Pumpkin, or at least pumpkin flavor, is more popular than ever these days thanks to the ubiquitous nature of a recently created flavor called pumpkin spice. From coffee, to cereal, to vodka and lip balm, the flavor is everywhere. The one thing most of these products have in common is they have never even seen a real pumpkin. It’s all artificial.
If you want to go to the store or farmers market and pick up the real deal (or grow your own next year), you may have more choices than you know how to deal with when it comes to pumpkin varieties. So here’s a quick list of common pumpkins (and relatives) you may find at the market.
The jack-o’-lantern is the standard pumpkin most everyone will identify with this time of year. These pumpkins are generally medium sized and are good for decorating and carving.
While they are OK for cooking, they don’t have the best flavor or texture for many dishes. If your pumpkin pursuits are purely culinary, stick to another variety. If you want to use them for decoration then cook them (or eat the seeds) afterward, these are fine.
The pie pumpkin is a small, round pumpkin that has a much creamier flesh and a much better flavor than the jack-o’-lantern varieties. Their small size means they aren’t great for carving, though.
You can cut these pumpkins up and cook them, but it is easier to just cut them into halves and roast (or perhaps steam) to get the flesh ready for dishes. The smaller ones are the perfect size to roast whole with brown sugar, butter and cinnamon, use as a pumpkin soup bowl, or stuff and bake.
Fairytale pumpkins are becoming more visible at farmers markets these days. These squat, almost flat pumpkins have a light-orange or tan rind color. Sometimes, you’ll find them covered with warts (a common pumpkin genetic trait). The outer rind is hard to cut into, but the creamy flesh and small seed cavity mean they can be pretty tasty.
The rouge vif d’Etampes is a red heirloom pumpkin from 1800s France. It has a color between orange and red. Most are medium sized, but they can grow large. They have a creamy, sweet texture that is good for many dishes.
Giant pumpkins are those massive pumpkins you often see on TV and at festivals. While the size may be impressive, the flavor definitely isn’t. The bigger the pumpkin, usually the grainier and less flavorful the flesh.
There are lots of other squashes that aren’t pumpkins that make great decor and taste wonderful. Delicata, with its small size and sweet flavor is one of my favorites. Acorn, hubbard, butternut, spaghetti and cushaw are all great squashes. In fact, cushaw, the odd white and green striped squash, probably makes a better pie than pumpkin does.
Gourds: these are the strictly ornamental side of the family. Most gourds are either too hard or too flavorless to be good eating. They are prized for their interesting shapes and colors, but they typically won’t win any culinary prizes.