Friday, November 11, 2011

Fresh Pumpkin Purée (for Baked Goods & Desserts)

Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away, and there are probably many cooks out there who would like to try their hand at preparing their pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin. Since making your own pumpkin purée—at least of a quality that is appropriate for baked goods—is not as straightforward of a process as most cookbooks would lead you to believe, I thought now would be a good time to write a short tutorial on how to make pumpkin purée from a fresh pumpkin.

Standard recipes for fresh pumpkin purée go something like this: Cook the pumpkin (by steaming, boiling, baking/roasting). Purée the cooked pumpkin (discarding the skin and seeds)—either in a food processor or by pressing through a sieve or food mill. Use the pumpkin in your pie (or cake, muffin, bread, custard...) just as you would use "solid pack" canned pumpkin.

Almost everyone I know who has dutifully followed these instructions has confessed that they were disappointed in the pumpkin pie (or other dessert) made from the fresh purée. Most of the time the complaint is that it just didn't taste "pumpkin-y" enough. It is with some reluctance of course that people will admit to this, because fresh is always supposed to be better.

The problem people are encountering is a result of a couple of things. First of all, in my experience, the flesh of a pumpkin is quite watery. If you follow the standard recipe (outlined above), you will actually be able to see the water—the fresh purée will bleed and you will notice pools of yellow liquid around the edges of the container or anywhere there is a divot on the surface of the purée.

Obviously if the purée is watery, it will have a watered down taste (it won't be as "pumpkin-y"). The solution to this is to either drain the pumpkin (in a cheesecloth, for example), or to dry it out. I dry the purée out by spreading it in a gratin-style dish (a large, shallow casserole) and placing it in a low oven where the excess water will slowly evaporate.

The second "problem" encountered with fresh pumpkin is the very fact that it is a fresh vegetable. As a living thing that takes its nourishment from its environment, it is naturally greatly affected by its growing conditions. Location, climate and weather are significant. Two identical cultivars, grown in different places (or the same place in different years) will not have the same moisture content, sweetness, starchiness, etc. Pumpkins grown in the New England states or California may indeed be naturally dense and sweet with little excess moisture. It is also entirely possible that I live in a region that just tends to produce watery pumpkins.

No matter where you live, the fresh pumpkins will vary in their water content from year to year and farm to farm. Every time you prepare a fresh pumpkin purée, you will need to do what you do whenever you cook anything: use your senses to produce a final product that looks and behaves the way you want it to. Some pumpkins will need little or no time in the oven to dry....others may need more than an hour. The first time I began to experiment with this process, my goal was to continue to dry the pumpkin until it looked more like the stuff that comes out of the can: thick enough to stand up on a spoon, dry (it shouldn't "weep" liquid) and deeply orange in color. This should be your guide too. The pumpkin you use may never obtain the deep orange color of the canned "solid pack" pumpkin—but it should not have a pale or translucent look to it.

I don't know why I have never seen this issue addressed in any cookbook (maybe I haven't looked at enough cookbooks), but it seems to me that it makes a substantial difference in the taste and consistency of the final purée. Recently I roasted a pumpkin that weighed 4 lbs., 14 ounces. The initial purée weighed 2 lbs. 12 ounces and measured a little over 5 cups. After drying, the remaining purée weighed 1 lb. 13 ounces and measured about 3 1/3 cups. For those doing the math, you will have noticed that there was almost a full pound (2 cups) of excess water in my original purée. If I had used 15 ounces (the standard amount that most pies call for) of the original purée in a pie, about a third of that would have been water.

Canned on the left; Fresh purée, before "drying", on the right

Canned on the left; Fresh purée, after "drying", on the right

By writing this post, I am not trying to discourage anyone from baking with fresh pumpkin. Rather, my goal is to help those who want to use fresh pumpkin in their holiday baked goods to be able to do so with good success. Most recipes for pumpkin baked goods (bread, cake, pie, custard, etc.) have been developed to use the "solid pack" pumpkin that comes out of a can. If you bake with something that has a substantially higher water content than the canned product, your recipe won't perform the way it was intended to, and you will probably be disappointed in the result.

