Pumpkins are a peculiar produce in that they vary so greatly in size, from under a pound to over two thousand pounds. The 2013 world record is 2,009 pounds for a pumpkin grown in Massachusetts. That particular pumpkin holds the record, as of 2013, for the largest fruit (yes, it's technically a fruit) ever grown.
Native to North America and a staple food for Americans Indians the name pumpkin comes from the Greek word pepon, or "large melon." And while the pumpkin's claim to fame is the Jack-o-Lantern, historically it was hollowed-out turnips, gourds and beets with lumps of coal burning inside that were used to welcome deceased loved ones and protect against evil spirits. American immigrants found that the pumpkin was well-suited for this use, and so it took over that Halloween role.
Today, the top pumpkin-growing states are Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Texas, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Most of the pumpkins grown for processing (pumpkin purée) hail from Illinois.
Pumpkins are an excellent source of vitamin A and a good source of vitamin C. The vibrant orange flesh of the pumpkin is high in the antioxidant beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. A one-cup serving of pumpkin contains just 49 calories of fiber-rich deliciousness.
Be sure to include the seeds in your diet, too. They're rich in phytosterols and the amino acid tryptophan. They also provide protein, magnesium, potassium and zinc.
The varieties of pumpkins—many with playful names—are seemingly endless. Smaller varieties, typically from two to five pounds, include Baby Bear, Baby Pam, Small Sugar (a standard pie pumpkin), Spooktacular and Winter Luxury (also a good cooking pumpkin). Varieties that grow between 8 and 15 pounds include Autumn Gold, Bushkin, Frosty, Funny Face, Harvest Moon, Spirit and Jack-o-Lantern.
Aspen, Big Autumn (a yellow pumpkin), Big Tom, Connecticut Field, Ghost Rider (dark orange), Happy Jack, Howden Field (a popular commercial variety), Jumpin' Jack and Pankow's Field (which grows especially large stems) are larger varieties, commonly between 15 and 25 pounds. The Rouge Vif d'Estampes is also called a "Cinderella" pumpkin; it's red-orange and flattened, with deep groves.
Really jumbo varieties (50 pounds and up) include Atlantic Giant, Big Max, Big Moon, Mammoth Gold and Prizewinner.
White pumpkins appropriately sport names like Casper, Lumina and Snowball. Miniature pumpkins include Jack-Be-Little, Munchkin and Baby Boo.
Holiday pies are considered the pièce de résistance when it comes to cooking with pumpkin (try this delicious classic Pumpkin Pie). The largest pumpkin pie made to date was 20 feet in diameter and over 3,699 pounds (it took a special oven and hours of baking). The monster pie appeared at the 2010 Pumpkinfest in New Bremen, Ohio.
For other pumpkin desserts, be sure to consider custards, cookies, bars and cakes—especially cheesecake. You really can have your cake and eat it, too, with this Pumpkin Cheesecake recipe, in which Neufchatel cheese and Greek yogurt combine with rich (but very low-fat) pumpkin. And if you're creating a menu calling for an elegant yet easy-to-make dessert, consider this Sugar Pie Pumpkin Crème Brulée. Roast the pumpkin a day or two ahead of time, if you like, and stir together and bake the final, impressive dessert just before serving.
For a no-bake treat, combine toasted almonds, melted chocolate, pumpkin and coffee liqueur to create Chocolate Pumpkin Truffles. Packaged thoughtfully, these would make great gifts. They'd also be a nice addition to a dessert or cheese tray.
Keep in mind that while pumpkin recipes handed down may rely on white and brown sugars, other sweeteners (like maple syrup and honey) perform beautifully in pumpkin desserts of all kinds.
Creamy pumpkin purée is a natural in breads, biscuits and muffins, contributing not only flavor and nutrition but color, too. It's easily incorporated into quick breads, like this redolent-with-spices Pumpkin Gingerbread. Warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger enhance pumpkin, especially in baked goods. Walnuts and hazelnuts are good partners, too, as are other autumn fruits, like apples and pears.
Of course pumpkin (which can often be exchanged with other winter squash) makes terrific savory dishes as well. Try it as a filling for ravioli and as an addition to grain or vegetable casseroles, partnered with celery, onion and corn. Pumpkin makes a creamy base for soups or stews, like this Spicy Pumpkin Soup, seasoned with jalapeno, cumin and garlic and topped with a dollop of chipotle sour cream. Pumpkin is perfect in potpies, pancakes and dumplings. It's even made a (very popular) name for itself in coffee beverages and beers.
You can easily bake your own pumpkin for purée, but be sure to use pie pumpkins rather than jack-o-lantern pumpkins, which are grown for their impressive size but lack flavor. You can cook enough for a particular recipe or stock up the freezer or pantry with purée for year-round enjoyment. And don't forget to roast the seeds for topping salads or stirring into nut mixes. Learn about cooking pumpkins in our articles on Delightful Winter Squash and Sweet, Sweet Squash.
Pumpkin seeds add delicious flavor and texture to green salads. Also consider adding them to granola and snack mixes, as well as stir-fries.
Pumpkins are traditionally available in the autumn months. Choose those with an inch or two of stem remaining; otherwise the pumpkin may decay at the spot where the stem was broken off. Avoid fruits with soft spots and blemishes. The pumpkin should be heavy for its size, but don't worry about the shape. Each pound of pumpkin will produce about one cup of pumpkin purée.
Stored in a cool, dark place, pumpkins will last for a couple of months.