Pumpkin Smackdown!

Many years ago when my daughter was first born we'd receive WIC coupons from the local office for food to help with nutrition and such. Those coupons were only good for certain things but you could buy just about anything from the local farmers market with them. Breezing the halls of the farmers market was an interesting thing because at the time I didn't do a lot of cooking and the only thing the farmer's market sold was items that needed to be cooked. As fate would have it I made a choice and bought a pumpkin. Once home I had to figure out what to do with it so I made Pumpkin bread and the rest as they say is history.

I've now been making Pumpkin bread every fall for 20 years without missing a single season. Since then I've also learned a great deal about food and Pumpkins specifically. As most people I started out buying Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins because this is the quintessential pumpkin that everyone recognizes. Little did I know they don't make great food. Cooks Illustrated a magazine I respect greatly maintains the idea that it's just not worth the effort to cook raw pumpkins but I beg to differ. Had I stopped at the Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins I would agree but there are better pumpkins out there when you have food in mind which is why we're here today.

  

Pumpkin Varieties

Shortly I'll be outlining the 3 pumpkin varieties worth considering for food and referencing the pumpkin people usually try to make food out of unsuccessfully – the Jack-o-Lantern. There are many many varieties of pumpkins but half of them are branches from the Jack-o-lantern tree so we'll cover them together. Then there's the smallish Sugar Pie Pumpkin, the Long Island Cheese Wheel and the Cinderella. The latter two have limited availability although popularity of the Cinderella seems to be on the rise if only slightly.

 

Testing Criteria 

Flavor: Of course flavor will be number one. Contrary to popular belief not all pumpkins taste the same and why would they? Not all squash taste the same so it makes sense. 

Texture: Texture is important when making puree out of the meat.

Cookability: This is more important than you think. I've cooked pumpkins every possible way looking for the method that gives me the most meat, the best flavor and texture. Some pumpkins are more cookable than others. Pumpkins that are too small or too large are difficult to cook while either maintaining flavor or getting a decent ratio of meat to work involved. See my method on how to cook a pumpkin a bit later in this article. 

Longevity: Because I only use fresh pumpkin in my bread and I worry about availability more than most. Most pumpkins disappear from the store about Halloween time. This is a problem for me because I like cooking pumpkin bread for more than the two weeks leading up the Halloween. There are vast differences between pumpkins in regard to longevity.

Availability: Availability is important because if you can't buy the variety to begin with it doesn't matter how good it is. Some pumpkins like Jack-o-Lantern are always available around Halloween but ONLY right up to October 31st. Try to get one the next day. Others just aren't distributed or grown much.

Cost: How much do I usually have to pay?

  

 

How I cooked them

I've tried every last way to cook a pumpkin and compared each method to the others. My opinion is that there's one way to cook a pumpkin that will keep it moist, cook it long enough for the meat to break down and keep it from drying out. Later I'll do a Cooking a Pumpkin Smackdown and compare the various ways to cook them.

I only buy pumpkins that at their widest are narrow enough to fit on a half sheet pan. I then take my longest stiff knife (11” French Chef) and cut the pumpkin along the equator making sure to keep as much of the knife in the pumpkin as possible so as to ensure a perfectly straight cut. If when I get back to the start of the cut I'm off at all (usually no more than a millimeter) I shave the unevenness until I have a nice flat surface. This is very important. I then take my rounded cheese scraper and scrape the seeds/strings from the pumpkin and smooth out the surface of the meat to ensure even cooking. The pumpkin then goes cut side down on the half sheet pan and in the oven.

I cook both halves at the same time if they fit. The even edge will get a suction seal on the pan as soon as a little liquid pools inside the pumpkin. The steam that builds up inside will keep the pumpkin shell inflated even after it's turned to mush. Cook the pumpkin for several hours at 325 degrees until the outer shell is charred and looking like it's about to cave in. Then cook it a tad bit longer until the pumpkin has caved in almost to the pan (you don't want the meat to touch the pan or it will dry out and burn). Also don't try to lift up on the edge of the pumpkin to see if it's done or poke it. If you let out the steam it's all over and the pumpkin will cave in. If there's too much liquid built up in the sheet pan remove it with a ladle or turkey baster and set aside. Also don't pull the pumpkin out of the oven for any reason. If the steam turns to liquid the pumpkin will collapse. 

