What’s Up With That Food: Canned Pumpkin

Paste uncovers the background of foods you've always wondered about

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The official season of Pumpkin Spice Latte (#PSL for those in the know) may be well underway, but just in time for Halloween, Thanksgiving and all fall holidays, we bring you the straight scoop behind canned pumpkin, an undervalued convenience food that’s rich in nutrients and free of preservatives. One company in the U.S. makes the majority of it in the United States and the rest—well, it isn’t necessarily always pumpkin, depending on the brand.

Type of food: Squash

Name: The name stems from the Greek word pepon (“large melon”), which morphed over time into the word pumpkin. In terms of what you’re most likely to find in a can, Cucurbita moschata is the species name, and that includes numerous cultivars of squash and pumpkin, including butternut squash, neck pumpkin and, most often, Dickinson squash.

Origins: In North America, squash such as pumpkin dates back to Native Americans; winter squash, more broadly, is one of the Three Sisters, along with maize and beans, that are typically planted together because of their complementary growing natures. Pumpkin pie takes its origins from colonists who would slice off the tops and remove the seeds, fill the insides with milk, honey and spices, and then roast them over fire. Add industrialization and bam, you’ve got a uniquely American solution for a beloved pie: canned pumpkin.

Why/how did we start eating it: Libby’s, which is the brand leader when it comes to canned pumpkin in the United States, plants about 5,000 acres of Dickinson squash in the region surrounding Morton, Illinois, which is not far from Peoria. Dickinson is prized for its creamy, vibrant orange flesh and looks more like meatier butternut squash with a slightly whitish cast to the skin; it bears little resemblance to the average field pumpkin of hayrides and jack-o-lanterns. Most of the pumpkins grown in the United States come from within 50 miles of Morton, which unsurprisingly calls itself the “pumpkin capital of the world” and has been holding a festival in celebration of that fact for the past 49 years.

Morton has a long history of pumpkin growing and its first vegetable processing plant opened in 1925. Libby’s acquired Morton’s in 1929 and Nestle bought Libby’s in 1972. It’s not clear exactly when canned pumpkin emerged. “In the early years, Libby’s canned vegetables. You can safely go back 75 years to 1940,” says Roz O’Hearn, corporate and brand affairs director for Nestle. Why 1940? Well, the famed pumpkin pie recipe has been on the can for that long. Any way you scoop it out, that’s a whole lotta pumpkins.

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How it’s used: Canned pumpkin goes into pies cookies, cupcakes, quick breads and so forth. But canned pumpkin has savory applications, and many of them shine in soups and chili, but any manner of pasta, whether lasagna, mac and cheese or tossed in with penne and other ingredients, is a foil for pumpkin, too. Personally? Once I open a can and have leftovers in the fridge, I use it whenever I can—a tablespoon or two in a smoothie, a dollop in my son’s oatmeal in the morning, a quarter cup in a waffle or pancake batter. It’s already cooked during the canning process, so you can use it straight up out of the can.

Libby’s is currently using the hashtag #pumpkincan to promote the myriad ways pumpkins can work in foods. For example, you can substitute ¼ cup pumpkin for an egg in many baked goods. You can swap out half the butter in a recipe for brownies and use pumpkin instead. And so on.

Every year, a parade of pre-Thanksgiving articles weighs in on the canned-vs.-homemade debate: which puree makes a better pumpkin pie? We at Paste are in the canned camp. While it’s de rigueur to forgo processed foods in favor of the homesteader approach, canned pumpkin has some distinct advantages over homemade pumpkin puree. One is predictability. Of the myriad varieties of winter squash, there’s a huge range in flavor, color, density, moisture, and sweetness. But if there’s a brand of canned pumpkin that you favor, it’s more or less the same from can to can, so you’re not flirting with a wan, waterlogged custard filling your pumpkin pie.

If you buy organic brands or other conventional brands that aren’t Libby’s, you may notice that the color is not always quite as vibrantly orange-y as theirs. And you may also notice that the ingredients say “squash” and not pumpkin—that’s because the USDA defines pumpkin fairly broadly. Ultimately, taste and personal preference is what matters, so stick with what you like best, whether it’s pumpkin you cooked and pureed yourself, or a can you simply opened up.

How it’s purchased: You can buy from Libby’s just as straight-up canned pumpkin, or canned pumpkin pie filling, which typically contains sugar syrup, salt, spices, water and natural flavors; all you need for pie is to add evaporated milk and eggs. Libby’s introduced canned organic pumpkin in 2014.

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Canned pumpkin is typically available all year long when the harvest years are robust and can sustain that kind of demand. But once fall hits, it really appears in the stores as a heavily promoted seasonal item. A few years ago there was a massive shortage, and we may be in for that this year, too. According to O’Hearn, there’s a bit of a shortage this year, due to heavy rainfall in June that negatively impacted the crop, reducing it by about half. “We believe we’ll have enough pumpkin to meet the needs presented by the fall holidays. We’re carefully managing our distribution across the country and to our retailers through allocation. However, we won’t have much ‘reserve’ stock—if any at all—to carry us into the new year,” says O’Hearn. So what this means is that once they ship the remainder of the harvest, which she says is “likely mid-November, they will have none to sell until 2016’s harvest. Libby’s just harvested it the last of its pumpkins last week.

If you should find yourself in need of pumpkin, may I suggest canned sweet potato or butternut squash? It works well in recipes calling for canned pumpkin.

Sensory experience: There’s no other way to describe it: Canned pumpkin smells squashy. In other words, starchy and vaguely sweet.

Nutrition and other benefits: Pumpkin contains fiber and lutein, and 70 percent of the Vitamin A in pumpkin comes from beta carotene.

Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.

Photos of Dickinson squash in the field and canned pumpkin courtesy of Libby’s

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