October is here, the colors are changing and the weather is cooling. Yes, it's pumpkin time! As the number of varieties of pumpkin seems to have grown tremendously in recent years, it can be hard to know just which type of pumpkin to choose for which application.
Let the following get you grounded in some fundamentals of these grown-on-the-ground wonders.

What Is a Pumpkin?

A pumpkin is just one type of fruit that belongs to the larger family known as Cucurbitaceae. The five most commonly known varieties in this family are:
  • Curcurbita - all varieties of pumpkin, summer and winter squash and most edible gourds fall into this category.
  • Lagenaria - this is comprised of mostly inedible gourds.
  • Cucumis - cucumbers belong to this category.
  • Citrulius - the summer favorite, watermelon, belongs to this family.
  • Luffa - yes, it's true: that scrubby thing hanging in your shower actually comes from a plant often eaten in China and Vietnam.
All pumpkins may be squash but they are far from all the same. Each variety is unique unto itself. What type of pumpkin you may choose to carve should not be the same type that you make the star of your favorite dish.
When selecting a pumpkin, youíll always want to search for consistent color and an overall solid bottom and shell that does not flex when you press into it. A green stem is always a good sign as it indicates recent picking and therefore good freshness.
Want to learn what pumpkins are best for different applications? Read on!

Let the Carving Contest Begin

The jack-o-lantern is the quintessential Halloween decoration. When looking for a good pumpkin to carve, you'll find the best success with 'Aladdin', 'Charisma', 'Rock Star' and 'Big Rock' varieties. Sometimes you will see these at stores labeled simply ìcarving pumpkins.

When It's Dessert Time

Believe it or not, the best pumpkin for pies is not even a pumpkin! That's right: the easily found butternut squash comes out the winner in bake-off after bake-off followed closely by its cousin the acorn squash.
For the purists who simply canít bear the thought of making a pumpkin pie without actual pumpkin, the following varieties are sure to yield great results:
  • 'Baby Pam', also referred to as sugar pumpkins, look similar to standard carving pumpkins but their flesh has finer grains and a sweeter taste. They are also slightly drier which creates the stable consistency needed for pies.
  • The 'Cinderella', called Rouge vif d'Etampes in its native France, is an ideal pie pumpkin and has become quite popular in the U.S. thanks to its sweet taste and appearance.
  • Another French pumpkin great for pies also from the land of "Once Upon a Time" is called the 'Fairytale' or the Musque De Provence.
  • 'Autumn Gold' pumpkins have a beautiful gold exterior and sweet, smooth flesh that produces excellent pies as well as pumpkin purees usable for other baked goods.
  • Somewhat surprising is the Lumina. White on the outside, its lovely and flavorful flesh bakes into sweet and tasty pies.
Other varieties suitable for pies include 'Ghost Rider', 'Red Kuri' (aka Orange Hokkaido) and Pic-a-Pie. The externally deep blue-green 'Marina Di Chioggia' hails from Italy and bakes into a sweet and consistent pie.

Soup's On!

Any pumpkin that you would use for pies can be used for other baking purposes as well as soups. However, I have two personal favorites that yield the best results - and the biggest raves - time and time again.
My number one go-to for pumpkin soup is the buttercup pumpkin, also called Kabocha in Japan. Note that this is not the same as butternut squash. The buttercup pumpkin is green with silver lines running through it on the outside. It has a beautiful sweet yet nutty flavor and a fibrous consistency closer to a sweet potato than to most pumpkins. Together, these features create a velvety finish to any soup.
If I am using a sweeter pie pumpkin when making a soup, I find that using a combination of the pumpkin and sweet potato creates the best texture and flavor. White sweet potatoes will give your soup a more subtle flavor while the yam variety will have a bolder taste to it. I also always use honey to balance the sweetness and consistency when mixing these two squashes.
If you want to wow dinner guests with your presentation skills, serve your pumpkin soup in individual-sized pumpkin tureens made from hollowed-out 'Baby Bear' pumpkins.

Tips for Cooking with Pumpkin

Ok, so you've bought your ideal pumpkin variety and youíre ready to start cooking or baking and you finally realize that somehow you have to get the flesh out of that hard shell. Just how do you do that?
Baking or roasting your pumpkin lets it soften so that you can easily cut into your pumpkin and successfully harvest the flesh. This method can also impart a hint of roasted flavor and is well suited to baking applications.
When making soups, I prefer to cut my pumpkin in its raw form into small cubes and then saute it in some butter and/or olive oil and onions. If I am using a pumpkin and sweet potato mix, I add the sweet potato cubes in here as well. This creates the base layer of flavors to my soup. From this point, I use my hand blender to puree the pumpkin directly in the same pan to minimize cleanup.

Enjoy!

Certainly the pumpkin varieties mentioned above are not the only ones suitable for eating. They are, however, some of the most easily found and ones that I have personally tried and found to be successful for baking and cooking. Let this be the year you try a new variety and maybe even an all-new recipe and let pumpkin be the highlight of your next meal!