Pumpkin Puree vs Canned Pumpkin - The Pumpkin Pie Challenge
Fresh pumpkin puree and canned pumpkin face off in a blind taste test. Which was the winner?
Every year as the temperature drops and pumpkin season rolls around, I can’t resist buying fresh pumpkin and making homemade pumpkin puree. Then I came across some articles saying that canned pumpkin is in fact better than fresh pumpkin puree. Have I been wasting my time making fresh pumpkin puree? When I make a pumpkin pie for my family, I want it to be the BEST. And I certainly wouldn’t go through the extra trouble for an inferior outcome. I decided to do my own test. Read along and see what I discovered.
I started with a little research. I did find some differing opinions, some saying that fresh homemade puree tastes better, has a better texture, and makes a better pumpkin pie. Others think that canned pumpkin is superior.
I was relieved to find some of my favorite, trusted sources in the fresh puree camp. Cook’s Illustrated, in a comparison of canned vs. fresh puree found that when used in pumpkin bread, tasters found the fresh puree a bit more vegetal and less sweet, though definitely acceptable. “In pumpkin pie, tasters preferred the fresh to canned. Though its more subdued orange hue made some hesitate, they observed that the fresh pumpkin contributed a pleasant squash flavor, compared with the pie made with canned, which tasted predominantly of the spices added to the pie.”
The brilliant cooks over at Serious Eats concurred. “Homemade pumpkin puree has a better taste, texture, color, and aroma than pumpkin puree from a can.”
Several other bloggers are fans of fresh puree. The Pioneer Woman says that fresh puree makes “the most delicious pumpkin pie I’ve ever tasted.”
Joanne, the talented blogger over at Fifteen Spatulas, did a blind taste test comparing canned vs. fresh puree from a sugar or pie pumpkin. Her results: the canned puree had a weird, off-putting taste before being cooked and still had a strong and unappetizing taste after being baked in a pie. The texture, she found, was the biggest difference. The canned pumpkin had a cottage cheese/ricotta texture, while the fresh puree had a thick, velvety texture.
So what about those who prefer canned pumpkin?
The most common argument in favor of canned pumpkin is convenience. While this is undoubtedly true, and convenience can be the difference between having a homemade pie on the Thanksgiving table or a store bought one, my focus is on which gives better results.
One blogger compared fresh and canned puree and found that, “The canned pumpkin pie tasted better. The spices seemed more pronounced, especially the cloves, and the pie made with the canned pumpkin was said to have a ‘stronger pumpkin aftertaste’ and to be ‘more flavorful.’” This blogger found the texture of the fresh puree to be superior, but didn’t think that would outweigh the better flavor of the canned.
Another blogger pointed out that while she uses both fresh and canned, canned pumpkin is consistent in flavor and texture, making it more foolproof to use in recipes. She finds that pumpkins vary widely in flavor, and homemade puree doesn’t always turn out to be as flavorful as canned. Interestingly, one of her commenters, another food blogger, found Libby’s canned pumpkin to be paler and thinner than usual that year, giving her trusted recipe a heavy, gummy texture. She noted that in Illinois, where Libby’s grows its pumpkins, it was wetter than ideal in the early part of that season, affecting the pumpkin crop.
These were very valid arguments and worth taking into consideration. Taste is, after all, a very personal preference. And consistency is definitely a concern.
Another large website, Taste of Home, is also in the camp of those who prefer canned pumpkin. They assert that even professional cooks testify that canned pumpkin is superior to fresh puree for cooking. Their first argument is convenience, with making fresh pumpkin puree a grueling, tedious task that takes up to two hours. Another argument is consistency in moisture and sweetness and the guessing game one would have to play to get the texture of the fresh puree just right. Their third argument is the type of pumpkin – or squash actually – that Libby’s uses. Libby’s has developed their own variety to be ideal for baking. Their final argument is that canned puree is available year round.
These are all good arguments. I use lots of cans of pumpkin every year and it is more convenient and available year round. However, the question I’m trying to answer is when pumpkin season rolls around and I’m inclined for whatever reason to make a pumpkin pie from homemade puree, which makes the better pie? The texture issue is definitely a concern. Cook’s Illustrated gives a great technique to make sure pumpkin puree is the perfect consistency. The final argument – the type of pumpkin (or squash) – might hold the key to my answer. More on that later.
I didn’t intend to wade into controversy when I started my search. I just wanted to know if I was wasting my time making pumpkin puree from scratch. I’m a great fan of Libby’s. They have been a part of my family’s holiday celebrations and well-loved seasonal baking for as long as I can remember. My family’s go-to pumpkin pie recipe is found on the back of their can.
