The approach of Thanksgiving always triggers memories of my first internship in a restaurant kitchen. It was at a well-loved Brooklyn shrine of farm-to-table cuisine that brought in beautiful produce from local farms each day (raising my standards of quality produce about a thousand percent). I worked there through the holidays, which, as a lowly intern, meant many of my days were filled with either peeling apples or breaking down pumpkins and squash and making gallons of pumpkin puree to be used in muffins, ice cream, sauces, and of course, pies. Prior to working there, it had never occurred to me to obtain pumpkin puree from something other than a can.
Since those days, I've never gone back to canned pumpkin puree. For me the difference in taste alone is worth it; puree from fresh, roasted or steamed pumpkins just tastes and smells more... pumpkin-y. It's a hard quality to describe. I also prefer the texture, which is smoother than canned pumpkin, and the bright color, which is so much more appetizing.
When choosing pumpkins for puree, it's important to select pumpkins that will deliver the most intense and sweet flavor. Small, dense Sugar Pumpkins are great for puree and easy to find in most grocery stores and farmers' markets. You can also use lesser-known heirloom varieties such as New England Pie (these are very similar to Sugar Pumpkins), Long Island Cheese Pumpkins (high yield for puree, but not as sweet), Long Pie (these look nothing like pumpkins, but have very smooth flesh that is great for pies), Baby Pam, or Peek-a-Boo. Avoid using the kind that are ideal for carving jack-o-lanterns; big pumpkins with thin walls and mostly hollow insides are generally flavorless, and therefore not desirable ingredients for delicious baked goods.
Best of all, making smooth, velvety pumpkin puree is not difficult at all. Sure, it requires planning at least one day ahead, but this is par for course with a lot of pastry projects. If you're using it for pumpkin pie, you can double up the prep work for your components, mix and chill the flaky crust dough just before you cut, clean, and roast the pumpkins. By the time they cool, you'll be ready to shape your bottom crust and finish the puree. Chill both overnight, and you'll be ready to rock the next morning.
Keep scrolling to learn the method, then beat the pre-holiday frenzy and make your puree this week. Hold it in the freezer then thaw before use. Don't miss my Pie of the Week columns this week, a special double edition of pumpkin pie recipes that are perfect for Thanksgiving. If you can't wait that long, be sure to check out my recipe for pumpkin muffins, the perfect breakfast fix for pumpkin fiends.
Use instead of canned
Homemade pumpkin puree has a better taste, texture, color, and aroma than pumpkin puree from a can. Make a large batch to freeze and use whenever a recipe calls for canned pumpkin. Scroll on to learn how.
Small and sweet
When choosing pumpkins for puree, look for smaller, dense pumpkins. Sugar pumpkins are fantastic, as are Baby Pam. There are heirloom pumpkins (that often do not look anything like what you think a pumpkin should) that are also excellent, including Long Island Cheese Pumpkins, Long Pie, Peek-a-Boo, and New England Pumpkin.
Prepare the raw pumpkins
Begin by washing the exterior of the pumpkin and cutting it in half. Scrape out all of the seeds, and save to roast if desired.
Prepare to steam
Two of the best ways to cook the pumpkins for puree are steaming and roasting. I prefer steaming because it is quicker and easier when making a lot of puree at once. To steam, place the pieces of cleaned pumpkin in a roasting pan and fill the bottom with an inch of water. Then seal the pan with foil. To roast, place the pumpkins flesh side down on a walled baking sheet lined with a silicone mat.
Roast until the flesh is tender
The pumpkins will roast in the oven set to 400°F for 1 to 1.5 hours. If you steam the pumpkins, use caution when removing the foil on top—that steam can cause a nasty burn!
Checking for doneness
When the pumpkins are finished cooking, the flesh will be very soft. You should be able to insert a knife without applying any pressure at all.
Cool the pumpkins
Whether you've steamed or roasted the pumpkins, allow them to cool flesh-side down on a cooling rack placed over a sheet pan. This will allow extra moisture to drip out.
Squeeze out additional moisture
Pumpkins are full of water. For a nice, concentrated puree that is the same consistency as canned, squeeze the pumpkin firmly to release some of the water. A little is okay; stop when squeezing just yields small drips.
Pumpkins after squeezing
This is what the pumpkins should look like after some squeezing. Still moist, but not saturated.
Scoop out the flesh
Use a metal spoon to scrape the flesh out of the pumpkin skin and into the bowl of a food processor. Fill the processor no more than 3/4 of the way. If you are making more than that, work in batches. It's okay if small pieces of skin get in the bowl; you will remove them in the final step.
Puree until smooth
Puree the pumpkin for 1 minute, then stop, scrape down the sides, and let process for another minute. This will help break down any stringy fibers and make the puree smooth and velvety.
Press through a sieve or tamis
Working in small batches, pass the puree through a sieve (a drum tamis works best) and into a bowl using a flexible scraper to extricate any solid particles of seeds, skin, or stubborn fibers.
Puree, ready to be an ingredient
Now the puree is ready to be added to recipes. Use it as a substitute for canned, wherever a recipe calls for it.