© Brent Hofacker
What’s the best pumpkin for pumpkin pie? Maybe not a pumpkin at all.
The equinox is behind us, the thermometer is easing in its efforts to rise, and we can are now faced with the annual barrage of pumpkin-spice everything. I love the magic combination of warm wintry spices dearly, but pumpkin pie Pringles and pumpkin spice dipped Peeps? I just can’t.
The progenitor of all things pumpkin spice is, of course, the pumpkin pie – which was, also of course, inspired by the pumpkin itself. For those of us growing up during the romance-of-canned-things age, pumpkin pie was/is generally made with a can of pumpkin puree. But here’s the irony: Canned pumpkin is generally not even pumpkin, rather a combination of other winter squashes that deliver a rich flavor and good texture. The FDA labeling requirements are a bit slippery here and allow other squashes to be called pumpkin – and besides, a “squash spice latte” doesn’t sound nearly as charming. Which is all to say that swapping in another squash in place of pumpkin for your pumpkin pie is not some kind of autumn sacrilege.
Using canned pumpkin is easy and consistent, for sure – but if you don’t like BPA in your pie and would like to explore the magic of turning a big gorgeous gourd into dessert, here are some options. (I was being a bit hyperbolic, there are companies that make BPA-free canned foods, but you get my point.) Instructions for the how-to at the bottom.
1. Sugar pumpkin
These cheerful guys are widely used for jack-o’-lantern carving and probably the most popular pumpkin for making pie. Maybe somebody knows the secret for making that work, but in all of my experience they make a pie that is not that deep in flavor and has a watery texture. That said, they are easy to get so that’s a plus. If you decide to go with a sugar pumpkin, try straining the pulp (in a colander or sieve, under a weight) to remove some of the moisture and concentrate the flavor.
2. Cheese pumpkin
I think these are just so pretty – pale, burnished and elegant – and I get a little weak-kneed when I see them at the farmers market. One often ends up hogging the center of my table all season. And I love turning them into things to eat, too! They are great for pie – they have a lovely smooth texture, a moderately thick puree – silky but toothsome, sweet and floral but earthy with a nice medium depth of flavor.
3. Butternut squash
Back when there was threat of a pumpkin shortage leaving pie-makers in a panic, I touted the butternut squash as a quite honorable replacement. In fact, it’s a great default, much because it is so readily available. As I described earlier: It is sweet and earthy, and has a dense flesh that is neither fibrous nor grainy nor watery. Plus, it’s easy to get and also much less harrowing to handle and prepare than pumpkin. All in all, it outpumpkins pumpkin.
4. Acorn squash
These stout cuties of the squash family may not be the best option for pie, but they can definitely do the job in a pinch. The flesh bakes into a more-brown-than-orange pie and the flavor loses a bit in translation – but if you have some on hand, why not? Acorn squash is another good contender for straining in colander to drain some of the liquid before using.
5. Kabocha squash
The beautiful Japanese pumpkin, kabocha squash, is a winner all around. It’s gorgeous to behold and doesn’t disappoint in its flavor, texture and versatility. It’s sweet and earthy, has a lovely thick yet fluffy texture … and the color, a pretty deep rusty orange that is fall in a nutshell. This is one of my favorites for pie-making. And everything else pumpkin.
6. Red kuri squash
Red kuri wins the pumpkin beauty pageant, easily. And the flavor contest as well. It’s like the perfect storm of squashes, a chance combination of aesthetic, texture and taste that make it unique. Think rich red-orange hue, thick creamy consistency, and deep sweet flavor.
7. Sweet potatoes
When all else fails, sweet potatoes to the rescue! They are not squash, I know, but they are beautiful and orange and have that sweet earthy flavor that make them a fine adoptive addition to the pumpkin family. Bake, steam, or boil and mash and use in place of pumpkin puree in any recipe. Or skip the pie and make sweet potato cheesecake.
How to prepare
Here’s something no one ever tells you: For roughly two cups of puree, use a three-pound squash.
Roasting brings out the flavor and is my favorite way to cook squash for pie – for an even deeper flavor, add a little butter or coconut oil and a sprinkle of brown sugar. Carefully cut your squash in half, remove the seeds (save for roasting!) and strings, then roast it at 400 degrees F for 30 to 45 minutes until tender. Remove, cool, scoop out the flesh and puree in a food processor until smooth – depending on the squash this can take a few minutes.