The first sight of pumpkins is a warm welcome to the fall season. It may bring to mind Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations, pumpkin-spiced lattes, and cozy sweaters. But beyond their aesthetic and sentimental value, pumpkins are a great addition to many of our favorite fall meals. From pies to pasta, to stews and soups, this diverse member of the squash family boasts hearty flavor as well as a host of vitamins and nutrients important for eye, skin, and immune health.
Pumpkin is a type of squash. There are hundreds of varieties of pumpkins, all derived from four species—pepo, maxima, moschata, and mixta. Pepo pumpkin varieties are the most common for eating and carving. These are round with deep ridges, smooth orange skin, and a woody stem. The larger varieties are best for carving and toasting their seeds, while smaller varieties are better for cooking and eating. Other species of pumpkins can be found at farmers’ markets or specialty stores and come in a variety of sizes, colors, and flavors. To learn more, chat with your local farmer!
Cooking pumpkin draws out its natural sugars, giving it a mild, sweet taste that works well in both desserts and entrées. Certain varieties, such as the Fairytale or Musque de Provence, can be enjoyed raw.
Pumpkins are widely available in major supermarkets, specialty stores, farm stands, and farmers’ markets.
Peak season for many pumpkin varieties is August through December in both the US and Europe. Certain varieties may only be available for shorter periods of time during that window
Keep in mind that carving pumpkins are bred to be large, not necessarily flavorful, so keep those on the doorstep—however, their abundant seeds are delicious to roast! When you intend to cook, look for baby pumpkins, which may also be labeled as “pie” or “sweet” pumpkins, common pumpkins, and mini pumpkins. Your pumpkin should be firm and heavy for its size, either with the stem cut away or securely attached.
Avoid pumpkins with nicks, soft spots, or withered stems, as this may indicate they are overripe.
When deciding whether to purchase organic or non-organic produce, it’s helpful to know which fruits and vegetables are most affected by pesticides. Pesticides are toxins used to kill insects, invasive plants, and fungi during the growth of produce, and are potentially dangerous to people. National and international agencies agree that prolonged exposure to specific pesticides through food consumption is a potential health risk. Additionally, some studies indicate that organic fruits and vegetables have a higher concentration of vitamins and minerals than conventionally raised produce.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an environmental health advocacy and research organization in the United States. From cosmetics to produce, water to cleaning products, EWG provides insight regarding the impact of pesticides, manufacturing practices, and product ingredients on our health and environment. EWG produces a consumer guide ranking 48 fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue. The higher the rank, the lower the residue. In this ranking, the 12 most affected fruits and vegetables belong to the “Dirty Dozen,” and the 15 least affected are part of the “Clean Fifteen.” These lists help identify the produce that is most—and least—dramatically affected by pesticides.
Pumpkins are not specifically highlighted on any list, but winter squash (a relative of pumpkin) ranks #22 on the full EWG list, a little closer to the “Clean Fifteen” than the “Dirty Dozen” list, meaning that the conventionally grown version is generally considered safe.
Store whole pumpkins at room temperature, out of direct sun, for up to one month. Once the flesh is processed, refrigerate it in a sealed container or freeze it for up to three months.
Wash the whole pumpkin in cool running water, using a vegetable brush to remove excess dirt.
Chop the pumpkin in half, and scoop out the flesh and seeds with a spoon (a grapefruit spoon works particularly well). Then cut the halves into smaller pieces. Place pumpkin pieces, skin-side up, in a baking dish. Add water to coat the bottom of the dish, and cover with a lid. Bake the pumpkin in a 325˚F oven until fork tender. Once it cools, either cut off the skin or scoop out the flesh. From here, season and use as needed for the dish of your choice.
Keep in mind, with most varieties of pumpkin, the entire squash is edible, right down to the stem. How much you eat depends on your personal preference in regard to taste and texture. Check with your local farmer about best cooking methods if you are using an heirloom or rare variety.
Alternately, cut off the stem and scoop out the seeds to roast. Rinse seeds under cool water and pat dry with paper towels to remove the stringy pulp.
You can then simmer seeds in salt and water for about 10 minutes, if desired. This adds flavor and enhances crispiness.
Coat the seeds in 1 tablespoon of oil and add seasoning of your choice, such as salt, brown sugar, etc. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Cook at a lower temperature (170 degrees F) for 15 to 20 minutes to yield optimal nutritional value. Alternatively, to enhance the crispiness, cook at a higher temperature (400˚F) until brown—from 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the seeds. Once roasted, enjoy out-of-hand, sprinkled over salads, mixed with hot cereal, or tossed with sautéed vegetables.
Keep in mind that while most recipes call for rinsing the seeds, some people opt to skip this step to save time and energy. The pulp caramelizes onto the seeds (making them slightly sweeter). So, consider how this might affect your seasoning.
A fat-soluble nutrient, vitamin A is involved in the development of rhodopsin, a molecule in the eye that promotes healthy vision. Vitamin A is also responsible for promoting the immune system, cell growth, skin health, and the formation of the heart and lungs as well as other bodily organs.
This immune-system-building vitamin offers a host of benefits. Vitamin C is an important nutrient necessary for collagen production, and is essential for maintaining the integrity and function of skin and bone tissue. Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant, fighting free radicals and protecting the heart, kidneys, and lungs from disease. This essential nutrient, often found in large amounts in citrus fruits and raw vegetables, may play a role in reducing systolic blood pressure and heart disease risk.
Alongside sodium and chloride, potassium is an electrolyte essential for conducting electrical reactions in the body. Potassium aids proper muscle function, digestive health, and skeletal contractions.
Riboflavin is helpful for metabolism, aiding in fatty acid energy release. Vitamin B2 is also important for metabolizing proteins, ketone bodies, and carbohydrates.
A mineral that plays a role in producing collagen and keeping the immune system in proper working order, copper is an essential nutrient needed by the body in small amounts. Copper may also fight against free radicals, helping to delay the aging process. Energy production is also one of the many benefits of this important mineral.
As evidenced by its rich orange color, pumpkin is a great source of beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a building block of vitamin A, which is especially important for eye, skin, and immune health. Interestingly, you will get greater amounts of beta-carotene in canned pumpkin than if you cook it yourself! This is because the canning process removes excess water from the pumpkin, leading to a higher concentration of pumpkin flesh, and therefore, a higher concentration of nutrients. Keep in mind though, that canned pumpkin sometimes has unnecessary flavor additives. Try to find cans containing only pumpkin.
Additionally, pureed or canned pumpkin can be used as substitute for butter or oil in certain recipes.
- Like melons and cucumbers, pumpkins are a fruit that can be incorporated into both sweet and savory dishes.
- All parts of a pumpkin—the root, stem, leaves, fruit, and seeds—are edible. One exception is a pumpkin selected for Halloween carving—the seeds are fine, but the rest of the pumpkin, bred for size, will be too fibrous to enjoy.
- Pumpkins have been used for many odd medicinal treatments, including snake bites, freckle removal, and relieving cats of hairballs!