp to remove the excess moisture. Cucurbita pepo squash varieties tend to be very mild in flavor and pale in color. When used in a pie, their “pumpkin” flavor tends to be almost completely overwhelmed by the spices. They can also be a bit stringy, which can be a challenge if you’re looking for a silky smooth pumpkin pie flavor. (The most striking example of this is the spaghetti squash, which was bred specifically for its stringy, pasta-like texture.) 

Most squash and pie experts agree that, though pie pumpkins are the most commonly used squash for homemade pies, the squash from this species are in fact the least desirable for this use. 

Cucurbita Moschata

Includes: Butternut, Long Island Cheese, Dickinson Pumpkin

What is Dickinson Pumpkin, you ask? It’s not a squash you’ll ever find on our produce shelves, but it is the variety that is most commonly used for canned pumpkin. Growers and processors prefer to use curcurbita moschata varieties for canned pumpkin because their smoother texture and brighter orange color makes a far superior pie to traditional curcurbita pepo pie pumpkins.

Squash in the Cucurbita moschata species have a pleasant nutty flavor that makes a very nice complement to traditional pumpkin pie spices. They have less water content than the pepo varieties, so there’s no need to strain the flesh.

Cucurbita Maxima

Includes: Buttercup, Hubbard, Kabocha, Red Kuri, Cinderella Pumpkins (aka Rouge Vif d’Etampes)

The last variety on this list, the Cinderella pumpkin (or Rouge Vif d’Etampes as they are known in their French homeland) is not one you’ll see in our winter squash displays. However, we got a good supply of them for our decorative Halloween displays and if you’re lucky you may find one left over. These large, flat-ish pumpkins are beautiful, but when you’re done looking at them they’re even better to eat—especially in a pie!

Of all of the winter squash, the Cucurbita maxima species have the most flavorful, smooth, dry, dense, and deeply colored flesh. If you prefer to taste mostly the pumpkin pie spices with just a hint of squash flavor, go with the moschata varieties, but if you want a pie with serious pumpkin flavor, the maxima varieties are the squash for you! 

 

 

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