Step-by-Step: How to Make a Foolproof Pumpkin Pie

Extra Pumpkin-y Pie

The secret to our Extra Smooth Pumpkin Pie is cream cheese in the custard base, which helps it stay smooth while adding extra flavor.

Photographs: Vicky Wasik; Food Stylist: María del Mar Sacasa

Does anyone else feel like most pumpkin pies exist only because pumpkin pie is a Thanksgiving tradition? Don't get me wrong: A great pumpkin pie can be truly delicious, but most pumpkin pies are not great. Bland fillings, soggy bottom crusts, and a texture that's either too mushy or grainy and wet are the norm.

Our Extra Smooth Pumpkin Pie tackles these problems head on. The trick is to substitute cream cheese for the condensed milk that's typically added. This not only creates a drier filling that doesn't dampen the bottom crust, but also gives the filling a tangy flavor that boosts its pumpkin-iness without masking it. Cream cheese also contains emulsifiers that help ensure that the pie stays moist and tender (not grainy and wet) even if it ends up slightly overcooked. I'm not saying that cream cheese is a magic ingredient, but it does solve most of pumpkin pie's problems in one fell swoop.

You can jump straight to our step-by-step pumpkin pie photo guide here.

Troubleshooting Pumpkin Pie Problems

A few problems can arise when you're making pumpkin pie from scratch. Here are some of the most common, and how to deal with them.

Q: My pumpkin pie doesn't taste much like pumpkin. Why not?

First off, make sure you're using the right kind of pumpkin! Look for pumpkins labeled "sugar pumpkin" or "baking pumpkin." The pumpkins typically used for jack-o'-lanterns are stringy, watery, and bland. If you can't find straight-up pumpkin, kabocha squash or even butternut squash can make a good substitute. And, of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with using canned pumpkin for a pie.

If you're starting with fresh pumpkin or squash, the way you roast it for purée can also have a significant effect on the end product. Slow-roasting is the real key here. Not only does slow-roasting intensify flavors by allowing more liquid to evaporate, it also gives endogenous enzymes within the pumpkin flesh more time to act, converting some of the pumpkin's starches into sugars. This will intensify its sweetness and aid in the Maillard browning reactions and caramelization, both of which add complexity. A pumpkin roasted at 275°F will come out tastier and more intensely flavored than one roasted at 350°F.

To make 15 ounces of pumpkin purée, cut a 24-ounce pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds. Rub the halves lightly with vegetable oil on all surfaces, then place them cut side down on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Place the pumpkin in a preheated 275°F oven and roast until the area around the stem is completely tender and shows no resistance when poked with a knife or a toothpick, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Q: My crust comes out a little soggy after baking. How can I prevent this?

There are a number of reasons a crust can come out soggy. We've tested our recipes using glass and ceramic pie plates, but some pie plates transfer heat more slowly than others. If your pie plate is especially slow, it could be that your bottom crust is simply not getting enough heat as it bakes, allowing the filling to soak into it. Placing a heavy-duty aluminum baking sheet in your oven as it preheats, then baking the pie directly on top of it, can help to pump more energy into the bottom crust and keep it crisp.

Overcooking your pie will also lead to a soggy bottom crust. A pumpkin pie filling is an egg-based custard, and, like all egg custards, it will weep liquid if those eggs become overcooked (think: the watery pool that builds up underneath overcooked scrambled eggs). Make sure to keep an eye on your pie and remove it from the oven as soon as the center reaches the point of jiggling only slightly. If you've got yourself a thermometer, 180°F is a good upper bound for the filling's temperature.

Q: My pumpkin pie comes out grainy or gritty. What am I doing wrong?

Two possible problems here: First, it could be that you aren't processing your pumpkin filling sufficiently. I recommend spinning it in a food processor until it's completely smooth, or even using a standing blender with a plunger for more blending power (just make sure it doesn't overheat while blending). Pressing the filling mixture through a fine-mesh strainer or a chinois using the back of a ladle will ensure that it is completely smooth before you start to bake.

Second, even the smoothest pie filling will become grainy if it overcooks. The egg proteins in pumpkin pie filling form a loose net that traps moisture. As the egg proteins are heated, they begin to contract. Cook them hot enough, and they'll contract so much that they separate from each other into curds, giving your pie filling that grainy, wet texture. Our extra smooth pumpkin pie recipe contains cream cheese in order to help the pie stay nice and smooth even if it's slightly overcooked. But once again, keeping an eye on the pie and using a thermometer are two steps to guarantee success.