Perfect Pumpkin Pie: Which Squash Squashes the Competition?

By: Rupa Bhattacharya

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Are you feeling pumpkin-ed out? We are fully entrenched in pumpkin season, with the pumpkin-centric holiday of Thanksgiving just around the corner and toothy jack-o'-lanterns still grinning devilishly from neighborhood doorsteps and windows. But a few weeks ago, before we slid too far down the rabbit hole of pumpkin lattes, cheesecakes and gnocchi, and with Thanksgiving dessert preparations on the brain, the Cooking Channel editorial and culinary teams began debating one very serious and simple question: Which pumpkin, or other kind of squash, makes the best pumpkin pie?

To find this important answer, we decided to set up a near-scientific experiment. We roasted various squash varieties, pureed their innards and baked them into the same pie recipe, comparing resulting pies for color, texture and flavor. We incorporated canned pumpkin and sweet potatoes into the test as experimental controls, since we generally knew what flavor and texture to expect from both. We tasted all of the purees as well as the final pies, focusing on the filling (since the pre-approved crust was the same for each).

To orient you in this taste test, we'll tell you how the varieties of pumpkins and winter squash are related (pumpkins are a kind of winter squash — we'll refer to them interchangeably in this test). There are three major families within that group:

Cucurbita pepo, which includes:
· jack-o’-lantern pumpkins
· acorn squash
· sugar pumpkins
Cucurbita moschata, which includes:
· butternut squash
· most canned pumpkins
· cheese pumpkins
Cucurbita maxima, which includes:
· kabocha squash
· hubbard squash
· kuri squash

Before we reveal the tasting results, it should be noted that every single squash we tasted made an excellent pie. If you have a winter squash lying around, and you feel like roasting it for pie, you won’t be making a mistake. And if you have only canned pumpkin and want to make a pie, that's a totally valid (and worthwhile) shortcut. But if you’re going to actively seek out a pumpkin to make your own puree, we definitely had some clear winners.

As purees, their texture difference was pretty clear: The maxima family was creamy and rich, with a bright, tart vegetal quality. The moschatas (cheese and canned) were slightly less creamy, with a fresh sweetness. The pepos (acorn and sugar) were quite thin, with a bitter finish.

As pies, they shook out similarly: The maximas ran away with the victory (the red kuri squash edged out kabocha with a nose). They were ultra-creamy and complex, with deep, vibrant colors.

Moschatas were next-best: Both cheese and canned were still creamy but not highly so, and not quite as complexly flavored as the maximas. Canned does deserve special mention for requiring the least work and still being so excellent.

The pepos seemed thin on pumpkin flavor — the pies were still tasty, but more because of the pie spices than the pumpkins themselves. If you’re going to make pie from a pepo, we recommend putting the puree in a colander and weighing it down with a plate for half an hour to get some of the water out. This will help concentrate the flavor and make the pie taste a little more pumpkin-y.

Click here to view the beautiful results of the taste test (we photographed each pie from overhead and by the slice, from an up-close-and-personal profile perspective), and read more tasting notes and preparation tips.

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