To prepare fresh pumpkin purée to be used in baked goods: Use a sugar pumpkin or something that is specifically labeled "pie pumpkin". Choose one that feels heavy for its size. I prefer to bake or roast pumpkin that will be made into a purée, because this method doesn't introduce any more water. To bake the pumpkin, cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds.

Place the pumpkin halves cut side down on a greased rimmed baking sheet.

Bake in a 350° oven until very tender (pumpkin may begin to collapse)—about 1 hour, depending on the size of the pumpkin. Remove from the oven and carefully turn the halves over so the flesh is exposed and can "steam dry" a bit.

Allow the pumpkin to cool. Separate the flesh from the skin and discard the skin. Purée the flesh in the food processor or pass through a food mill fitted with the fine disc.

Dry the purée by spreading it in a shallow pan and baking at 300°, stirring occasionally with a heat-proof rubber spatula (scrape the sides well so the purée won't burn around the edges), until the desired consistency is reached—it will darken a little, will no longer "bleed" water and a clear path will remain when you draw a spatula through the purée.

A medium-sized pumpkin (2 1/3 to 2 1/2 lbs.) will produce a 10 to 12 oz., or about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups, of purée.

Before I end this post, I wanted to mention that there are lots of recipes on my blog—particularly from last November and December—for things that would make wonderful additions to your Thanksgiving celebrations. I hope you will take a minute to look through some of these old posts as you plan your holiday menu. You will find very traditional recipes (a scratch version of Green Bean Casserole, Brussels sprouts with Chestnuts), traditional ingredients used in not-so-traditional ways (Winter Squash Pizza, Spicy Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Butternut Squash and Bulgur Pilaf, Savory Kale & Chestnut Bread Pudding) and of course lots of baked goods and desserts (Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins, Pumpkin-Cranberry Scones, Pumpkin Pot de Crème, Brandied Apple & Currant Crumb Tart). Additionally, over the next few weeks, I will keep doing my best to post recipes that will fill your tables with good things to eat as you gather with your families and friends this year. Happy Holidays!


Betty Manousos said...

i love anything pumpkin!
thanks for sharing that awesome recipe!

happy weekend!

SFboy said...

I found this very helpful but was wondering how long you can keep the cooked or pureed pumpkin before it spoils.

Paige said...

You should be able to keep it in the fridge for at least 5 or 6 days. I have never frozen it, but I have frozen other winter squash purees without any problem.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this blog! I tried baking my first, fresh pumpkin pie the other day, and although my husband raved about it, I did not think it was as wonderful as I expected it to be. I will deffinitly try this in the future!!!

Karen said...

I am so happy to have come across your blog! I remember my Nana always making pumpkin pies from sugar pumpkins and they were amazing in flavor! I am determined this year to make my pies this way:)I am leaving the computer with this new knowledge to make the puree now. Wish me luck:) Thank you Paige<3

A fan of cooking/baking,

Paige said...

Karen, I'm so pleased this was helpful. Last week in a class someone told me that they learned how to make pumpkin pies with fresh pumpkin from their grandmother. This woman's grandmother had taught her to "dry" the pumpkin by hanging it in a cheesecloth and allowing the excess moisture to drain off. I'm amazed that this bit of culinary wisdom about drying pumpkin seems to have slipped out of the general repertoire. Thanks for commenting...and good luck with your pies! (I'm sure they will be delicious!).

Jeniffer Thompson said...

Thank you Paige, Now it all makes sense. Going to try this method tonight! I'll report back after I bake and share the pie on Turkey Day.

Paige said...

Your welcome Jeniffer. I hope you are pleased with the results...and look forward to hearing back about how this method works for you. Happy Thanksgiving!

Unknown said...

Hi Paige,
Can you please tell me at what temperature and how long did you leave it the oven to dry it out? Thank you.

Paige said...

Hi Janet,

Dry the pumpkin in a 300-degree (F) oven. It's hard to predict exactly how long it will take...pumpkins vary in water content from variety to variety and year to year. I would stir it every 15 minutes. It might be done in 30 to 45 also might take an hour or more. Just use the visual cues described in the post to help you decide when it's done. In general, I would say if you leave it in the oven from 45 minutes to an hour--stirring every 15 minutes that you will be in the ballpark. I hope this helps!

Lis Ballou said...

