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Saturday, October 27, 2012

4 Ways to Cook Fresh Pumpkins

(Update 2022: Check out my latest method for cooking pumpkin -- skin-on cooking and pureeing. This is one of the easiest methods, and it uses almost all of the pumpkin. That post is right here.)

If you want to turn Jack into food, don't be in a big hurry to get him carved! 

Although sugar pie pumpkins make the best cooked pumpkin, field pumpkins can also be used in cooking (and they're free, if you already plan on buying one for a Jack O' lantern). Just don't carve yours until a day or two before Hallowe'en, if you want it for cooking. (We carve ours the evening before, I refrigerate overnight, then we bring it out for Hallowe'en afternoon and evening. I pop it back into the fridge for one last night, then cook it up on Nov.1.)

Sugar pies have better flavor, are a bit drier (so cook down easily), and are less stringy than field pumpkins. They're what I grow in my garden. But I also pick up a couple of field pumpkins, at rock bottom prices the day after Hallowe'en (some stores give them away for free on Nov. 1, others mark them down, and still a few keep them at the inflated prices of pre-Hallowe'en, but even at a "high" price, field pumpkins are a nutritional bargain, usually around 20-30c per pound.)

There are several methods that can be used to cook up your pumpkin, but just to let you know, all are messy to a certain extent. I find if I just face that fact from the get-go, then I can muster through whatever mess may follow. I've cooked pumpkins all of these ways, every year choosing what I think will be better. But in truth, they each have their merits, and drawbacks.

Basically, there are 3 cooking methods: dry heat (oven), moist heat (stovetop or slow cooker), and microwave.

The microwave method
As with other foods, the microwave will cook your pumpkin faster. The drawback is you are limited to the size of microwave and dish. And you may have to do your pumpkin in batches. There will still be a lot of liquid to deal with afterward, as the pumpkin will not have dry heat to help with evaporation. An easy way to deal with this excess liquid is to simply strain it off in a mesh strainer (see below).

To microwave:
Cut pumpkin into halves, scoop out seeds. To start, place halves cut side down, in a large, microwaveable baking dish. If your pumpkin is quite large, cut the pieces smaller, to fit the baking dish. Microwave on HI for about 15-20 minutes, turning pieces every 3-4 minutes to ensure even cooking. Check for softness after about 12 minutes, and continue checking every 3-4 minutes. (To check, poke with a spoon and see if it indents.) Once cooked and partially cooled, scrape the flesh from the skin, and puree with stick blender or food processor.

The oven method
With the oven, the big advantage is you put it in the oven and leave it, no stirring, no fuss. The disadvantage is you have the mess of scraping the flesh, once cooked. There will also be that lovely caramelized surface of the cut pumpkin which will add flavor to the cooked squash.

To oven cook:
Cut pumpkin in half. Scoop out seeds. Place cut sides down in a large jelly roll pan, and add about 1 cup of water. Cover with foil. Bake at 375 for 1 hour. Remove foil and continue to cook for 30 minutes, or until soft (press with a spoon to check for softness). Cool partially, then scrape the flesh from the skin. Puree. 

The stovetop method
The stove top is the traditional way to cook a pumpkin or squash to a puree, but it is labor intensive. You need to peel and cut up the pumpkin, and then stir, stir, stir, to prevent scorching. But, what you are left with is a puree similar to canned, if you cook it down long enough.

To cook on stove:
Cut pumpkin in half. Scoop out seeds. Cut pieces into chunks about 2-inches by 4-inches. Trim off skin. Place peeled pieces in a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add about 1/2 cup water (to prevent scorching in the beginning, water will weep from pumpkin upon further cooking). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender. 

When soft, remove lid and mash with the back of a large spoon or potato masher. Raise heat to MED and stir regularly, as pumpkin boils down. (I use a flat-edged metal spatula to stir, the same as what I use when making yogurt and pasta sauce in my huge pot.) When cooked down, cool somewhat and puree.

The slow cooker method
The slow cooker's big draw is you set it and forget it. Halve the pumpkin, remove seeds, and cut into pieces which fit (but don't need to be small, in fact bigger pieces means easier scooping after cooking). 

