FAQs about that Ubiquitous Fall Favorite, the Pumpkin

pumpkinRecently, have you noticed a lot of happy, orange faces smiling at you?  They're everywhere in October--standing proudly in front of houses, grinning from people's lawns, and shining candlelight through windows at night. No self-respecting publication or TV news (or food) show gets through autumn without discussing and depicting lavish Halloween decorations, gigantic pumpkin contest winners, and scrumptious pumpkin pie recipes to serve after the Thanksgiving turkey. Let's learn more about pumpkins. What are they? How big can they grow? What foods can we make with them?  Are they nutritious?  And, finally, what's actually in that can labeled "100% pure pumpkin"?


In addition to news media sources, the following Q/As have been enriched by input from Dr. Karin Allen, a food scientist, expert on food labeling, and member of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board.


How are pumpkins classified? Are they fruits or vegetables?


Pumpkins are members of the cucurbit (gourd) family, along with squash, cucumbers, and melons. Scientists will tell you these are all fruits. Though you may think of a fruit as food you can eat raw and that tastes sweet, scientists say that, if it has seeds, it's a fruit.


Are all pumpkins orange?


No, the website allaboutpumpkins.com assures us.  They can be green, yellow, red, blue, tan, striped, or white (the color of many prize-winners).  Pumpkin shapes can vary quite a bit, too.


What's the heaviest pumpkin ever grown?


Time  reported (in September, 2018), that the largest pumpkin in North American history  was grown by Steve Geddes, a resident of Bowcawen, NH.  It weighed 2,528 lbs! (To see a photo of it online, just go to the link listed under "sources"  below.) The current world record  (set in 2016) is held by Mathias Willlemijns of Belgium, according to the Guiness World Records. That giant weighed 2,624 lbs! 


Are the pumpkins we carve into jack-'o-lanterns the same type as the pumpkin we cook into pies?


No. These are not good for cooking. Smaller pumpkins are generally used by those who want to bake from scratch.  Most people use puréed products (mostly made by Libby's) labeled "100% pure pumpkin." Is that really what's in the can? We'll deal with this question later. 


Dr. Allen says, "Sugar pumpkins can be found at certain times of year.  They are smaller and more expensive, but they shouldn’t be mistaken for small carving pumpkins. They’re great for pie, but they don’t make good jack-o-lanterns."


What's the shelf life of a pumpkin--uncarved and carved?


Some varieties last longer than others, but All About Pumpkins gives this general advice: "If you purchase a pumpkin on October 1st, and choose a firm pumpkin with no soft spots or visible damage, it should easily store for 3 months out of direct sun in a cool spot that is protected from frost."  


I've left carved pumpkins in a classroom over a weekend, and I can tell you they decay fast at room temperature.  ShopSmart has this tip for extending the life of a carved pumpkin: smear petroleum jelly on the cut areas after patting them with a paper towel. 


Pumpkins left outside may get devoured by wild animals. 


Got any suggestions for creating a successful jack-'o-lantern?

Here are some traditional ideas and some from master carver Hugh McMahon, printed in Parade (the newspaper Sunday supplement) on October 26, 2014:


carving tips:  The traditional method is to use a marker (waterproof black ink if the washable one won't write well on the surface) and draw a rather  small circle (but big enough to fit a large spoon into it) around the stem. This is important:  make a small notch in the circle so that it's easy to fit the cut out piece back on your masterpiece. Remove the circled piece and remove the pulp and seeds with a spoon. Then draw the face you want (eyes and a mouth with teeth showing). When you carve, cut out the lines.  Suggestion: Two tops of cans can be stuck into the sides for ears.


For a more spectacular pumpkin, get a booklet of face patterns, tape your favorite to the front of the pumpkin, and use that to guide your cuts.  Pattern books come with little orange carving tools, including one that looks like an awl. Use that tool to puncture little holes in the pumpkin skin; these will guide your carving. 


The master carver recommends cutting into the bottom instead of the top.  He says the pumpkin will keep its shape better if you do it that way.


If children are helping with the carving, they must be shown how to do it and supervised the whole time.


lighting tips:  Traditionally, a jack-'o- lantern is lit up with a  rather short, wide candle (such as a tea candle).  To keep the candle from falling over, drip some wax unto the base of the pumpkin; then quickly push the candle into it.  Don't leave a jack-'o-lantern lit with a candle outside! Wind or a wild animal could knock it over and set your house on fire! And, if you have pets that could reach it, don't leave the jack-'o-lantern lit inside either when you're not in the same room, especially when you go away from home


McMahon, the master carver, recommends lighting your jack-'o-lantern with a light bulb instead of a candle. He says that will give you brighter, more even lighting.  It also seems to me much safer.  But this method may require cutting out enough of the bottom to put the bulb in from there. If you can get a bulb that doesn't need to be plugged in, that would give you more freedom in terms of placement of your jack-'o-lantern.  The usual location is by a window.


