Pumpkins offer far more than a doorstop at Halloween. Fall is the prime time to find and use sugar or pie pumpkins along with some winter squash varieties for cooking, baking, and preserving. The best "pumpkin" flavor comes from pie or sugar pumpkin. Avoid large jack-o-lantern varieties, which are produced for size rather than flavor.
Think safety when preparing or preserving pumpkins or squash. Pumpkins and winter squash are low acid vegetables that require special attention when preparing and processing. Use excellent sanitation in handling the fresh pumpkin and squash flesh. Do not let cut or cooked pumpkin or squash sit at room temperature for more than two hours during preparation or prior to preserving.
Freezing is the easiest way to preserve pumpkin and winter squash and yields the best quality product. Select full-colored mature pumpkin and squash with fine texture (not stringy or dry). Simply wash the pumpkin/squash, remove the seeds, and cut it into cooking-sized pieces. Pumpkin/squash can be cooked in boiling water or pressure cooker, steamed, or baked in the oven with or without the rind removed. Cook, steam, or bake the pumpkin/squash until it is soft, then remove the pulp from the rind and mash for baking. Cubes can also be frozen if desired. Cool the pumpkin/squash as quickly as possible. Package the puree in freezer containers sized for future use (2 cups of puree equals one can of pumpkin) leaving headspace and freeze. Remember to thaw the pumpkin in the refrigerator when ready to use.
What if the pumpkin/squash is too hard to get a knife through? Smaller whole pumpkins/squash can be prepared in the oven or pressure cooker with no cutting required. Poke the vegetable with a knife to create steam vents. Bake or cook until tender; remove seeds and flesh, mash, or puree. Another option is to use the microwave to soften the vegetable. Begin by poking some steam holes in it. Microwave for a few minutes until there is some give when pushed on. Cool briefly, cut in half, remove seeds, and microwave, cut side down, until tender. Lastly, the oven is an option. Place the vegetable on a baking sheet and roast until there is some give when poked. Remove from the oven, cool briefly, cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and continue baking cut side down until tender. Once the vegetable is tender, cool briefly to handle safely. Scrap out the flesh, mash, or puree.
If you prefer to preserve pumpkin/squash for shelf storage, it must be canned in a pressure canner and only safely canned in cubes. Stop by the extension office and check out the sources that we have available.
Skip the grocery-store can of pumpkin puree and instead make your own. It will be perfect for all your fall baking and cooking needs. Heather Winn is the family and consumer sciences educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee County.