Pumpkins offer far more than a door-stop at Halloween. Fall is the prime time to find and use sugar or pie pumpkins along with some winter squash varieties for cooking, baking, and preserving. The pumpkin puree purchased in a can at the store is actually made from a squash that’s less a “pumpkin” and more of a butternut squash in both flavor and texture. It turns out, if you truly want the best pumpkin puree, don’t use an actual pumpkin. The best “pumpkin” flavor comes from firm-fleshed winter squash varieties like Kabocha, Red Kuri, Butternut, New England Cheese Pumpkin, and pie/sugar pumpkin. Avoid large jack-o-lantern varieties which are bred for size rather than flavor.
However, think safety when preparing or preserving pumpkins or squash. Pumpkins/winter squash are low acid vegetables and require special attention to preparation and processing. Use excellent sanitation in handling the fresh pumpkin/squash flesh. Do not let cut or cooked pumpkin/squash sit out at room temperature for more than 2 hours during preparation or prior to preserving.
Freezing Pumpkins and Winter Squash
Freezing is the easiest way to preserve pumpkin and winter squash and yields the best quality product. Select full-colored mature pumpkin/squash with fine texture (not stringy or dry). Simply wash the pumpkin/squash, remove the seeds and cut it into cooking-sized pieces. Pumpkin/squash can be cooked in boiling water or pressure cooker, steamed, or baked in the oven with or without the rind removed. Cook, steam or bake the pumpkin/squash until it is soft, remove the pulp from the rind and mash for baking; cubes can also be frozen if desired. Cool the pumpkin/squash as quickly as possible. Package the puree in freezer containers sized for future use (2 cups of puree equals one can of pumpkin) leaving headspace and freeze. Remember to thaw the pumpkin in the refrigerator when ready to use.
What if the pumpkin/squash is too hard to get a knife through? Smaller whole pumpkins/squash can be prepared in the oven or pressure cooker with no cutting required. Poke the vegetable with a knife to create steam vents. Bake or cook until tender; remove seeds and flesh, mash or puree. Another option is to use the microwave to soften the vegetable. Begin by poking some steam holes in the vegetable. Microwave for a few minutes until there is some give when pushed on. Cool briefly, cut in half, remove seeds, and microwave, cut side down, until tender. Lastly, the oven is an option. Place the vegetable on a baking sheet and roast until there is some give when poked. Remove from the oven, cool briefly, cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and continue baking cut side down until tender. Once the vegetable is tender, cool briefly to handle safely. Scrap out the flesh, mash or puree.
Canning Pumpkins and Winter Squash
If you prefer to preserve pumpkin/squash for shelf storage, it must be canned with pressure and only safely canned in cubes. Canning pumpkin butter* or mashed or pureed pumpkin/squash is NOT recommended. To pressure can cubed pumpkin/squash, first wash the pumpkin/squash and remove its seeds. Next, cut the pumpkin/squash into 1-inch wide slices, then peel and cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes. Blanch the cubes in boiling water for 2 minutes. Fill the canning jars with the cubes, and cover them with the hot cooking liquid leaving 1 inch of headspace. Process at 11 pounds of pressure with a dial-gauge canner. For altitudes below 2000 feet, process pints for 55 minutes and quarts for 90 minutes. For a weighted gauge canner, process at 10 pounds of pressure at altitudes below 1000 feet and at 15 pounds of pressure above 1000 feet. Process pints for 55 minutes and quarts for 90 minutes.
Canned pumpkin/squash can be used for side dishes, casseroles and soups. It can also be used for pies and baking by pureeing at the time of use; however, it does not work as well for pie as frozen.
Skip the grocery-store can of pumpkin puree and instead make your own. It will be perfect for all your fall baking and cooking needs.
* Pumpkin Preserves. Gelled preserves rely on the natural acidity present in most fruits for safe food preservation. Most fruits have natural acids so resulting jams or jellies can be safely canned in a boiling water bath process. Pumpkin, however, is a low acid vegetable and cannot be safely canned in the boiling water bath process. A jam or sweetened preserve would have to have enough sugar and/or added acid to be treated safely without concerns about botulism. A certain acidity level is also required to cause the pectin molecule to form a gel structure. At the present time, the USDA nor National Center for Home Food Preservation have any tested recipes to recommend for safely canning pumpkin preserves (jams, jellies, conserves, or pumpkin butter) and storing them at room temperature. These pumpkin products must be stored in the refrigerator or freezer and treated the same as fresh pumpkin.
Source: National Center for Home Food Preservation. 2015. “Home-Preserving Pumpkins.” https://nchfp.uga.edu/tips/fall/pumpkins.html.