What popular fall treats are cooked from pumpkins?


The Libby's website has recipes galore. Some recent ones use pumpkin in a pie, cake roll, dip, and lasagna (made with noodles, mushroom, and spinach).  Pumpkin can also be used in soups, muffins, even custards.  We eat squash as a vegetable; my students from Russia told me they eat pumpkin as a vegetable.


If you're carving a pumpkin, don't forget to save the seeds:  the average-size pumpkin contains about a cup of seeds, and these are tasty and nutritious when baked.  


What's the best way to cook pumpkin seeds?


Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser has provided Shelf Life Advice with the following detailed outline of various techniques for cooking pumpkin seeds.  This is everything anyone would ever need to know on this topic. Print it out and save it for your descendants!


Pumpkin seed cleaning: Take advantage of this important physical property--pumpkin pulp is heavier than water and the seeds float.

1.       Fill a bowl with water.

2.       Remove seeds from the pumpkin, separate out as much pulp as possible by hand.

3.       Place seeds and pulp in the bowl of water.

4.       Remove large pieces of pulp.

5.       Rub seeds between hands to remove pulp.

6.       Skim seeds off the top of water and rinse.


Seed preparation: Get the clean seeds ready for roasting.

A.      Boiling:  Some people like to boil the seeds to cook and soften them prior to roasting. Many think that the seeds are crispier if this method is used. I think that boiling may leach out valuable vitamins and minerals. Boiling can be followed by a cool salt-water soak and/or a coating.

B.      Steaming:  This method is similar to boiling, but uses less water and may leach less of the nutrients out of the seed. Use a vegetable steamer to treat the seeds for a few minutes. This step could be followed by a cool salt-water soak and/or coating.

C.      Soaking:  Soaking seeds in salt water is a good way to remove off flavors and infuse the seed with salt.  Following soaking, you may want to coat your seeds.

D.      Coating:  Put seeds and whatever you would like to coat them with (salt, spices, oil, vinegar, syrup, etc.) in a plastic bag and shake (shake and bake method). Many people like to include a bit of oil (e.g. canola or olive) to help improve the texture and flavor of the final product. However, too much oil will make the seeds greasy.


Roasting alternatives:  Use heat and time to achieve the final result you desire. Some prefer a light color; others prefer brown and crispy. You may want to stir or flip the seeds once or twice during the process to promote uniform roasting.

A.      Low and slow:  Low temperatures (about 100° to 105°F) will preserve the natural enzymes and proteins, but the result may not be so crispy.

B.      Medium heat:  about 15° to 250° F. Heat until the color and texture are where you like them.

C.      High heat:  Greater than 250°F. Heat to the desired color and texture. Keep a close watch on the seeds to prevent them from overcooking.


Other heating/cooking methods:

A.      Microwave:  Microwave the seeds for about 2 minutes and then stir. Repeat until done. This process can be followed by one of the other roasting or heating methods.

B.      Fry:  Fry seeds in hot oil until done. Use a small test batch to determine the best cooking time and temperature (normally about 10 minutes at 375F).

C.      Pan fry:  Fry seeds in pan over medium heat in a thin layer of oil. Stir and remove when the desired color is obtained.

D.      Pan Roast:  Roast dry seeds in a dry pan over medium heat. Stir and remove when the desired color is achieved.


Are pumpkins healthful?  


ShopSmart lists the following nutrition facts about 1/2 cup cooked, mashed pumpkin:

calories: 24; fat: 0 grams; protein:1 gram; fiber:1 gram; beta carotene: 2,568 micrograms.  


The website nutritiondata.self.com lists 2 pages of USDA figures on pumpkin, so go to "Pumpkin, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt" for the whole story.  This site says the fiber content of 1 cup of pumpkin is 3 grams, which is 11% of DV (daily value, the recommended amount for a 2,000 calorie diet).  Why is fiber good for you?  Many reasons.  If you want the whole picture, check out "Dietary Fiber: Essential for a healthy diet" on the Mayo Clinic website and CNN's "6 surprising health benefits of pumpkins."


The main point is this: pumpkin is low in the bad stuff and high in the good stuff. What more could you ask? 


