Are pie pumpkins really pumpkins destined for pies?

This is the season for pumpkin pie. Though I need to put “pumpkin” in quotation marks.

The marketing folks suggest that you bake with a pie pumpkin, a relatively small meaty variety. Large pumpkins, with a thin shell and a grainy stringy flesh, are marketed as carving pumpkins.

But are pie pumpkins really pumpkins destined for pies? Libby’s, which accounts for 85% of the world’s canned pumpkins, thinks otherwise.

Libby’s pumpkin factory is in Morton, Ill. Not by coincidence Illinois is the nation’s dominant pumpkin-growing state.

Libby’s growers produce a proprietary variety exclusive to Libby’s called Dickinson. Turns out that the Dickinson variety that Libby’s is putting in its cans is actually a butternut squash.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration says that calling the Dickinson a pumpkin is legal, because, says the FDA, the distinction between a pumpkin and a butternut squash is “murky.”

Leaving aside the sketchy advertising, Libby’s has a point. I’ve baked pies and tarts with pie pumpkins and with squash, and I prefer the squash versions. I find squash more flavorful and less watery than pumpkin.

The supply of locally grown thick-skinned winter squash suitable as a pumpkin substitute in a pie has been relatively scarce thus far. A couple of growers have told me that they just didn’t get around to planting a lot of squash this year.

I recently made a “pumpkin” tart with a kabocha squash that I found in Chicago. The key to cooking a large winter squash is to microwave it whole for 5 minutes, let it cool, and hack it into small pieces.

Microwave the squash pieces in a large bowl with a small amount of water for around 10 minutes. Let cool and remove the soft pulp from the skin.

I made a “pumpkin” tart in a 9″ springform pan. Melt 9 tablespoons unsalted butter local butter. Use more butter to generously grease the bottom and sides of the pan.

Mix with the butter 1/4 cup sugar, a pinch of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon each almond and vanilla extracts. Add 1 1/3 cup unbleached pastry flour to form a soft cookie-like dough.

Transfer the dough to the pan, pressing the dough evenly into the bottom and sides. Bake the shell for 12 minutes at 375.

Remove the shell from the oven and sprinkle 1/4 cup of finely ground almonds on it. In addition to imparting a nice flavor, the ground almonds keep the shell from getting soggy when the filling is added.

For the filling, mix 1 pound of mashed squash, 1/2 cup cream, 1 egg, 2 tablespoons honey, and 1/4 teaspoon each almond and vanilla extracts. Pour the filling into the shell and bake for 15 minutes. Place on a wire rack and remove from the pan when cool.

Ultimately, I prefer baking a “pumpkin” pie with squash instead of pumpkin, because pumpkins are more decorative. I say cook with squash and decorate with pumpkin.

MOON Co-op Grocery is Oxford’s consumer-owned full-service grocery featuring natural, local, organic, sustainable, and Earth-friendly products. MOON Co-op, located at 516 S. Locust St. in Oxford, is open to the public every day. Visit it online at

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