Once the pumpkin has nearly caved in remove the it from the oven and let it sit until it cools. When that happens the steam turns back to liquid and the pumpkin will just fall flat on the pan. This is fine as the pan will no longer be hot. Remove all the extra liquid from the pan invert another half sheet pan over the pumpkin so both pans make a clam shell. Grab opposite corners of both pans and quickly turn them over so the new pan is on the bottom and the pan with the pumpkin is now on the top. Lift up the top pan gently and slide a spatula between it and the pumpkin. It should fall off easily onto the new pan. Do the same for the other half pumpkin.

Scrape the meat out of the cooked shell and store it with it's juices in a sealable container in the refrigerator. It will keep for several weeks and then if left alone will mold. Just getting into it and stirring it up every couple of days will extend it's life. You can freeze it but you'll lose quite a lot of flavor so I eventually gave up on that idea. If you have too much juice you can place the meat in a pan on the stovetop at low heat and reduce it so the liquid doesn't pool. This also intensifies the flavor. I only do this on occasion if my pumpkins are extra ripe. I like just enough liquid in the meat to keep it fresh but not so much for it to create pools.

  

With that in mind let's talk about Pumpkin varieties. More after the jump.

 

The baseline – Jack-o-Lantern

First off let me get this off my chest – Jack-o-Lantern Pumpkins aren't food unless you're a pig in a sty! Let me explain why. The meat has very little flavor, it's stringy, way way too wet and they rot like it's going out of style.

Out of curiosity I attempted to make a Jack-o-lantern worth eating and I put a great deal of work into it by cooking it using my preferred method then taking the way too wet meat and reducing it over the stove to concentrate the flavors. The result? Just buy a can of pumpkin puree from the store and get it over with. Cooking a Jack-o-lantern has no real value and only wastes time.

Jack-o-Lantern Scorecard

  • Flavor: 1
  • Texture: 1
  • Cookability: 3
  • Longevity: 1
  • Availability: 4
  • Cost: 4
  • Total: 14 

Positives: Readily available up until Oct 31st, cheap

Negatives: Everything else, bland flavor, poor texture, too wet, rots quickly

Conclusion: Skip it. You can get them just about anywhere at Halloween, they're usually cheap and they come in the right sizes to cook but that's really all they have going for them. I really don't see any reason why anyone would go through the trouble of cooking one. 

 

Sugar Pie

This is most people's go-to pumpkin for pies if for no other reason than the name. These are smaller dark colored pumpkins and readily available in the fall from October to late November and the prices although higher than Jack-o-lantern won't usually break the bank because they're small.

Sugar Pie Scorecard

  • Flavor: 4
  • Texture: 3
  • Cookability: 2
  • Longevity: 2
  • Availability: 4
  • Cost: 2
  • Total: 17

 

Positives: Readily available even after Halloween, good texture, good flavor

Negatives: Too small to be very useful, because of their size it's difficult to cook very many on half sheet pans. It takes me twice as long to end up with the same meat as a larger pumpkin. Price is higher than others and they still rot fairly quickly.

  

Long Island Cheese

This is a new one for me. I was having a pumpkin conversation on Google+ and someone posted pictures of the Long Island Cheese pumpkin. It looks like a cheese wheel hence the name and for years the seed was available from the Long Island Seed Company thus the Long Island Cheese pumpkin. My local gourmet grocery was selling them for 25 cents per lb which if you think about it is amazing. I think they got a load of them and was judging public reaction. I naturally ended up cooking 5 before they ran out. The Long Island Cheese pumpkin is a medium sized dusty orange colored pumpkin. The meat however, is a bright orange as any other.

