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Pumpkins

The same vegetable that gave the Pilgrims sustenance during their first year in America has plenty of modern uses. Beyond carving them into jack-o’-lanterns and incorporating them into harvest-themed tablescapes, you can use pumpkins – and their seeds – in a plethora of sweet and savory main dishes, pies, breads, cakes, cookies and snacks.

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Charlie Brown isn’t the only one who loves the mighty pumpkin; its adaptable flavor, combined with an impressive nutritional profile, is sure to make anyone go gaga over this gourd. Pumpkin-flavored coffees, teas, pastries and other treats (not to mention pumpkin pie-scented candles and air fresheners) are all the rage right now. Here’s the lowdown on this popular, multipurpose beacon of autumn.

Nutrition Highlights

One cup cooked pumpkin has 85 calories and is an excellent source of:

  • Fiber (7g – a huge amount for a vegetable!)
  • Vitamin A, which helps promote healthy eyes
  • Vitamin K, which helps the body make protein
  • Iron, which transports oxygen to muscles

History

Pumpkins are members of the gourd family (Cucurbita), which also includes winter squash, cucumbers and melons.

Abundant in the fall, pumpkins are virtually nonexistent other times of the year. The best eating pumpkins are the small varieties that weigh 2 to 5 pounds (called sugar or pie pumpkins) with deep orange skin, fine-textured flesh and a sweet, aromatic flavor.

Though great fun to carve, jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are not the best to eat; they can be dry and stringy. (Save the seeds, though – they are terrific toasted!)

Varieties

The best pumpkin varieties to eat are:

  • Standard Sugar pumpkins
  • Small Sugar or New England Pie
  • Baby Bear (small flattened shape, fine stem)
  • Baby Pam, Oz (hybrid, very smooth skin, immature yellow color)
  • Green or Golden Cushaw
  • Japanese, known as Kabocha
  • French Red or Cinderella (very bright orange)
  • Spooktacular (hybrid, bright orange, ribbed)
  • Sugar Treat (hybrid, bright color)
  • Winter Luxury (old variety, unique netted skin, great for cooking and baking)

Mini pumpkins:

  • Baby Boo (white)
  • Jack-Be Little (standard orange mini)
  • Jack-Be-Quick (taller, darker orange)
  • Munchkin (uniform, attractive orange)
  • Sweetie Pie (small, scalloped, medium orange)

Storage

Whole fresh pumpkins keep best in a dark, cool, dry place, like a basement. Do not refrigerate.

History

These plants are native to Central America and Mexico, but now grow on six continents. Indigenous to the western hemisphere, pumpkins have been growing in North America for 5,000 years.

Ever wonder how the ritual of carving pumpkins started? This fun, festive Halloween tradition originated in Ireland hundreds of years ago. Back then, jack-o’-lanterns were carved from turnips or potatoes; when Irish immigrants arrived in America and discovered the pumpkin, a new Halloween ritual was born!

In America, when we think of pumpkin, dessert is likely the first thing on the radar. But there’s so much more. Since pumpkin has been around for so long, its uses are vast. It shows up in appetizers, breads, soups, desserts, salads and savory dishes of all kinds. Picture these cuisines from all over the world:

  • Native Americans sautéed pumpkin blossoms; roasted the seeds; and stewed the flesh with game, corn and chili peppers (or baked it with honey and bear fat). To keep for winter, they dried long strips of pumpkin in the sun.
  • In the Caribbean, pumpkin is braised into spicy, fragrant stews with chilies, lentils, dried peas and meats.
  • In French cooking, it’s used as an ingredient in soups and used as a tureen.
  • In Italy, pumpkin is used to stuff pastas such as ravioli.
  • In Turkey, pumpkin is baked into a sweetened pudding with chopped nuts and coconut, or used as an ingredient in candies.

Preparation

Prepping a pumpkin is not as daunting as it looks, especially with these five easy steps:

  1. Scrub the outside with a soapy sponge or paper towel and rinse.
  2. Cut pumpkin in half with a large knife. (Sugar pumpkins are easiest to cut because they are small.)
  3. Remove the stem.
  4. Scrape out the interior membrane and seeds with a large metal spoon, saving the seeds to toast. (Leave flesh attached for more flavor; for more flavor and nutrients, do not rinse the seeds.)
  5. It’s much easier to peel cooked pumpkin than it is uncooked. After cooked pumpkin is cool enough to handle, use a sharp paring knife to lift the skin from the flesh.

Fresh, pureed pumpkin adds moisture and nutrients to muffins, breads and desserts, but first it must be cooked. Though there are several methods, baking and steaming give you the most pumpkin flavor, while boiling is the quickest.

To steam: Put 2- to 2 ½-inch chunks of unpeeled pumpkin in a pot of boiling water to cover and boil until tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain, peel and toss in a food processor; purée.

To boil: Put 2- to 2 ½- inch chunks or wedges in a covered 4-quart saucepan, add water to cover and boil over medium heat for 20 minutes, or until tender. Drain; mash with potato masher or purée in food processor.

To bake: Cut into large chunks; rub with a bit of oil. Place unpeeled quarters (leave mini pumpkins whole) in roasting pan; bake at 400 for about 45 minutes or until tender. Mash or purée.

To grill: Peel and cut into 1- or 2-inch chunks. Toss with olive oil and cook on a hot grill for five to 10 minutes, turning so all sides brown. Season with salt and pepper; serve with meats or use in salads.

To microwave: Fit cut pieces into a microwave-safe covered dish. Add 1 tablespoon water and cook on high for five minutes. Stir and cook until easily pierced with a fork, about four minutes longer. Let stand, covered, until cool enough to handle, then peel.

Cooked pumpkin will keep in the refrigerator for a week or frozen for several months.

Perk up the mild flavor of fresh pumpkin with fresh or dried herbs and spices:

  • In savory dishes, try oregano, rosemary, sage, marjoram, chili powder, mustard, turmeric and curry.
  • In sweet baked goods try ginger, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.
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