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Cooking with Pumpkins

Learn how to pick and cook pumpkins and other squash. Make pumpkin seeds for snacking, and find great pumpkin and squash recipes.

Although pumpkin pie is a long-time family favorite and a holiday tradition, pumpkins offer a much more diverse culinary experience than just pie. In fact, early American colonists, who were introduced to this new fruit (yes, it's a fruit, not a vegetable) by Native Americans, may have had it right from the beginning. They used it for soups, side dishes, and even beer. They also created a tasty dessert by slicing off the top of the pumpkin, scooping out the seeds, filling the pumpkin cavity with milk, spices and honey, and baking it in the hot ashes of a fire. It was the predecessor to today's holiday pie. And, what a great concept — no pans!

pumpkin soup

Shopping for Pumpkins and Squash

Pumpkins and other squash are harvested late in the growing season, which results in a tough outer rind. The hard rind means that squash are difficult to cut, but it also means they store well for long periods of time — throughout the winter and spring, in fact. In the midst of a long, gray winter, squash can bring a blast of yellow, gold or orange color to the table, along with great flavor and nutrition. So stock up!

In addition to pumpkin, there are many more fun and delicious members of the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) family. Here are three of the most popular:

Acorn: A popular selection because of its small size, which can provide two good-sized servings. Acorn is a good source of calcium, and its flavor is best when baked.

Banana: Ooh, if only we could buy paint in this color! The beautiful creamy golden interior makes a visually appealing dish, and it's a great-tasting squash, too, with a fruity, buttery flavor. This variety is big--often weighing around 12 pounds--so it is often sold in pre-cut chunks.

Buttercup: From the outside, it looks a bit like a little round watermelon, but the flavor is more reminiscent of honey, roasted chestnuts, and sweet potato. This variety is highly thought of by squash enthusiasts, although it does tend to be a little dry.

Some Shopping Tips

pumpkin•  When choosing pumpkins for cooking, look for "pie pumpkins" or "sweet pumpkins, which have sweeter flesh and less water than jack-o-lantern varieties.

•  Look for deep color and a smooth, dry rind on your pumpkin or squash.

•  Pick one that's heavy. Lighter weight may mean that it's dry inside.

•  To tell if the squash was picked prematurely, scrape the rind with your fingernail. It if nicks easily, choose another one.

•  Avoid pumpkins or squash with cracks, soft spots or bruises.

•  Get one with a stem. If the stem is missing, bacteria could have sneaked in, and nothing good can come from that!

Cooking with Pumpkins and Squash

To prepare pumpkin puree:
Many recipes call for pumpkin puree. You can open a can. But you can also make your own.
Cut the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds and pulp. Cut the flesh into pieces and peel.
Steam over boiling water, covered, until tender, about 50 minutes or bake on a baking sheet (cut side down) at 350 degrees for about an hour or microwave (cut side down) on high until tender, about 15 minutes.
Mash by hand or with a food mill, food processor, or blender.
One pound of raw pumpkin will yield about one cup of cooked pumpkin puree.

To prepare squash:
Cut the squash in half (if it's a long squash, cut vertically so that you end up with two long pieces) and scoop out the seeds and fiber. Squash is usually prepared by baking (place on a baking sheet cut side down with a little water), steaming or boiling, but it can also be microwaved or sautéed. Depending on the size and variety of squash, it usually takes about 45 minutes in the oven.

Roasting pumpkin seeds:
You might be inclined to pitch the seeds in the garbage with the other goop, but you'd be throwing away an excellent snack food. Pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) make a delicious snack that's full of flavor, crunch, and fiber. And you can put your own special spin on your pumpkin seeds with your choice of seasonings!

To prepare, separate the pumpkin seeds from the fiber and rinse. Let them dry. Coat the seeds with melted butter, spread them on a cookie sheet (or skip the butter and just coat the cookie sheet with oil), and sprinkle the seeds with salt. Roast in a 250 degree oven for about an hour, stirring every 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown. Keep an eye on them so they don't burn! This is the Plain Jane Recipe. It's good, but there are oh, so many other options out there!

Some ideas: Sprinkle with Frontier Herbs All-Purpose Seasonings such as Herby, Mama Garlic® or Pepperman® for a special zing. Or, top with one of Frontier's Popcorn Seasonings or Simply Organic Ranch Salad Dressing Mix. Eat by the handful as a snack, or use to top a salad or stir fry.

Pumpkin and Squash Recipes

If pumpkin and squash have never been part of your dining experience, you are in for a great epicurean surprise, especially if you experiment with a variety of herbs, spices and ingredients that can turn an ordinary cooked side dish into something extraordinary.

Whip up fancy Pumpkin Puffs -- perfectly flavored with pumpkin pie spice -- in less than half an hour. (Kids love these!) Or, when the weather turns colder, put on a kettle of Curried Pumpkin Soup. The addition of warming spices, such as ginger, cumin, coriander, cardamom, red pepper flakes and brown mustard seeds is not only appetizing, it's warming, too!

And squash? There are so many varieties available, you could probably try a new recipe every day this fall and winter and never have to repeat yourself. Many people just enjoy it plain, or baked with a little drizzle of butter, honey, brown sugar or maple syrup. Others fill the squash cavities with vegetables, meats or dressings for an easy yet savory meal.

For a side dish, try Butternut Squash Couscous, a healthful recipe that takes only 10 minutes preparation time and features squash, couscous, raisins and pumpkin seeds, wonderfully seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon, and chili powder. Or, if you're looking for a hearty main course, try Quinoa with Wild Mushrooms and Mixed Squashes, a tasty concoction of summer squash, quinoa, mushrooms, oregano, cumin, and garlic.

Make the most of the seasonal change by adding some new dishes that are a perfect match for the fall season — like those that feature pumpkin and squash!

More Fun with Pumpkins

Most of us enjoy a good pumpkin-carving get-together, and some of us even attend pumpkin festivals across the United States to celebrate the pumpkin harvest. But the Society of Physics Students at California State University in Chico, CA, have their own special way of entertaining themselves at the pumpkin's expense. They host an annual S.P.S. Pumpkin Drop to re-enact Galileo's "Law of Falling Bodies" experiment, which he tested from the top of the Tower of Pisa. Each Halloween, one of the students dons Galileo garb and explains Galileo's law to bystanders who choose to witness this spectacle, while fellow students put the law into action by dropping pumpkins from the top of the college's library. Hundreds of elementary school students typically attend.

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