One of my first attempts to bake with fresh pumpkin was to use it in a pie- and just as you said, it was too bland and watery.
I've seen Martha Stewart say on the air that it is difficult and time consuming to get predictable results in baked good using home-made pumpkin puree for the exact same reasons you outlined. She said she always uses canned. (Whew! Thanks Martha.)

Makes me wonder if the pumpkin pies made during pioneer days were made from reconstituted dried pumpkin?

Paige said...

Lis, they might have used dried pumpkin, but there is a great passage in one of the "little house" books (perhaps "Little House in the Big Woods"?) where Laura describes the process of making pumpkin required long cooking, with lots of stirring (so the pumpkin wouldn't scorch) essence, they were drying the puree on the "stove top" instead of in an oven.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the information, which is very helpful. one question: I live in Florida and cannot find any pumpkin labeled sugar pumpkin. I have heard these are the best several times. How do I tell if it is a sugar pumpkin ?

Paige said...

Hi Mary, Sugar pumpkins...or something similar...are sometimes labeled as "pie pumpkins". Pumpkins like these are best for eating because their flesh has a finer grain and they are less watery. Any pumpkin being sold in a produce opposed to being with the jack-o-lantern and decorative pumpkins...should be a good bet. Beyond that...sugar pumpkins are typically pretty small...a large one might weigh as much as 2 1/2 lbs...but they are usually smaller than that. I hope this helps!

Katrina said...

Great post. I got a couple pie pumpkins to roast and will definitely use the drying out method as well. I knew your blog was the place to look for perfect info and remembered you posted something about pancakes a few weeks ago.

Paige said...

Thanks Katrina! If you have tried fresh pumpkin puree before...and been disappointed...I think you'll be super happy with this method. I couldn't believe how good my pancakes were with the freshly roasted puree....

blairrenee said...

I am glad I stumbled upon this post. Never thought to dry out my pumpkin purée! I do have a question though....I plan on roasting about 7 pumpkins tomorrow (depending on if my son snags one for himself to paint)....I was curious how long this would last, I plan on using it within the next few weeks between pies, cheesecakes, muffins and breads (I bake....a lot ��) also I know to can it you need to have a pressure canner, (of which I don't have)....but if I were to seal it in jars using the water boil method and place them in the fridge that maybe I'd squeeze and extra few days out of it?

Thanks in advance!

Ps I love love LOVE this post ��

Paige said...

Hi! I'm so pleased that you found this post helpful. I do have several suggestions for you. First, I should let you know that I don't do a lot of canning...and I only have experience with high acid fruits (for which the water boil method is sufficient). Pumpkin is a low acid food...which is why it requires pressure canning. I would never recommend that anyone do it any other way. You would be much better off freezing the finished purée in user friendly portions (1 or 2 cups each) instead.

Having said that, I would actually recommend that you roast the pumpkins in batches of a size that will produce the amount of purée you think you will use in a week. The purée will keep well under refrigeration for that length of time. The whole (uncooked) pumpkins will keep on your counter...or in your pantry...for several weeks.

Besides the issue of storing the finished purée, I think that you will find that you will run into oven space and time issues if you do so much pumpkin at once. I roasted 2 pumpkins weighing a little over 3 pounds each a couple of weeks ago. I spread the initial purée in my largest pyrex (which almost fills my oven chamber). The purée filled the dish in a fairly deep layer. Because there was so much...and it was took a long time to dry...maybe a couple of hours. I don't know how big your pumpkins are...but even if they are only a couple of pounds each, I think you might overwhelm your oven with seven of them....and drying will take a long time.

I hope this helps!

Anonymous said...


I just want to thank you for your recipe for making the pumpkin puree this is my second year making homemade pies and I am 100% satisfied with how they turn out! I do buy extra pumpkins to puree and freeze for the year and I agree the 1 cup measurement freeze bags are good! I usually add a little extra so so when I thaw it and cook/ steam the water out again it's to that same measurement. Thanks again for sharing this for everyone, I can honestly say all the time and effort is well worth the homemade pie!

Paige said...

Thank you for taking the time to let me know how well this works for you! ...and also for the great tip about adding extra when you freeze it so you can dry it a bit again when you thaw it. That's a super way to refresh the pumpkin...I will have to try it. Thanks again...have a great holiday baking season!