Why It Works
- Roasting the pumpkin concentrates its natural flavor and sweetness.
- A broth built on savory aromatics, stock, and minimal spicing allows the pumpkin flavor to shine through.
- A swirl of browned butter and fried thyme leaves add a rich, herbal nuttiness to the soup; a squeeze of lemon juice tempers the sweetness of the roasted pumpkin.
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.
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:
- Check the cultivar. Most—but not all—cooking pumpkins are marketed with the word "sugar" in their names, a good indication that it will be sweet and creamy. If you are unsure, ask!
- Look for small, dense pumpkins. A good pumpkin should feel very heavy for its size, an indication that its flesh will be intensely flavorful. I go for sugar pumpkins that weigh in at around four to five pounds.
- Check for blemishes. Pumpkins last a long time. A LONG time. Some particularly tough-skinned varieties like Fairy Tale Pumpkins (a flat, bulbous kind that looks like, well, like Cinderella's coach) can sit in your kitchen for MONTHS before it shows any sign of rotting. So don't worry about a bit of dirt or discoloration on the skin. What you should check for are soft spots or nicks where a blemish is likely to form.
- No pumpkin? Use squash! The distinction between pumpkins and squash is not particularly strong. They all belong to the same genus (Cucurbita), and most folks will agree that a pumpkin is just a specific type of squash that happens to be orangish-yellow and round. Common pumpkins are not even all cultivars of the same species (they can be either pepo, mixta, maxima, or moschata), and those species contain several other types of familiar squash such as hubbard and pattypan. You think that's real pumpkin in that can of pumpkin purée? Think again. Chances are, it's a related Cucurbita maxima squash. Which is to say, you should not feel bad about using a different squash for this soup, such as kabocha, delicata, hubbard, or even butternut. They will all work and the cooking method will be the same.
How To Cook It
In Modernist Cuisine, Nathan Myhrvold and his team recommend cooking pumpkin in a pressure cooker along with 0.5%-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 sautéed 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.
This recipe originally appeared as part of the column The Food Lab Lite.
1 medium sugar pumpkin or kabocha squash, about 4 1/2 pounds total
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 whole stems thyme, plus 1 tablespoon picked thyme leaves
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2 large leeks, white and pale green parts only, quartered lengthwise, and finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 small yellow onion, finely sliced (about 3/4 cup)
1 quart homemade or store-bought low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon juice from 1 lemon
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Split pumpkins in half with a heavy chef's knife or cleaver. Scoop out the seeds and discard or save for another use. Rub pumpkins on all surfaces with oil and season with salt and pepper. Place cut-side-down on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet and place in oven. Scatter whole thyme stems on top. Roast until completely tender, flipping halfway through cooking, 1 to 1 1/2 hours total. Remove from oven and let rest until cool enough to handle.
Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add leeks and onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add stock, bay leaves, and maple syrup and bring to a simmer.
Using a large spoon, scoop flesh out of pumpkin and add it to the pot. Discard stem and skins. Let simmer for 15 minutes longer, then remove bay leaves and discard.
Purée soup in a blender in batches until completely smooth, straining through a fine-mesh strainer to catch any particles or fibers. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, heat remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a small skillet over medium heat, swirling constantly, until foam subsides and butter takes on a deep brown color with a nutty aroma, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and add remaining tablespoon thyme leaves (they'll crackle as they hit the hot butter). Add lemon juice and season brown butter to taste with salt.
Ladle soup into serving bowls and drizzle with thyme brown butter. Serve immediately.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 12g||16%|
|Saturated Fat 6g||30%|
|Total Carbohydrate 18g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||11%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 14mg||71%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|