A Squash by Any Other Name…is Pumpkin

Every so often, there is a concern about shortages of canned pumpkin. During the last pumpkin shortage, a pregnant friend was so desperate to satisfy her cravings for pumpkin, her husband offered his coworkers $20 for a single can of the precious puree. Again this year, there was concern raised over pumpkin shortages. Too much rain in Illinois where most of Libbey’s pumpkins grow has affected the yields by as much as one third.

So what’s all the fuss about? Growing up feasting on pies made from my grandpa’s pumpkin (which I now know to be Hubbard Squash), raised in his own garden and lovingly roasted and canned each fall, is a shortage of Libbey’s all that much to be concerned about?

First thing’s first. What exactly does Libbey’s use? The pumpkin in that can of pumpkin puree, in fact, is not pumpkin at all. It’s a variety of squash called Dickinson squash. Dickinson squash is the same species of squash as butternut squash. A lighter skinned, orange-fleshed squash.

dickenson-pumpkin-web
Dickinson Squash, the variety used by Libbey’s (photo from rareseeds.com)

What’s in a name?

According to the USDA Grading Manual for Canned Pumpkin and Squash, circa 1956:

The names pumpkin and squash are propularly [sic] applied to the fruits of the species of the genus Cucurbita,namely C pepo,C maxima and C moschata. In general, the term pumpkin is applied to the late maturing or fall varieties of C pepo and C maxima. The principal varieties of C pepo and C. maxima used for canning are the Connecticut field pumpkin, Dickinson pumpkin, Kentucky field pumpkin, the Boston marrow squash, and the Golden Delicious squash.

The Great “Pumpkin” Pie Experiment of 2015

So what is the best alternative to canned puree? Out to the market I went. I gathered anything we grow that could make a suitable alternative. This meant we’d be baking seven pies (including the Libbey’s variety to compare). Yes, you read that right, seven.

squash
Pumpkin substitute candidates: Pie Pumpkin, Acorn Squash, Hubbard Squash, Butternut Squash, Sweet Potato and Red Warty Thing

Roasting and Pureeing

And the roasting began. Everything was cut in half (thanks to my husband, particularly on the Hubbard Squash), deseeded and roasted, face down on a lined baking sheet, at 400 degrees.

cleanedsquashhalves
Squash halves cleaned and ready to roast

The roasting times varied, with Hubbard Squash and Red Warty Thing taking longer and pie pumpkins, acorn squash and sweet potatoes taking less time. The roasting times ranged from about 40 minutes to an hour and a half. Each was pulled from the oven when a butter knife easily cut through the skin with little resistance from the flesh beneath.

After pulling from the oven, I let them cool enough to handle, then scooped the flesh into a food processor and pureed until smooth.

squashpurees
Squash Purees. Skimming watery purees or straining helps create a consistency more similar to canned puree, making them more interchangeable

This was an evening task, so all purees were refrigerated after they cooled. This also gave me the opportunity to scoop off the watery parts once the puree settled, although none of them were quite as thick as the Libbey’s pumpkin.

Baking

For the pies, I used the same crust, same recipe and, since I didn’t have 7 glass pie dishes, all foil pans. Since Libbey’s sets the standard for pie expectations in ease and flavor, I decided to use the Libbey’s recipe. Sugar, spices, puree (1 2/3 cup each, consistently about 14-14.5 oz. on all purees), eggs and a can of evaporated milk. Simple enough.

So I set to work. Roll crust, mix filling, bake…roll crust, mix filling, bake…Several hours later we had seven pies.

The Results

My husband and I inspected and tasted them all, going back and forth to try to find the “best” replacement. I also had some of the girls from the market and my coworkers taste the pies (some tasted all, others gave feedback on the ones they tried).

squashpies
Pumpkin pies

Sweet Potato – The only one ruled out as a replacement to pumpkin (a tasty pie, just noticeably not pumpkin).

Acorn Squash – Noticeably more muted in color, but still a very tasty pie.

Red Warty Thing – Not one bad comment about this option. A beautiful hue, smooth texture and good flavor. Of those that did not try all of the pies, they seemed to be most compelled to try this one.

Hubbard Squash – Tasty, but the most difficult to work with due to its thick flesh.

Libbey’s – I noted that visually Libbey’s was the “smoothest” pie. As I worked, I noticed that the remainder of pies from the varying purees had tiny bubbles on top. After a few pies, I realized it was due to the fact that, since the purees were thinner, they were unable to prevent the bubbles from the shaken cans of evaporated milk from rising to the top of the custard. I was able to reduce the bubbles on later pies by taking more care in removing the bubbles prior to incorporating the evaporated milk.

Pie Pumpkin – Had the most negative comments (a grand total of two) [my husband felt that it was “grainier” when compared directly to the other options]

Butternut Squash – Also good. This is the most closely related and, to me, had an aftertaste that compared to one I noticed in Libbey’s.

squashpiepieces
Most canned puree replacement options taste very similar, with slight variations to color and texture.

The order of preference among the five squash selections varied between tasters, but also many comments that it became quite difficult to determine a best since they were all so similar.

Making Pumpkin Pie From Your Own Puree

Making your own puree for your Thanksgiving pies is simple. Yes, never as simple as cracking open a can, but the active time in making your own puree is simply cutting a squash (or two, in the event of smaller squash) in half, scooping out seeds, then returning an hour or so later to scoop out the baked flesh and puree. The puree can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to a week or even frozen (for those who may crave pumpkin after it drops off menus here in the next couple weeks).

And as an added bonus, it can be a great way to change the topic when the uncomfortable arguments conversations about politics or religion pop up at Thanksgiving dinner 😉

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3 thoughts on “A Squash by Any Other Name…is Pumpkin

  1. Thank you for the taste testing.I converted to making my own pie pumpkin puree years ago. I like it so much better than the canned pumpkin .I questioned if it was a squash variety but could not get a definitive answer . If you add 1 tsp. flour to the mixture it will produce the same creamy texture but firmer body. I enjoy it both ways.

  2. I’ve been making my own pumpkin puree for the past 21 years out of necessity. I moved to Switzerland and canned pumpkin was not something they had. But the VARIETY of pumpkins ans squash available trumps ANYTHING that the U.S. has to offer. So, with my trusty Libby’s recipe began. I don’t always use the same pumpkin/squash each time….but the amount of liquid varies. I drain off as much as possible…..but I like the tip of adding 1 tsp. of flour to help it out. I am making a pie right now, and I’m going to try it out.
    Thanks for all your testing and for posting the results. VERY helpful.

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