Before Thanksgiving, I wanted to find out for myself if there was a difference between fresh roasted and pureed pumpkin and canned pumpkin. I’ve heard from multiple grandmothers and other cooks that roasting a pumpkin is something they did once and never tried again.
I knew that preparing my own pumpkin puree was going to be more work. After all, the alternative is just opening a can and spooning it into a mixing bowl. Despite the obvious time savings, no one had definitively answered for me if home-roasted pumpkin tasted better.
I set out to answer that question, and I have. It might be a few weeks after Thanksgiving, but the results are in.
First, let’s talk methodology. I did not test different pumpkin varieties. I used sugar baby pumpkins, which are a preferred cooking pumpkin. Don’t use a big jack-o’-lantern pumpkin. It will be watery, with little flavor.
I roasted the pumpkins three different ways: Peeled, sliced and uncovered; peeled, cut in half and covered; unpeeled, cut in half and covered. I tasted the pumpkin puree three different ways: Raw; cooked in pumpkin pie; cooked in muffins.
I quickly determined roasting pumpkin sliced and uncovered was a bad move. The pumpkin cooks faster but it becomes quite dry. It also doesn’t develop any caramelization.
The majority of recipes recommend slicing pumpkins in half, removing the seeds and guts, and putting each half open-side down on a sheet pan. I covered my pumpkin halves with aluminum foil to keep in as much juice and water as possible. I roasted the pumpkin halves for 45 minutes at 350 degrees F. The end result was remarkable. The roast pumpkin smelled incredible, and sweet pumpkin juice had started to caramelize on the pan.
I determined there is no difference in taste between peeled and unpeeled pumpkins. Because the pumpkins pull away from their skin when they are cooked, it’s much easier to cook pumpkin with the skin on. You barely have to scrape out the pumpkin once it is cooked.
The next step is to actually make the pumpkin puree. This is a job for food processors only. There isn’t enough liquid in the roasted pumpkin to work in a blender. Be patient and be thorough when pureeing the pumpkin. Scrape the sides down frequently, and puree until you are certain there aren’t any chunks.
Is it worth it so far? It takes 1 hour to prepare and roast the pumpkin, 15 minutes for it to cool and another 15 minutes to puree. It takes 10 seconds to open a can. Verdict? Can. But we haven’t even tasted it yet!
Tasting raw puree: Pumpkin puree looks like baby food, so for this part of the test I asked myself: If I were a baby, what face would I be making after tasting this puree?
Tasting pumpkin pie: I baked two pumpkin pies with fresh puree for Thanksgiving, and my tasters responded very positively. The custard was light and airy thanks to the fresh puree. I didn’t want to bake two more pumpkin pies to do a head-to-head test, so instead I baked the custard only in small ramekins. The results were surprising. The stronger flavor of the canned pumpkin performed much better in pie form. Yes, the filling wasn’t quite as fluffy, but the taste was much better. Due to my previous success with fresh puree in pies, I wasn’t expecting the canned puree to win in a direct comparison, but it did.
Tasting pumpkin muffins: Before I started this experiment, I assumed that canned and fresh puree would be most different in raw form, decrease some in custard form, and be indistinguishable in baked muffin form. I was wrong here, too. In this comparison, the fresh puree scored a resounding victory. The muffins rose better, and they were much lighter. While both muffins tasted good, the ones baked with the fresh puree were clearly better.
(These muffins were fantastic; the complete recipe is available here.)
That means in a taste comparison, fresh beats canned puree 2-1. You can’t overlook ease-of-use (or lack thereof), however, which makes it much harder to decide if it’s worth it to make your own puree.
The answer might be improving the canned puree. This is untested, but I have an idea that might fix it. I’m fairly certain my fresh puree had more water in it than the canned puree. I needed to cook the muffins 3 minutes longer until a toothpick came out clean. The next time I bake with pumpkin, I’m going to puree the canned product again with a little bit of water in the food processor. This should fix the gritty consistency I observed, and potentially get the airiness I’m looking for.
I likely will roast pumpkins again, but it will be a once-a-season project. I’ll freeze the puree in 15-ounce portions to use for pies throughout the fall and winter.
Is it worth it? For special occasions, yes. And I determined, without a doubt, that there is a difference between fresh and canned puree.