What's really in that can labeled "pumpkin"? 


Whether the brand name is Libby's or not, it's likely to say "100% pure pumpkin" with no other ingredients listed.  However, a recent article posted on huffingtonpost.com, claims that's what's inside is squash. See "Here's Why Your Pumpkin Pie Probably Has No Pumpkin In It At All." 


Despite the implication that the public is being deceived, to be fair to the Huffington Post article, it does point out that butternut squash is much better for making pumpkin pie than a jack-'o-lantern pumpkin would be. True pumpkin pie, the Huffington Post author says, would be bland and soupy since the classic orange pumpkin is 90% water.  The website allaboutpumpkins.com agrees and explains: "Jack -O-Lanterns were bred to have upright straight walls, to be hollow, and to stand up to being carved.  They were not bred for eating."


If you want to understand the science behind this story, read the following explanation from Dr. Allen:


"Sometimes a little bit of knowledge makes consumers think they’re being ripped off. I’ll try to clarify.


First, here’s the official FDA stance:

http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/ComplianceManuals/CompliancePolicyGuidanceManual/ucm074635.htm [Note that the government does not object to the use of squash in cans labeled "pumpkin."]


Second, it helps to put “pumpkin” in context.  In the U.S., “pumpkin” has come to mean a relatively smooth-skinned, mostly hollow squash that can be carved. 


For those who were nodding off in biology class, here's a review of how plants are related: Plants within a species are like siblings; between species within a genus are like cousins; between genera within a family are like the children of your parents' cousins.  Now, to apply this to pumpkins:


The family Cucurbitaceae contains the genera Curcurbita (which includes winter and summer squash), Citrullus (watermelons), and Cucumis (cucumbers and other melons), just to name a few).  For the genus Curcurbita, most of what we grow agriculturally falls into one of 5 species.  The three species that have varieties that might be considered to be “pumpkiny” are these:

1.      C. maxima (includes giant pumpkins, banana squash, and Hubbard squash. Historically, Hubbard was commonly used in recipes that called for “pumpkin”);

2.      C. moschata (includes butternut squash, some crookneck squash, and the “cheese pumpkins”--like Dickinson & Kentucky field; Dickinson is the one developed by Libby);

3.      C. pepo (includes carving pumpkins, aka Connecticut field, most crookneck squash, zucchini, ornamental gourds, spaghetti squash, and acorn squash)


Just because two plants are closely related genetically doesn’t mean their characteristics are similar.  Imagine using a zucchini or spaghetti squash for pumpkin pie just because they both belong to the same genus!  I’d rather use something with more similar culinary behavior, no matter how distantly related.


Libby's was smart enough to find a cousin that was easy to grow (less susceptible to disease, drought, or whatever), had more flesh than seeds (higher yield per fruit), had a similar nutritional profile (high in Vitamin A), and was a good substitute from a culinary standpoint.  Actually, I’d say it performs better than “pumpkins” because, to most people, "pumpkin" means a type of squash optimized for jack-o-lanterns.  Most pumpkins we see at the store have thinner but more fibrous flesh that is easy to carve but will still hold its shape.  These pumpkins make horrible pie filling but are fine to roast or use in soup."


Some readers' posts in response to the Huffington Post article claim that delicious pies can be made from large or small pumpkins as well as from squash.  Another respondent says that "pumpkin" is just another word for winter squash and that what's considered a pumpkin depends upon what region of English-speaking countries a person lives in or what country.  In some countries, all types of winter squash are called "pumpkin."  It seems that the conclusion, in many sources, is that pumpkin is a type of squash.  If so, Libby's isn't lying to us. 


To paraphrase Juliet, a squash by any other name will taste as sweet. Our conclusion: go ahead and use that puréed canned whatever for your Thanksgiving pie.  The meal wouldn't be complete without it.



Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences

Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering

Time "New Hampshire Man Grows the Largest Pumpkin in North American History


huffingtonpost.com "Here's Why Your Pumpkin Pie Probably Has NO Pumpkin In It At All"



allaboutpumpkins.com "Pumpkin Facts and Information"

http://www.allaboutpumpkins.com  (Also see the Q & A pages on this site.)


Time, "The Culture" section, "Gourd Almighty," October 27, 2014.


Consumer Reports ShopSmart "5 surprising things about...Pumpkins," October 2014.


verybestbaking.com/Libbys  "Libby's Pumpkin Recipes and Products"



cnn.com "6 surprising health benefits of pumpkins" 



Also see additional links within the above article.



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