As the air begins to chill and the leaves begin to fall, many people here in the Midwest begin to think about pumpkins. In October, people specifically think about the jack-o’-lanterns they will place on their doorsteps on All Hallows’ Eve.
Pumpkins have many uses aside from Halloween decorations. In fact, 2019 is the year of the pumpkin, according to the National Garden Bureau. These iconic October edibles are a type of squash, and pumpkins of all shapes and sizes can be baked in breads, puréed, roasted, or made into pie. Their seeds can be toasted with salt and spices or herbs for a savory fall snack. Pumpkin-flavored brews are popular, and pumpkins make an interesting wine. Consider these options when it’s time to bring those pumpkins in from the porch.
Many traditional pumpkins come from the genus and species Cucurbita pepo and share trademark pumpkin characteristics, including flavor and texture. According to John Porter, a University of Nebraska Extension horticulturalist who focuses on urban agriculture, C. pepo is a surprisingly broad species containing traditional pumpkins and squashes such as acorn, spaghetti, and zucchini. It may be a surprise to most pumpkin enthusiasts that these cultivars that taste and look nothing like a pumpkin are so closely related to pumpkins that they may cross-pollinate.
C. pepo pumpkins are edible and have a traditional pumpkin flavor; however, some have better flavor and texture than others. The variety called Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins are iconic and ideal for carving. They can be used for baking (only if fresh and uncut) Their flesh is grainy and stringy, and their shells are thin to allow for people of all ages to create faces that keep away ghosts and invite candy-hunters. They do make decent pie. “Jack O’ Lantern pumpkin pie will still be pleasant, but it won’t be as high quality as [one made from] pie pumpkins,” says Porter, noting that the flavor is not quite as good and the texture not as smooth.
Pie pumpkins such as Small Sugar, Golden Nugget, or New England Pie, are smaller than Jack O’ Lanterns, though still in the C. pepo species. Their flesh is dry and starchy, and is sweeter than that of a Jack O’ Lantern pumpkin. They are ideal for baking but not as ideal for carving. If one were interested in brewing with pumpkins, this would be the best candidate.
Mini Jack-Be-Little pumpkins, often used as mantlepiece decorations, are also tasty. They are technically a type of butternut squash but can be baked and used for fillings just like the other pumpkins described.
The seeds of all the Cucurbita pepo pumpkins are very good for roasting, whether one is using the rest of the pumpkin for a jack o’ lantern or a pie.
The next genus and species is Cucurbita moschata. Commercial pumpkin pie and pie filling, interestingly, are made from C. moschata pumpkins. Libby’s Brand, which sells the majority of canned pumpkin in the United States, uses the Dickinson pumpkin. The Dickinson is part of the C. moschata species, says Porter. C. moschata pumpkins do not cross-pollinate with C. pepo, and although they are related to Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins, they are not the same. Porter says Dickinson pumpkins are oblong, have a tan rind, and do not resemble traditional pumpkins, although the inside is orange and similar to a pie pumpkin in that the flesh is dry. C. moschata includes butternut squash, crookneck squash, Long Island Cheese pumpkin (often called Cinderella pumpkin), and a few others.
Giant pumpkins seen in competitions are yet another species known as Cucurbita maxima, says Porter. It will not cross-pollinate with C. pepo or C. moschata but is closely related, says Porter. Giant pumpkins are nice to look at, but not to eat. They are watery and grainy, says Porter. They do, however, make impressive decorations.
Pumpkins grow well in all parts of the country, including Nebraska. Finding fresh pumpkins will not be difficult this fall. It’s a safe bet that there will be many uncut pumpkins lining porches after Halloween. Give those pumpkins a second purpose.
This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.