Real Food Encyclopedia | Pumpkins

When you hear the word pumpkin, you probably think of jack-o-lanterns and large orange globes scattered in a pumpkin patch in fall. Confusingly, there are several varieties in multiple species that are referred to as “pumpkin,” all in the genus Cucurbita. Without any firm botanical rules on what makes a pumpkin different from a squash, the definition varies around the world. Generally speaking, however, pumpkin refers to a thicker-skinned, rounded squash, often with orange flesh. The three main edible species in the genus are C. pepo, which includes the classic orange pumpkins used for jack-o-lanterns; C. moschata, which includes the butternut squash and its rounder, more pumpkin-looking relatives like the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin; and C. maxima, which includes the kabocha squash (also called the Japanese pumpkin) as well as beautiful heirloom varieties like the Queensland Blue.  

The bottom line: all of these varieties are botanically very close to one another, and many taste similar to one another and to other winter squash (so much so that many “pumpkin” products are made with varieties Americans call squash). In addition, all have similar growing habits, trailing on long vines with large yellow to yellow-orange flowers. <<View All Real Food Encyclopedia Entries

<<View All Real Food Encyclopedia Entries

Fun Facts about Pumpkins:

  • The top pumpkin growing states are Illinois, California and New York. 90 percent of all pumpkins grown in the US are grown in the vicinity of Peoria, Illinois.
  • Botanically, pumpkins are technically a fruit, not a vegetable.
  • While orange-skinned sugar pumpkins can be used to make pumpkin pie, the majority of commercially produced pumpkin puree used in pies and other baked goods in the US comes from the Dickinson pumpkin, which resembles (and is closely related to) a large, oblong butternut squash.

What to Look for When Buying Pumpkins

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. 

If you plan to cook with your pumpkin, choose pumpkins that feel heavy for their weight, indicating 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, hard tan bumps that don’t impact the shelf life of the fruit.

Sustainability of Pumpkins

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 delicious varieties 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 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 can help keep it out of the landfill. Some municipalities, local gardens and farms have fun pumpkin smashes post-Halloween to help households make composting their holiday 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.  Growers might also struggle with a number of pests and diseases that cause them to use synthetic pesticides or fungicides. On many farms, pumpkins and other squash, gourds and melons are grown with a plastic cover over the soil to minimize weeds, warm soil, and preserve moisture. This might help reduce chemical usage, but has its own environmental drawbacks, including the potential to increase plastic pollution. 

Winter squash is fairly low on Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides on Produce, and pumpkin’s thick skin makes it less likely for pesticide residues to end up in your food. Given the high environmental cost of excess chemical use, it’s still a good idea to look for USDA organic pumpkins if you want to lower your foodprint. 


In most places, 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, a one-crust delicacy traditionally made by pureeing the flesh of pie-type pumpkins 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. The combination of sweet pumpkin flesh and pastry is one of the first new foods eaten by European colonizers in the Americas, though they are far from the first people to eat pumpkin. 

Pumpkins and squashes originated in North and Central America, where Indigenous people domesticated them as early as 10,000 years ago. They remain 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) also makes abundant use of pumpkin, both in savory dishes and in sweet preparations like dulce de calbaza, which is typically eaten around the Day of the Dead. Pumpkin seeds, called pepitas when they don’t have their fibrous shells, are integral in many recipes, like mole verde sauce.  

After spreading across the world, pumpkins became popular in savory dishes. Northern Italians are fond of stuffing tortellini, ravioli and other stuffed pasta with pumpkin purée (zucca in Italian). Pumpkin sautees are popular in Spain. Pumpkin is also a common ingredient in many Asian cuisines, both sweet and savory. 

Pumpkin seeds are delicious and nutritious, as is the oil that is pressed from them. Here are tips on roasting your own pepitas. Pumpkin seeds make delicious, healthy snacks and additions to mixtures like granola or trail mix. They also can be turned into a seriously delightful brittle. Try drizzling pumpkin seed oil (with a light hand: it’s expensive and also quite strong) on desserts, especially on vanilla ice cream. Top with salted pepitas for an elegant dessert.


Pumpkin can be made into a delicious jam, a traditional preparation in Spain, Portugal and much of Latin America. Depending on the preparation, 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. It has decent amounts of iron, calcium and protein. The seeds (aka pepitas) 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 and often come from seafood.