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The Food Lab Lite: Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Brown Butter and Thyme

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Don't you hate it when you order pumpkin soup and what they bring to your table is so overloaded with warm spices and sugar that you feel like you're actually eating pumpkin pie soup? The key to great pumpkin soup that really tastes like pumpkin is to ditch the spices, and instead focus on concentrating that natural pumpkin flavor. The easiest way to do it? Roast 'em.

Pumpkin Pickin'

The first thing to know about cooking pumpkin is that you shouldn't do it. At least not with the familiar, Jack-O-Lantern, ready-for-his-lobotomy type. They're watery and flavorless with a spongy texture. What you're looking for is any number of the smaller, denser varieties specifically intended for cooking. Here's what to look for at the grocery store or farmers' market:


How To Cook It

In Modernist Cuisine, Nathan Myhrvold and his team recommend cooking pumpkin in a pressure cooker along with .5%-by-weight baking soda. The idea is that the baking soda raises the pH of the liquid, which in turn promotes more rapid browning reactions, leading to deep flavor in record time. I've had his soup, and it is indeed incredible.

But in the winter, I'm usually not in much of a rush, and I find that the flavor of a true roasted pumpkin is superior to that of one caramelized with the baking soda technique. Much like my 15-minute caramelized onion recipe, the flavor you get is close, but not quite the same. Since roasting is so simple and requires no extra work on my part, I'll pick roasting over pressure cooking every time.

So how do you roast a pumpkin? Split it in half, rub it with oil (to promote even distribution of heat), season it, and shove it in the oven. That's it. As the pumpkin roasts, some of its moisture content is driven off, intensifying its flavors.

Meanwhile, the heat of the oven causes both the Maillard reaction (the browning process that creates savory crusts on meat and bread), as well as caramelization to occur. Complex carbohydrates break down into simpler sugars, which makes the pumpkin flesh sweeter. Indeed, with some varieties of pumpkin, their flesh is so packed with sugar that you'll see beads of syrup pooling up on its surface and slowly darkening to a rich, intensely flavorful brown. The process takes about an hour and a half. Plan your Netflix accordingly.

With the pumpkin roasted, your battle is more than half done. All that remains is to build a flavorful savory backbone—I like using leeks and onion sauteed in butter—add some stock, scoop out your pumpkin flesh, and purée the sucker up.

You can add some spices if you'd like—many recipes call for cinnamon, cloves, or allspice—but I find that you end up eating pumpkin pie soup instead of just pumpkin soup. I give concession to a drizzle of maple syrup, which blends nicely into the background. To serve, a drizzle of browned butter flavored with thyme and a squeeze of lemon is a classic pumpkin pairing. You wouldn't go wrong with sage either.

Get The Recipe!

Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Brown Butter and Thyme »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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