Real Food Encyclopedia | Pumpkin

The word “pumpkin” likely conjures jack-o’-lanterns and autumnal hayrides. While the big orange Halloween fixtures are usually cultivars of Cucurbita pepo or Cucurbita maxima, there are several varieties in multiple Cucurbita species that are also referred to as “pumpkin,” and the definition varies around the world.

There are no firm botanical rules on what makes a pumpkin different from a squash. All have similar growing habits, trailing on long vines with large yellow to yellow-orange flowers. The most common pumpkins taste similar to one another and to other winter squash — so much so that many “pumpkin” products, like pie filling, are made with varieties people in the U.S. would call squash, not pumpkin. Generally speaking, however, pumpkin refers to a thicker-skinned, rounded squash, often with orange flesh. Botanically, pumpkins are technically a fruit, not a vegetable.

<<View all Real Food Encyclopedia entries

Fun facts about pumpkins:

  • Pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, can be roasted and eaten as a snack, but are also pressed for oil or used as ingredients in salsas, moles and nut butters.
  • The majority of commercially produced pumpkin puree in the U.S. comes from the Dickinson pumpkin, which resembles (and is closely related to) a large, oblong butternut squash.
  • Eighty-five percent of all canned pumpkin comes from the vicinity of Peoria, Illinois.

What to look for when buying pumpkins

There are three main edible pumpkin species in the Cucurbita genus:

  • C. pepo: Also includes acorn squash and many ornamental gourds.
  • C. moschata: includes the butternut squash and its rounder, more pumpkin-looking relatives, like the Long Island cheese pumpkin. 
  • C. maxima: includes the kabocha squash (also called the Japanese pumpkin) as well as beautiful heirloom pumpkin varieties like the Queensland blue.  

If you plan to cook with your pumpkin, choose one that feels heavy for its weight, which indicates denser flesh. The skin should be firm, without mushy or black spots. Depending on the variety, pumpkin skin can be very hard and may include natural “warts,” though these hard bumps will not impact the shelf life of the fruit.

Pumpkins vary tremendously in size and shape. For carving and decoration, choose one that has firm flesh and no mushy spots. If the skin seems wrinkled, wet or slimy, choose another pumpkin. 

Sustainability of pumpkins

On many farms, pumpkins and other squash, gourds and melons are grown with a plastic cover over the soil to minimize weeds, warm the earth and preserve moisture. This may help reduce chemical usage, but has its own environmental drawbacks, including the potential to increase plastic pollution. 

Food waste is a major issue with pumpkins, since many end up in the landfill after Halloween. While Halloween pumpkins are certainly edible, they aren’t as tasty as other varieties. However, many other kinds of pumpkins can be carved or decorated. Consider buying a variety you’re excited to eat and painting it with non-toxic, washable paint so you can simply peel the skin and eat it after the holiday.

If you decide to carve a traditional pumpkin, saving and roasting the seeds can make a delicious snack, and composting the flesh will help keep it out of the landfill. Some local gardens, small farms or municipalities will host “pumpkin smashes” to help make composting Halloween pumpkins more fun.


Pumpkins can be a chemically intensive crop to produce. Fast-growing plants need a lot of nutrients, so many growers use synthetic fertilizers. A number of pests and diseases may also lead them to use synthetic pesticides or fungicides. 

Though its thick skin makes it less likely for pesticide residues to end up in your food, winter squash ranks 14th of the 46 produce varieties tested in the Environmental Working Group’s 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Especially given the high environmental cost of excess chemical use, it’s still a good idea to look for organic pumpkins. 


Pumpkins and squashes originated in North and Central America, where Indigenous people domesticated them as early as 10,000 years ago. In the U.S., Illinois is by far the top pumpkin growing state — followed by Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California and Virginia.


In most parts of the country, pumpkins are in season starting in the early fall, and if properly cured can be stored for months.

Eating pumpkins


Most pumpkins can be stored for a long time in cool, dry conditions — up to a month or longer. For long-term storage of pumpkins and winter squash, you can carefully buff whole squashes with vegetable oil. Freezing them in chunks is another good option for long-term storage. 


Many Americans think of pumpkins primarily as an ingredient in desserts like the ubiquitous pumpkin pie, traditionally made by pureeing the flesh and mixing with eggs, cream and what has now become known as “pumpkin pie spice” (usually a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and sometimes allspice). Pumpkin desserts — along with “pumpkin spice” sweets that don’t contain actual pumpkin — are everywhere today in the form of muffins, cakes, breads and drinks. But that’s not all pumpkin can do.

Pumpkin remains central to the cuisine of Indigenous people across the Americas, appearing in modernized traditional recipes from Indigenous chefs. Latin American cuisine (Mexican cuisine in particular) makes abundant use of it, both in savory dishes and in sweet preparations like dulce de calbaza, which is typically eaten around the Day of the Dead.  

After colonization, pumpkins spread across the world. Northern Italians are fond of pumpkin (zucca, in Italian) pureed and stuffed inside tortellini, ravioli and other filled pastas. Cooked pumpkin is popular in Morocco and Spain. Pumpkin is also a common ingredient in many Asian cuisines, in dishes both sweet and savory. 

Pumpkin seeds are delicious and nutritious — try roasting your own pepitas or turning them into a delightful brittle. Or drizzle pumpkin seed oil on desserts — it’s especially nice over vanilla ice cream — though with a light hand. (The oil is expensive and also quite strong.) 


Pumpkin can be made into a delicious jam, a traditional preparation in Spain, Portugal and much of Latin America. Depending on the recipe, pumpkin jam can keep for several weeks in the refrigerator. Pumpkin and winter squash can also be frozen, dehydrated or canned.


While the exact nutritional content of pumpkin depends on the variety, orange-fleshed pumpkins are rich in Vitamin A, with one cup of cooked pumpkin supplying 245 percent of your daily needs. It is also high in dietary fiber, Vitamin C and potassium and has decent amounts of iron, calcium and protein.

The seeds are high in iron, manganese, Vitamin K and protein. They’re also a great vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are critical to a healthy circulatory system.

Top photo by swambolt/Adobe Stock.