Long Island Cheese Scorecard

 

  • Flavor: 4
  • Texture: 3
  • Cookability: 5
  • Longevity: 2
  • Availability: 1
  • Price: 4
  • Total: 19

 

Positives: The Long Island Cheese is exactly the right size for a half sheet pan. The flavor is also very nice but has a more squashy flavor than other pumpkins. Not a bad thing but throws the flavor of certain things in a different direction. I'd use this for bread and pie but maybe not for soup. Unless squash soup is what you're looking for. Texture got a 3 because it's more springy and has a bit more strings than I'd like however, it wasn't bad. I've seen reports of Long Island Cheese lasting the winter if stored but this isn't my experience at all. I got about a month at room temperature out of them. Availability in the Pacific Northwest is nearly non-existent until this year but your mileage may vary depending on where you live. You might want to call farms ahead of time to see if they have them. Price when I bought them was awesome. 

Negatives: The texture isn't as smooth as I'd like. They do rot but not as fast as a Jack-o-Lantern. I think they last about as long as a Sugar Pie Pumpkin. And you may not even be able to find them.

 

Rouge vif d'Etampes (Cinderella)

The Cinderella pumpkin is a French heirloom that translates as Very Red. I started using them years ago just out of curiosity and also because they're very flat looking. I had a problem back in my Jack-o-Lantern days in that I could only cook one half at a time because my oven wasn't big enough. Cinderella pumpkins are squashed (like Cinderella's carriage) and I could cut them along the equator and get both halves in at the same time thus cutting my cooking time in half from 5 hours to 2.5. However since then I've cooked many types of pumpkins and I keep coming back to the Cinderella.

Cinderella Scorecard

  • Flavor: 4
  • Texture: 5
  • Cookability: 3
  • Longevity: 5
  • Availability: 2
  • Price: 3
  • Total: 22

 

Positives: The flavor is good. As strong as the Long Island Cheese pumpkin but more “pumpkiny”. If you're making something that is supposed to taste like pumpkin this is a good choice. Texture is awesome. Usually with my cheese scraper I can clean the seeds out until the inside of the pumpkin is nice and smooth. This ensures proper even cooking and it also allows you to choose the meat you want to keep better. Also when cooked properly the meat breaks

Negatives: Price is average. I dinged it a couple points on availability because I almost always have to go to a farm to get them. Some of my local specialty grocery stores are starting to carry them though and this year a couple of chain grocery's even had them. Maybe it's a trend. I also dinged it on Cookability. The reality is they get very wide and when you're buying them you think a half sheet pan is bigger than it is. It helps to take a tape measure with you when you go. If you get one too big for a half sheet pan you need to cook it in a less than ideal way.

 

Overall conclusion:

Cinderellas are still the Champ. I'd buy a Long Island Cheese pumpkin if they come available again and especially if they're 25 cent/lb. I also still buy Sugar Pie pumpkins if I can't get Cinderellas but if I have a choice and I usually do I will buy a Cinderella first and foremost.

  

What about Canned pumpkin?

The ONLY reason I'm covering this is people will ask. With a reputable source like Cooks Illustrated saying it isn't worth the time I should probably explain a few things. It's my theory that Christopher Kimbal and the folks at the America's Test Kitchen are not cooking the right pumpkins and/or cooking them wrong. Steaming or boiling a pumpkin will remove any reason to cook it as will using the wrong type of pumpkin. So what about canned? I don't know what to say about canned pumpkin because I've cooked most every major variety of pumpkin and the meat in EVERY one of them is bright orange. If you open a can of pumpkin puree it's brown. Then look at the ingredients list and they'll list one – pumpkin. How can something that is NEVER brown in the wild become brown in a can? I have no idea but I'd like the answer too.

In a pinch you could use canned pumpkin. However, I live by the philosophy that it's OK to have seasonal foods because it gives you something to look forward too. That first loaf in the fall is usually a treat!