October 10, 2012

Cooking a Pumpkin Four Ways

Over the weekend, my in-laws and my nephew came by for a visit. They live quite a ways from us here in DC, so I planned a whole bunch of things for us to do. One of those things included going to the pumpkin patch and doing a bit of pumpkin picking.

Our pumpkin haul.
We went over to a local place and with the price of the hayride, we each got a free pie-sized pumpkin. That means in addition to the pumpkins we bought for carving, we ended up with 5 small pumpkins for pureeing. I weighed them all out and I had 22 pounds of pumpkin!

Growing up, my dad and I made our own pumpkin puree many times, by baking it in the oven. When I started looking around for a time and temp, though, I discovered there are three other ways to cook pumpkin that I never considered- steaming, slow cooking, and microwaving. Since I had more pumpkin than I could fit in my oven, I decided to try out all four ways and see which I preferred.

You can use these methods to cook any pumpkins or squash- just keep in mind that the large pumpkins for carving jack-o-lanterns don't have a very good taste. Stick to pumpkins that are small, under about 6lbs. They're also easier to cut up and cook because they're smaller.

Beginning steps:
   Regardless of method, wash pumpkins off to remove the dirt. I cut off all the stems to make them fit better into their various cooking containers. I used my pumpkin carving knife to do it, just like you would on a jack-o-lantern because it's fast and easy. Then, cut the whole pumpkin in half. Use a serrated knife and cut with a sawing motion. Scoop out the seeds and pulp. If you want to save the seeds, set all the pulp aside in a bowl for later.
   Cut the pumpkin into big chunks. For the crock pot method, you may need a few smaller chunks in order for them to fit. Fewer pieces are better, because later it will be easier to scoop the cooked pumpkin off the rind.


   Turn your oven on to 325 degrees. Place your pumpkin pieces into a roaster pan with rinds up and add about 1/2 an inch of water to the pan. Put into the oven and bake for an hour. Use a fork to check the tenderness of the flesh. If not quite done, bake for another 15 minutes.

    Put 2-3 inches of water into a pot, put a steamer basket over top, and place your chunks into a steamer basket. Cover the pumpkin with a lid and turn the burner on high. Steam for 20-30 minutes, checking for doneness.

   Place pieces into a microwave safe container. Put an inch of water in the bottom. Cover with a lid and cook for 20 minutes. Check doneness with a fork. If not done cook for 3 minutes and check again. Depending on the power of your microwave, you may need to repeat the 3 minute cooking an additional 2-3 times.

This was my least preferred method. My first "microwave safe" container warped under the weight of the pumpkin. After I switched to a better container and finished the cooking, the pieces were not evenly cooked throughout. This is too fussy of a method for me.

   Place your pieces into the crock. Make sure the lid will still close all the way- otherwise it won't cook. Add 1-1 1/2 cups water, depending on the size of your slow cooker. You want to have about 3 inches of water in the bottom. Cook for 6 hours on low or 4 hours on high.

This method was my favorite. The pumpkin was cooked evenly and without much fuss. It didn't require the babysitting of the microwave, didn't heat my house up like the oven, and fit a lot more pumpkin in one batch than steaming.

Finishing Steps:
   After checking for doneness (if the rind practically falls off, your pumpkin is ready). Let the chunks cool a bit until they're safe to handle. Scoop the pumpkin off the rind with a spoon and discard the rind. Then you'll want to puree the pumpkin. I tried it in my blender, but it didn't do a very good job. So I used my hand mixer instead, and it worked much better although it was less smooth.

Homemade pumpkin is wetter than what you get in a can from the store. So, for best results when using in recipes, you will want to strain off some of the excess water from your puree. This excess can change the results from your recipes, so keep that in mind if you skip this step. Just strain it for an hour or two over some cheesecloth and discard the liquid.

Now you can measure it out and use it in your favorite recipes. If you have a pile of pumpkins like me, though, you'll have a lot of puree, and you're going to want to save a lot of it for later. From the 22 pounds of pumpkin I had, I ended up with 14 cups of puree. I doubt I'll be able to use that all up in a week, so I have to save some for later.

Unfortunately, pumpkin is not safe for home canning. But, there's nothing stopping you from putting that pumpkin puree into some lovely mason jars and sticking them into the freezer. The pint jars are an excellent size for this, because they hold the same amount as the 15oz can that many recipes call for. Conversely, you can just measure out two cups, put them into freezer bags, flatten them out, and freeze for easy storage.
My total haul, minus the jar I already used.
Any pumpkin you plan to use within a 4-5 days can go into the fridge. If you're going to wait any longer, you should freeze it. To thaw it later, take it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge overnight.

Now what on earth am I going to do with 14 cups of pumpkin puree? I have a lot of recipes in mind, so check back over the next couple weeks for them.

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