But I did find a pretty strong opinion from a writer over at Forbes who jumped into the debate with their claim that you want canned pumpkin for a better pie, not fresh. This article asserts that it is a “big waste of time” baking a pie with the “watery mush” that is fresh pumpkin puree. For those who have “thankfully only conceived of the notion” of baking a pie with fresh puree, this article hopes to “convince you of its foolhardiness.” The author seems to be referring to making a pie out of a Jack-O'-Lantern Halloween pumpkin, which true, would not make the best pie. She also warns not to be fooled by the deceptively titled Sugar or Pie pumpkins, which she finds herbaceous in flavor with a fibrous texture that results in a grainy puree. The main argument in favor of canned pumpkin: the variety of pumpkin. Libby’s pumpkin, she details, a proprietary variation of the Dickinson pumpkin, is in fact a variety of squash similar to butternut squash in appearance, taste, and texture. Its puree is “luscious, creamy, and naturally sweet- much like butternut squash.” (Much like butternut squash? Hmmmm……)
So there you have it. Opinions ranging the whole spectrum from “The most delicious pumpkin pie I’ve ever tasted,” to baking with “watery mush” is a “big waste of time” and a “foolhardy notion.”
The only thing left was to experiment and test it myself. Which I did, in a blind taste test. I made fresh pumpkin puree with 3 different kinds of pumpkin/squash. Using those purees and a can of Libby's pumpkin, I baked 4 pumpkin pies using the same recipe at the same time. They were then tested, blindly and side by side.
One question I had as I read through the comparisons of canned vs. fresh was if Libby’s uses a type of squash, why does the comparison have to be against a pumpkin? Isn’t that like comparing apples and oranges? Kind of. But not quite. Since squash is the general term for the fruits that belong to the genus Cucurbita, and since pumpkin is from the genus Cucurbita, you can say that a pumpkin is just a kind of squash. So it’s more like comparing different varieties of apples. But different varieties have different textures, flavors, and levels of moisture and sweetness. If the Dickinson pumpkin is so similar to the butternut squash, why isn’t this being tested against the canned puree? Knowing this, I chose three different varieties from my local supermarket: sugar or pie pumpkin, kabocha squash, and butternut squash.
The sugar (or pie) pumpkin is one of the most popular types of squash for making pumpkin pie. It’s small – about 2-3 pounds and 7-8 inches in diameter - and readily available in the fall in most supermarkets. While it’s the most popular, it may not necessarily be the best for fresh puree and pie. It’s not as deep in flavor as some other types of squash and has a watery texture.
Kabocha squash is a Japanese pumpkin with a beautiful color, a sweet flavor, and a lovely, fluffy texture. It makes a silky, rich, velvety smooth filling for pumpkin pie.
Butternut squash, similar in appearance, flavor, and texture to Libby’s Dickinson squash, has a sweet flavor, bright orange color, and makes a dense and luscious filling for pie.
First I roasted the three pumpkins/squashes. Roasting deepens and sweetens the flavor, draws out moisture, and has an almost caramelizing effect. Then I cooled them and made a puree. Already you could see a difference. The sugar (or pie) pumpkin was lighter in color and more watery. The Kabocha and butternut squash were a lovely, intense orange color with a smooth, dense, velvety texture. The canned puree was darker in color and while thicker than the sugar pumpkin, it was not as smooth and dense as the kabocha or butternut squash.
It wasn’t at all tedious or grueling to make the puree. In fact, it was quite simple. The hands-on time was about five minutes total. Simply cut the squash in half, lightly salt it, and stick it into the oven for about an hour, then let it cool. Easily scoop out the flesh and puree in a food processor. And that’s it.
Time for the first taste test. The sugar pumpkin did have a lighter, fresher taste. It was definitely more palatable than the canned pumpkin. The kabocha and butternut squash had a deeper, earthier, sweeter flavor.
I baked the four purees into pies using the same recipe for each pie. The color of the pies was more similar after baking, with the sugar pumpkin still being the lightest, the canned pumpkin being the darkest, and the kabocha and butternut squash being a beautiful orangey color.
The real test, and the whole point of this experiment, is tasting the finished pie. All the pies were very good. That’s easy enough. But we’re here to find the best.
The kabocha and butternut squash pies were clearly the winner here, in taste and texture. They tasted exactly how a perfect pumpkin pie should taste – sweet, deep, rich, and pumpkin-y. What was really amazing was their texture. They were both silky smooth, dense, creamy, rich, and velvety. The mouthfeel on these two pies was outstanding and something I hadn’t experienced with canned pumpkin before.
The sugar pumpkin pie was smoother than the canned pumpkin. However the taste testers preferred the taste of the canned pumpkin pie better. I personally think that between the pie spices and the whipped cream, texture trumps taste, but once again, it’s only personal opinion.
Reading through blog posts, many commenters were in favor of fresh pumpkin puree. Interestingly, the most enthusiastic were those who used a different type of pumpkin that they had good results with. The three types of pumpkin I used were readily available at my local supermarket. However, check out your local farm stand and ask which variety is preferred for the best pumpkin pie.
Which do you prefer, fresh pumpkin puree or canned pumpkin?
I'd love to hear what your favorite pumpkins/squash are for the best pumpkin pie. Leave a comment below!
Check out my step by step tutorial on how to make Homemade Pumpkin Puree!