From maple-sweet to savory, the versatile pumpkin has a place in every dish
By Crystal Shi
The pumpkin is America’s autumnal poster child. Harvested in September and October, it announces the anticipated arrival of the season—and the holidays and warm family celebrations to come.
But in the accompanying flood of pumpkin-themed recipes and buzzy seasonal drinks, how much of the spotlight actually falls on pumpkin itself?
Pumpkin spice—that ubiquitous mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves that has crept far beyond its pumpkin pie beginnings—often outshines its namesake. And as for the cans of puree that take over grocery store shelves, much of that isn’t even pumpkin—many hold masquerading mixtures of different squashes, like butternut, which are more readily available and make for a sweeter and denser product. (That’s because there’s no clear-cut botanical definition of pumpkin, and USDA labeling requirements are lax.)
This pumpkin season, give the real thing the spotlight it deserves. Fresh pumpkins have endless potential. They’re nutty-sweet and earthy, with flesh that turns rich and creamy when roasted, sauteed, or stewed. Pureed, chopped, or cooked down into butter, they have a place in dishes from soups, pizzas, and pastas to quick breads, ice cream, and even cocktails, where they can shine on their own or make friends with a huge variety of flavors—not just pumpkin spice.
Here’s how to make the most of them.
How to Pick and Prep Your Pumpkin
Start at the market—not, to be clear, the pumpkin patch. The larger pumpkins we pick out to carve don’t make for great eating; they tend to be stringy and watery, with little sweetness or flavor left.
What you’re looking for instead are smaller specimens labeled “sugar pumpkins” or “pie pumpkins,” whose firm, sweeter flesh lend them much better to cooking and baking. The names of some varieties exude autumn whimsy: Cinderella, Fairytale, Baby Bear, Autumn Gold.
Opt for pumpkins between four to eight pounds that feel heavy and dense for their size, advises Penny Stankiewicz, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. They should have tight, fairly uniform skin, with no soft spots, cracks, or other visible damage.
To prepare your pumpkin, the easiest plan of attack requires only a bit of knife skills and an oven. First, slice off the top and bottom to stabilize it. Then, cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds, coat it with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper, and roast it face down on a sheet tray (any temperature works, though Stankiewicz prefers about 375 F) until a fork or knife slides easily into the flesh. The skin will have taken on a dark brown color.
From there, you can adapt it to your recipe’s needs: Scoop out the softened flesh for homemade puree; chop it up and mix it into a grain salad or risotto; or, simplest of all, slice and savor it plain, or with a quick dressing.
Pumpkin is incredibly versatile. “I don’t think there’s a recipe or type of cooking that you can’t fit pumpkin into,” Stankiewicz says. And thanks to its rounded, sweet and savory notes, “the list of flavors that go along with it are pretty spectacular, too.”
It shines equally bright in sweet applications—with maple, brown sugar, caramel, chocolate—as in savory—with wild mushrooms, bacon, or hearty herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme.
As evidenced by the popularity of pumpkin spice, the nutty flesh takes beautifully to baking spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Other warming ingredients—apple cider and bourbon, cumin and chili peppers, and many of the other “warming kinds of foods that we specifically enjoy in the fall and the winter,” Stankiewicz says, proving true the adage “what grows together, goes together”—also work well.
The possibilities don’t stop there: Brightness, from citrus or tart cranberries and currants, works surprisingly well; nuts like walnuts, pecans, and pistachios are perfect matches; and light, sweet cheeses are a great option, too—think ravioli filled with pumpkin and mascarpone, pumpkin ricotta gnocchi, or mascarpone cheesecake.
In fact, pumpkin’s affinity with cream opens it up to a whole world of desserts. Tyler Verbiak, executive pastry chef at db Bistro Moderne in New York City, recommends incorporating the puree into “any kind of cream-based dessert item.” Beyond cheesecake and pie, that can be pastry cream, ice cream, or even pannacotta.
Or, for something simple, poach it like any other fruit in syrup; add a bit of butter to amp up the richness.
Finally, there’s the booze. When it comes to mixed drinks, Stankiewicz recommends choosing a base that’s already warming, such as ones that include whiskey or rum, and sticking to choices that have enough body to accommodate the density of pumpkin. Eggnog and hot toddies are promising options.
Pumpkin puree, butter, and infused syrup can all work in cocktails; Bryson Downham, beverage director at Toups’ Meatery and Toups South in New Orleans, likes to use fresh pumpkin juice in his. He then takes the leftover pulp and fibrous strands from the center of the pumpkin and soaks it all in Everclear for three to four weeks. Strained and combined in equal parts with simple syrup, it makes for a fantastic “Pumpkincello.”