To cook in slow cooker:
You can actually cook your pumpkin whole, if it's small enough to fit. In that case, with a sharp knife, pierce the pumpkin in several places. Cut off stem. Add a couple of tablespoons of water to cooker and place pumpkin inside. Set on LOW and cook for 6-8 hours, until soft. When cooled, cut in half. Scoop out seeds, and scrape flesh from skin. Puree.

To cook a larger pumpkin, cut pumpkin in half, remove seeds and cut into large pieces, to fit in cooker. (A 6-quart oval cooker is an excellent shape and size for a standard pumpkin.) Place pumpkin pieces into slow cooker, set on LOW and cook for 6-8 hours. When cooked, cool, then scrape the flesh from the skin. Obviously, the larger the slow cooker the more pumpkin will fit. 

What to do with too "wet" pumpkin and/or excess water in baking dish:

Pour excess water off and use in soup stock.

After you puree the pumpkin (either with a stick blender or in the food processor), scoop "wet" pumpkin into a mesh strainer set over a large bowl. Allow to sit for a couple of hours. The remaining pumpkin puree should be thicker and drier. Use the liquid drained off in soup stock.

Cooked pumpkin can be frozen and kept for 6 months or so. I freeze mine in measured amounts for pies, muffins, and breads, marking the container with the amounts inside. I like to have enough pumpkin in the freezer to use in cooking, once a week for the next 4 or 5 months. It's great with sage, garlic, Italian sausage, and Parmesan cheese, for a lovely sauce over penne pasta. We love pumpkin soup at our house. And of course I do a lot of baking with it.


  1. I have always used the baking method for cooking pumpkin and it has worked well. However, for the amount of hassle there is in processing pumpkin, it is not worth it to me to do it when I can get a can of it in the grocery store inexpensively.

    I should mention that canned pumpkin is a seasonal item in many stores, so I try to stock up on it this time of year when they run sales.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      I've been watching the sales on canned pumpkin for the last two weeks. So far, the best sale price I've seen was $1.79 for a 15 oz. can. I'm hoping canned pumpkin will drop below a dollar a pound. But I haven't seen great prices like that in several years. So, I'll just continue cooking up fresh pumpkins. Hope you have better prices on the canned stuff than we do!

  2. I have always baked mine before, but this year without an oven I was going to use my slow cooker. I'm so glad you posted this as now I won't have to guess how to do that.

    1. Hi Lois,
      Glad to provide the info you need! I can only imagine how creative you must be living without an oven! But I know it's possible. We did it for about a year, and even made pizza and bread on the stove.

      Good luck with your pumpkin.

  3. I always cooked our jack o' lanterns. The morning after Halloween, I'd cut it into pieces, peel and stew. The kitchen would smell so warm and inviting by the time my sons walked in the back door from school in the afternoon.

    I grew up with parents who remembered the Depression vividly. We'd no sooner throw our pumpkins out than we'd throw out a fine loaf of bread.

    Now, with the boys grown and in their own homes, I don't carve a pumpkin, but instead put a bunch of pie pumpkins and squash in the front window for decoration. I love seeing the little ones who come to the door on Halloween.

    I usually stew my pie pumpkins, but I may try baking them this year. Thank you for your instructions.

    1. Hi Helen,
      Your kitchen sounds so wonderful, filled with delicious aromas, and love! I totally understand not wanting to throw away a Jack O'Lantern. I feel the same way. I guess I don't really mind the mess and fuss of cooking it. It's just another cooking chore, like making applesauce or baking bread.

      Good luck with the oven baking of your pie pumpkins.

  4. I cooked my own pumpkin this year for the first time, in the oven. A medium pumpkin made 8 cups. I froze some, and I look forward to making more pumpkin muffins later in the winter!

    1. Hi anexacting,
      that's great! 8 cups will make a lot of muffins! I think freshly cooked pumpkin tastes so much better than canned. Happy baking : )

  5. Lili, are you going to share your pumpkin soup recipe with us? I had a great pumpkin soup at a lunchon once. When I asked the hostess if I could get her soup recipe she confessed that she had picked it up at the deli. I've searched in vain for a good recipe ever since.

    1. Hi frugal spinster,
      I'll try to come up with something. It changes every time I make it, based on what I have. But I'll make notes of what I do next time I make pumpkin soup (should be in the next week).


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