Having eaten eight or nine varieties of pumpkins last fall and this winter, I’ve learned that most pumpkins taste just about the same. Although I was warned that the Halloween pumpkins wouldn’t be as good as the pie pumpkins, for the most part there wasn’t any serious difference in flavor or texture. If you’re looking for pumpkins for pie, look for mature fruit. That’s the real key to this. In the Halloween variety, look for one that has a dark brown color, not bright orange. If it’s dark brown It stayed on the vine longer and it ripened.
Out of this fairly uniform herd of pumpkins, a few do stand out. Pumpkins are like winter squash, and need to stay on the vine as long as possible to develop full flavor, sweetness and nutritional value. In today’s farming world, few of them do. When you buy one of these traditional winter vegetables in a grocery, you’re buying what the farmer thought was his best chance at making a profit. Pick it, ship it, get the money. The best pumpkins and squash require more time and more risk.
If you are lucky enough to have a good selection of pumpkins to sort through, you can beat the game sometimes. Like some winter squash, a few pumpkins get sweeter in storage. I know of two varieties that are a good bet for this, although one year of experimenting won’t prove it. I know of one other that has an excellent reputation, but it didn’t pan out for me this time. If you are growing your own pumpkins this coming year and want a variety that is good for the table as well as for sugar-enhanced pie, these are your best bets:
Sugar Pie — You can get seed for this under so many names that it’s pointless to list them all. Look for New England Pie Pumpkin or Amish Pie Pumpkin or Sugar Pie Pumpkin. The fruit is orange when nearly ripe, dark brown when fully ripe, and the rind is so tough when mature that you might need a saw to open one up. This variety stores well and might last six months off the vine if you care for it properly. If the plant was healthy and the fruit had time to mature, it’s one of the sweetest and best.
Maori — I’ve seen names like Kumi Kumi and Kamo Kamo for this one, but the pumpkin is the same, an heirloom variety from New Zealand. It seems like a good bet for North America, since New Zealand is anything but tropical. For flavor and sweetness, it’s the equal of Sugar Pie, and the fruits typically grow larger than the favorite New England type. I bought several of these and the early meals were good but not sweet. After two months of storage, holy crap, the Maori pumpkin was the best ever. Was it a fluke? I’m not sure, but it seems like a good bet for storage just to find out. I got mine from Frey Farms and it’s so good I’ve saved the seed and will try it myself, don’t even care if it crossed with something. It’s damn good.
Red Kiri or Red Kuri — Some people call this the chestnut pumpkin because it has a reputation for being as sweet as a chestnut. I bought three and have eaten two and although they were good I did not see any similarity to chestnut and did not find them sweet. I have one left and I’ll try it soon, but I think this might be a problem with early harvest and not with storage. If you don’t leave pumpkins on the vines to mature, and you don’t have healthy vines, you aren’t going to get great pumpkins. I trust that other people have eaten Red Kiri that are as good as chestnuts, but I haven’t found one yet. This seems like a good variety to try in the home garden.
Sweet Dumpling — Although this is sold as a winter squash, it’s clearly a pumpkin type and similar to the Maori pumpkin I found so excellent this year. Sweet Dumpling does improve in sweetness with prolonged storage. If you want to brave the bugs and the fungi and the viruses and try for your own good pumpkins, Sweet Dumpling gives you a chance for that. The problem with any of these pumpkins is that it’s a tricky crop to grow and lots of things can go wrong.