Fresh or canned pumpkin?

Every year I get questions from readers asking whether they should consider using fresh pumpkin in their seasonal baking. That’s understandable. It’s the gourmand’s reflex to want to prepare everything fresh and from scratch. However I have yet to meet a professional baker or pastry chef who’s ever recommended getting their pumpkin fresh out of the squash versus simply opening up a tin.

I know how that sounds…but having roasted and scooped my share of fresh pumpkin flesh over the years, I can honestly say that I can’t tell the difference in taste — and I vastly prefer the texture of canned pumpkin. More than that, canned is extremely consistent in terms of moisture content, which eliminates the risk of a watery custard or soggy bread.

I’ve known at least two prominent pastry chefs to buy their canned pumpkin a year ahead of time and let it age in their storerooms. They claim the aging gives the canned pumpkin a more developed flavor.

Now then, I’ve recently been made aware of the fact that not everyone on the face of the globe has access to canned pumpkin (notably folks in Australia and New Zealand). For them I’d say the best method for preparing fresh pumpkin for a pie or pudding is to bake it. Split a 2 (or so) pound pumpkin, remove the seeds, and place the halves face down on a buttered baking sheet. Put the sheet in a preheated 375-degree oven for about half an hour or so until the pumpkin flesh is soft. Cool, scoop and use!

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25 Responses to Fresh or canned pumpkin?

  1. Darren says:

    I’ve made my own filling from pumpkins and find it much too watery. Even after sitting in a strainer with weight on top over night. Also the color of the home prepared pumpkin is much lighter than canned. I’ve often wondered if the canned variety didn’t contain the skin as well or the pumpkin oxidizes to that color. I’m strictly a canned pumpkin sort of guy now . . . unless there’s a shortage, then I make my pies out of butternut or acorn squash which I think has a superior flavor (maybe even better than canned) and color. It seems like butternut squash gives up it’s liquid a little more for a firmer puree.

    • joepastry says:

      Amen, brother. Though in the past I’ve “dehydrated” very wet pumpkin by cutting it into strips and baking the strips until they’re fairy dark. It’s a lot of extra effort, but it works. Butternut or acorn squash are terrific substitutes, as you point out.

      Thanks Darren!

      - Joe

      • Darren says:

        I’ve also wondered about roasting the pumpkin, pureeing it, and then putting it on those “fruit leather” racks in a dehydrator. Might work well . . . but opening a can is sooooo nice.

        • joepastry says:

          Funny yu should mention that…native Americans used to dry their pumpkin and eat itlike jerky…at least some of the time. I don’t think they puréed it first (the had nowhere to plug in their Cuisinarts), but in theory that could work!

          - Joe

          • Darren says:

            I heard Chris Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen on the radio. He said for a pumpkin cheesecake recipe he makes he’ll put 3 paper towels on a baking sheet, smear the canned pumpkin all over them, then top with three more paper towels and press and blot for a while to absorb away excess moisture. Not bad. I’d say it probably works with the Quicker Picker Upper and all that.

          • joepastry says:

            That’s very interesting…sounds like a good system. Thanks, Darren!

            - Joe

  2. Tom says:

    The easiest way to control the moisture when processing fresh pumpkins is to roast and puree them as usual and then put the puree in a jelly bag and let it drain for about an hour. After draining like this, the puree is very close in texture to canned pumpkin and the color is darker. You will not get the watery mess normally associated with fresh pumpkin and you don’t have to over-roast it.

  3. Bronwyn says:

    Buttercup or kabocha squash are lovely and dry and sweet, and what I always use for anything that calls for pumpkin; from pie and muffins to gnocchi, in risotto, or as a roast vegetable. Actual pumpkins are too watery for me no matter how they’re cooked, although they are very popular here, much more as a roast vegetable than used in baking – which probably explains the lack of canned pumpkin.

    • joepastry says:

      That’s probably right. And I’m with you regarding a lot of those substitutions. Squash breads and risottos are fantastic.

      - Joe

  4. Ann P. says:

    Double win here–canned is easier and tastes better. However, if one wanted to prepare pumpkin puree from scratch, do you have any tips on how would one go about choosing the ripest, most flavorful pumpkin?

    • joepastry says:

      Look for so-called “pie pumpkins”, they’re about two pounds…you can find them in most larger grocery stores this time of year. As for choosing one, I can’t say I have any specific advice. Round, firm and orange is all I know! ;)

      - Joe

  5. wally says:

    I think there is a definite difference between canned and fresh… the fresh having a less processed texture (at least as I have made it) and more of a ‘vegetable’ taste.
    That said, I also think squash makes better pies than pumpkin.

    • joepastry says:

      Thanks for weighing in, Wally! Indeed the votes for flavor and texture all seem to be going to winter squashes!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  6. Annemarie says:

    Bronwyn, a good rich deep coloured Whangaparoa Crown pumpkin will also make a nice dry puree, once roasted and pureed of course. But only a rich deep orange one, if they are a light colour they’ll be watery. I only buy pre-cut pumpkin for this reason.

  7. Henry says:

    A great way to make pumpkin puree less watery is by freezing it and the defrosting it again. A lot of water weeps out of the flesh during the defrosting.

  8. Henry says:

    I’m just wondering… if there’s no discernable difference in flavour between canned and fresh pumpkin puree, why don’t chefs make pumpkin soup from cans?

    • joepastry says:

      I can think of two reasons. First, because you don’t need the same sort of consistency for soup. If you get a watery pumpkin it’s no big deal: just simmer a little longer. Also soups aren’t usually so heavily seasoned. Pumpkin bread and pie spices easily overwhelm the subtleties of fresh pumpkin. Or at least that’s my experience.

      Thanks for the question, Henry!

      - Joe

  9. Joe (not Pastry) says:

    Being somewhat of a from-scratch purist, I tend towards using the actual pumpkin. My biggest issue with canned pumpkin is that it often really isn’t pumpkin, but a mix of pumpkin and sweet potato. Nothing wrong with that, if that is what you want. But I think most people have been trained to expect a particular flavor that is not what the name implies.

    For my pumpkin pies, I typically roast a small sugar pumpkin or a Japanese pumpkin whole ahead of time, allow it to full cool, and then process it for use. It has such a wonderfully strong flavor and typically results in a slightly more orange-yellow color than the brownish that comes from the canned pumpkins. Flavor-wise, I just love it!

    • joepastry says:

      Huh. That’s interesting. The Libby’s that I have lists nothing but pumpkin on the ingredient label. I’ll have to check some other brands. But while I don’t do pumpkin from scratch as a rule, I certainly have nothing against those who do. More power to you, Joe!

      - Joe

  10. Ann says:

    I scoop out the seeds and string, cut the pumpkin into cubes, and cut the peel off. Then I steam the cubes. When they are soft, I take them off the steamer to cool. I haven’t had a problem with the pumpkin being watery. I prepare my pie filling in the blender, then let it sit in the refrigerator overnight before making my pie, in order for any air to disburse. Lots of work, though, and I can’t say it’s enough better than canned to be worthwhile.

  11. GeekLady says:

    I found this while looking for your pudding posts – I’d just like to weigh my 2c in: fresh Fairytale pumpkins are the best for baking. They have the most amazing color and flavor, and one 30 lb. pumpkin roasted and strained produces something like 24 cups of puree. I did one last year and wasn’t going to do another this year, but then I found them on sale November 1st for 99c, and felt this was too good of a bargain to pass up.

    The only downside is all the ones I’ve processed have been stringy, so you do have to run them through a food mill or processor. But still, best color and best flavor I’ve ever used. The seeds are very good roasted as well.

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