Pumpkin lovers, brace yourselves. Raw pumpkin is mostly water — up to 90%! — so it really doesn’t have much flavor. In fact, the flavor that we usually think of as “pumpkin” is actually pumpkin pie spice, a blend of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. You might think you could overcome the lack of flavor by adding more pumpkin purée to your recipe, but you’d be mistaken: By the time you’ve added enough purée to taste it, your baked good would have a soggy texture on account of all that moisture.
Recently, our Test Kitchen was determined to figure out how to add pumpkin purée without introducing too much water. Test Kitchen Manager Sarah Jampel started by thinking about all the ways bakers try to concentrate pumpkin’s flavor. Some people try to drain off the water by straining it overnight, while others try to remove moisture by patting it with paper towels. But Sarah wanted to do something more impactful (and efficient).
Sarah returned to the basic principle that the fastest way to get rid of water is to force it to evaporate via heat. In her Apple Butter Apple Galette, she turned applesauce into a thick, flavorful apple butter by cooking it on the stovetop. So, our Test Kitchen wondered, could the same technique be applied to pumpkin purée, allowing a relatively large amount to be crammed into baked goods without adversely affecting their texture?
How it works
The process is simple. By slowly cooking pumpkin purée on the stovetop (10 to 15 minutes, depending on the recipe), the water is forced to evaporate off, resulting in an ingredient that's thicker and more concentrated. The amount of water that gets cooked off is drastic — Sarah says the purée can be reduced by half (both in weight and volume).
And without all that water in the way, the natural sugar in the pumpkin has the opportunity to caramelize and brown, resulting in a more complex flavor.
For even more flavor, you can add spices (like the celebrated pumpkin pie spice!) to the purée during the cooking step. Heating spices “blooms” them, releasing their flavorful, fragrant oils.
Try cooking down your pumpkin in these recipes
Fudgy-Chewy Pumpkin Cookies: Most pumpkin cookies are cakey, with a texture almost like muffin tops, in part due to the excess moisture in pumpkin purée. Before developing a new recipe for pumpkin cookies, Sarah tested a handful of the most popular recipes on the internet and found that even if they were chewy, they didn’t taste very much like pumpkin because of how little purée was in the dough.
So Sarah reduced the purée on the stove to make pumpkin cookies that were dense, chewy, fudgy, and had big pumpkin flavor. In this recipe for Fudgy-Chewy Pumpkin Cookies, the moisture is cooked off of both the pumpkin purée and the butter used in the recipe; pumpkin pie spice is also incorporated into the dough, bringing even more warm, cozy flavor.
The Most Pumpkin Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread: Pumpkin bread is another baked good that commonly lacks pumpkin flavor. Most recipes call for less than 1 cup of purée to avoid a gummy texture, but since that’s less than a full can of storebought purée, you’re left with an inconvenient amount of leftover purée — and your bread only has faint pumpkin flavor. Sarah wanted to use an entire can of pumpkin to avoid leftovers while also ensuring the bread actually tasted pumpkiny, so she turned to the reduced pumpkin technique once again.
During the cooking process, the water evaporates, the sugar in the pumpkin starts to caramelize, and the spices bloom. The final product has a beautifully tender crumb, as well as bold pumpkin flavor.
Using reduced pumpkin in any recipe
When I asked Sarah if you could use this reduced purée technique in any pumpkin recipe, she said, “I wouldn’t do it in any recipe without making other changes. You’re losing so much moisture; you need to add it back in if you want a similar texture in your baked goods.”
If you’d like to experiment, you can try reducing pumpkin and adding moisture back into your recipe in the form of milk, water, or another flavorful liquid like juice or liquor, but be aware that your results will likely vary. Sarah recommends sticking to recipes that were developed to use this technique if you want to be sure you end up with the maximum pumpkin flavor and the best texture.
Looking for more ways to amplify the flavors in your baked goods? Check out our video for Ultimate Brown Butter Rice Krispies Treats, which uses a few tricks like browning the butter and toasting the milk powder for layers of flavor.
Cover photo by Rick Holbrook; food styling by Kaitlin Wayne.