Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Growing pumpkins for Halloween is a great family project. What you plan to do with them will determine which ones you grow. Large pumpkins that are suitable for use as jack-o-lanterns aren't used for cooking or baking because their flesh is watery and stringy. The stringiness will not combine well with the other ingredients for a smooth batter, so your pie will not be smooth and creamy. If you are using them for breads or muffins, the extra moisture makes batter too moist, so they will not bake correctly. The breads or muffins will lack the proper "crumb," or texture.
The best pumpkins for baking, especially that all-important pie, are smaller ones with firmer flesh and lower water content. The firm flesh mixes well with the flour, sugar and eggs, which creates a smooth batter. The low water content allows you to better control the moisture of the batter so that your pies and muffins will bake correctly and your finished product will have that desirable "crumb," or creamy texture in the case of pies.
What Are the Best Pumpkins to Bake With?
Pumpkins that are used for cooking and baking are known as culinary pumpkins. They tend to weigh less than 10 pounds, falling in the range of 5 to 8 pounds each. The vines are also shorter, only 4 to 6 feet compared to vines that bear larger fruit which can grow to 10 or 12 feet. Shorter vines are great for smaller gardens or even containers. Both heirlooms and hybrids can be grown and used for cooking.
Heirlooms are plants that are "open pollinated". If kept isolated from hybrids or other similar plants so that they don't cross-pollinate, they will produce seeds that will grow into plants that are identical to the parents. The advantage of growing heirlooms is that you can save the seed from year to year rather than buying new seeds every year. The taste of heirlooms is usually superior to hybrids.
Hybrids are plants that are the result of deliberate cross-pollination between two different varieties. The reason this is done is to combine the best features of both parents into a new plant variety. Desirable features include disease resistance, uniformity of fruit and increased yields. The drawbacks are that you must purchase new seeds each year and the fruit may not be as flavorful as heirlooms.
Heirloom pumpkin varieties that are commonly grown for cooking and baking include Small Sugar, Baby Pam and New England Pie. Hybrid pumpkins that are suitable to cook with include Howden's Field, Autumn Gold (an AAS variety) and Triple Treat.
Can You Use Other Kinds of Squash to Bake With?
Everyone knows and loves the heirloom pumpkin, Rouges Vif d'Etampes, also known as the Cinderella pumpkin, but it is not a true pumpkin. Pumpkins are classified as Cucurbita pepo. Cinderella pumpkins are classified as C. maxima, which is considered to be a variety of winter squash. Nevertheless, they can be used for cooking and baking. Another heirloom favorite that is not a true pumpkin is Musquee de Provence, classified as C. moschata, also a variety of winter squash. Musquee de Provence is likewise a good culinary squash. Both have firm flesh and low water content. And those pastel pumpkins that you see everywhere? They are called, improbably, cheese pumpkins and classified as C. moschata. Not only are they wonderful decorative squash, but you can cook with them too.
What Kind of Pumpkin Is in the Cans?
Did you ever wonder what kind of pumpkin is in those cans of puree that fill the grocery shelves each fall? The answer, surprisingly, is winter squash, not pumpkin. Libby, the largest producer of canned pumpkin, uses Dickinson pumpkins, a variety of butternut squash (C. moschata). Other winter squash that can be substituted include hubbard squash, butternut squash and turban squash all of which are C. maxima and all of which have the necessary firm flesh and low water content necessary for baking.
How to Make Pumpkin Puree
No matter which pumpkin or squash you grow, making puree is easy.
- Preheat your oven to 350°F.
- Wash the fruit and cut it in half. Scoop out the seeds and stringy parts.
- Lay the halves face down on a foil-lined cookie sheet and bake for 45 minutes to one hour, or until soft.
- Cool the halves and then scoop out the cooked flesh. Puree it in a food processor. The puree can be used immediately or frozen for later use.
Here's a hint to make your baking easier: Freeze your puree in one-cup portions so that you can defrost the exact amount of puree that you need each time that you bake.
The Bottom Line
When all is said and done, pumpkins are just a variety of winter squash. So if you are unable to grow or buy culinary pumpkins, you can substitute other kinds of winter squash in your recipes.
How to Grow Your Own Pumpkins
- How to Grow Pumpkins
Everyone loves to go pumpkin picking in the fall. If you have the space, you can grow your own pumpkins and go pumpkin picking in your own backyard.
© 2013 Caren White