So, about that canned pumpkin you buy every year…
It’s not actually pumpkin. Well, probably not anyway.
The truth is most canned pumpkin is actually squash. Legally, the FDA makes no distinction between pumpkin and squash when it comes to food labels, and so most canned foods companies opt to process the more flavorful and space-efficient squash instead of pumpkin and figure we’ll be none the wiser.
I’m ok with that, simply because squash makes for a better pumpkin pie than pumpkin does. If you’ve ever tried actual pumpkin puree you’ll know what I mean, it’s not nearly as flavorful, and is often stringy and watery.
I’ve played with making my own homemade pumpkin puree for pies before, but this year I wanted to test and see, once and for all, which type of squash makes the best pumpkin pie.
I picked up a few different kinds of squashes from the grocery and our local farmers market. This time of year our market is filled with literally hundreds of different kinds of pumpkins, squashes, and gourds as far as the eye can see. I questioned the farmers as to what they would recommend for pie, and more than one directed me to the uniquely shaped Pink Banana… it’s definitely the oddest looking squash of the lot, and one I’ve actually cooked with before (so its recommendation didn’t come as a surprise this time).
I ended up with 4 squashes to test: Honeynut, Kabocha, Pink Banana, and Fairytale. Only the last one is actually a pumpkin, all the others are technically squashes. But again, no legal distinction and what have you so we’re calling the end result pumpkin pie no matter what. Because, let’s face it, squash pie just doesn’t sound as appealing.
To begin with, I roasted all the squashes until soft, then pureed them in a food processor (some required draining as well to achieve a mostly uniform consistency). Considering some of these squashes are rather large, I measured out the resulting puree into 15 ounce bags (equivalent to one can of pumpkin) and froze what I wasn’t going to use. Homemade pumpkin puree freezes beautifully, so if you’ve got a larger squash on your hands, definitely don’t let it go to waste.
Generally, about 2 pounds of squash will yield 1 cup (8 ounces) of puree, so you need about 3 pounds of squash for one full size pie.
I used Bravetart’s pumpkin pie recipe (which actually calls for butternut squash) as my base, and simply swapped out the different squash purees. I also made one pie with Libby’s canned pumpkin as a control, because I think that’s what all of us expect as far as flavor and texture goes.
From there, we were able to taste test and compare the one variable that changed from pie to pie: the squash.
Ok, enough chatter. I know you’re all wondering…
Which cucurbita reigns supreme?
Taylor and I meticulously tasted each pie, as well as our neighbor Richard who so unselfishly lent us his tastebuds. While I knew which pie was which (based on color and the unique crust I put on each one), neither of them did. Very scientific-like. Surprisingly, we all unanimously agreed on our favorites and least favorites.
The winners were definitely the Honeynut and Pink Banana squashes. Both were flavorful, with sweet notes of fresh pumpkin and a creamy overall texture. I may end up making my final Thanksgiving pie with a mixture of both for this reason. If you can’t find honeynut, butternut will do as well (though it won’t be quite as flavorful or sweet).
Our least favorites were the Kabocha and Fairytale, for different reasons. The kabocha simply produced a dry and pasty pie. If it had been super flavorful, it might have worked with an adapted recipe, but as it was it didn’t taste like much of anything. The Fairytale also had an unappealing texture on the opposite end of the spectrum; this pie had a watery and almost curdled consistency. The taste was also noticeably vegetal, like a raw, uncooked pumpkin smells. Long story short: keep the fairytale pumpkin on the porch by your mums: it’s better for decoration than for eating.
You can see the obvious differences in textures between the different varieties. The thick yellow puree on the left is from the kabocha squash, and the orange one on the right is the stringier, waterier fairytale pumpkin (this one strained off nearly half its volume in water!) It’s a marked difference that is apparent in the final pie too. (Totally unintentional that this photo happened to be of the two kinds we didn’t like).
The honeynut and banana squashes, on the other hand, fell somewhere in the middle in terms of moisture/creaminess. The banana definitely drained off more liquid (the honeynut only a few tablespoons, you could probably skip that step) but they both had a wonderful texture that proved perfect for pie.
From top to bottom: Kabocha, Pink Banana, Fairytale, Honeynut, and Libby’s (ignore the Sgt. Pepper photobomb – he LOVES squash and wouldn’t leave me alone for one second while I was shooting them).
Honeynut: (Pictured above). Sweet and flavorful, this one probably came the closest to the Libby’s pie in terms of texture and color, but with a brighter, fresher flavor. The honeynut puree didn’t need very much draining (it only gave off a few tablespoons of liquid, so you could probably skip this step entirely). This pie was noticeably sweeter in flavor and darker orange in color than the other kinds, more like what you’d expect from a classic pumpkin pie recipe.
Pink Banana: Our other favorite, this giant squash made a beautifully creamy pie with just the right amount of fresh pumpkin flavor. It was lighter in color than the honeynut, with a milder squash flavor that allowed more of the spice to come through. This squash is more watery than the honeynut, so I’d definitely advise draining it overnight before using the puree.
Kabocha: This squash had an entirely different texture than the others. It was much denser, drier, and not stringy at all. When I made the puree I was optimistic for this reason, but the final pie was noticeably pasty and dry and, well, not appealing in the least. It also didn’t have much flavor. Bummer.
Fairytale: This pumpkin was really watery and stringy. I don’t know if a smaller one would’ve been better, but we weren’t fans of the final texture or the odd vegetal flavor of the pie. This pie tasted like a fresh cut pumpkin smells, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The pink color was also a bit weird too.
Libby’s: I have a feeling Libby’s cooks their pumpkin longer, since the flavor is much more concentrated and almost roasty. I think you could maybe replicate this by stewing or roasting your pumpkin puree further after making it. Typically, I’ve found other brands of canned pumpkin to be milder in flavor and I prefer them over Libby’s (including Whole Foods Organic Pumpkin Puree and Trader Joe’s pumpkin puree). Maybe those two are actually pumpkin? We may never know.
For those of you interested in the pie recipe itself, I won’t be posting it here, but definitely check out the Bravetart cookbook where you can find both the filling and crust recipes. It’s easily my new favorite baking cookbook. Her pie crust comes together more like a laminated pastry dough instead of a typical pie crust, with a higher proportion of butter and thus less worry about developing gluten. As a result, it’s much easier to work with than many pie doughs I’ve tried.
The pie itself is quite good, perfectly custardy in texture, albeit a bit sweet for my tastes. It calls for homemade sweetened condensed milk as well as homemade squash puree (that’s right, no can opener is required for this pie! I love that.)
Next time, I’d still do the condensed milk but either with less sugar, or I’d leave out the extra 1/4 cup of brown sugar that is added in later. I’d also probably reduce the ginger a bit because Taylor, for whatever reason, is ultra sensitive to ginger (I think I’ve overdone it on the ginger before, most likely. ha!)
And no, I did not actually bake 5 full size pumpkin pies (that would’ve been ridiculous). Rather, I baked one 7-inch pie and four baby 5-inch pies using mini pie tins. The 7-inch pie is exactly half of a 9-inch pie, and the mini ones are about 1/6 of a recipe if you do the math, though more like 1/8 when you take into account the volume of the crust. It worked out quite perfectly, as I made one full pie recipe and it divided up almost perfectly into my 5 pies.
Who would’ve thought all that middle school math (ratios and fractions and proportions) and science (setting a control and variables) would come in so handy (I remember thinking way back then, when will I ever use this?) Maybe middle school teachers need to incorporate more pie and fewer pie charts into their lesson plans.