Pumpkins are always a successful crop in my garden, so I grow a couple of varieties every season. I love the drama staged by heavy, culinary-quality pumpkins in late summer as the exuberant vines grow into a hip-high sea of foliage, and it is also quite nice to have plenty of nutritious pumpkin on hand for cooking year round. But most pumpkins are not great keepers, and even in a cool basement they often start to soften after two to three months in storage. Fortunately, you can preserve pumpkin several different ways, which makes a fun food project for a chilly early winter day.
Cutting and Cooking Pumpkin
The first step is to wash down the pumpkin and cut it into pieces small enough to fit in your oven. Most pumpkins that weigh less than 10 pounds can simply be cut in half, but with larger ones it is best to cut them into several pieces.
The hardness of the rind varies with varieties, and some (such as the ‘Jarrahdale’ pumpkin shown at the top of the page) are best approached by tapping a stout knife or cleaver into the pumpkin with a hammer. Once the pumpkin is cut into two or more pieces, I use a grapefruit spoon or small knife to remove most of the seed cavity, which I set aside in a bucket. Don’t worry about getting all the inner strings, which will come away easily after the pumpkin is cooked.
Rinse off the pumpkin pieces and place them cut side down in a large baking pan with sides tall enough to catch juices that are released as the pumpkin cooks. Bake in a 325°F (165°C) degree oven for an hour. When the pumpkin is done, your house will smell like pumpkin, some sections of the pumpkin skin will show signs of collapse, and there will be noticeable juice in the bottom of the pan. Allow to cool. To speed cooling, pour off the liquid that accumulates in the pan.
Some pumpkins are drippier than others, and even varieties with very fine, full-flavored flesh can give off substantial amounts of water when they cook. If the cooked flesh is very wet when you scrape it from the rind, place it in a strainer for 20 minutes or so to drip out more of the juice.
With that done, you have three great options for preserving your pumpkin harvest: drying the seeds, freezing the flesh, and making pumpkin jerky.
1. Drying Pumpkin Seeds
The seeds of all pumpkins have edible nuts inside, which can be fed to wild birds (or chickens) if you don’t care to eat them yourself. The first step in drying pumpkin seeds is to work through the slimy seeds by hand to remove the larger pieces of pumpkin flesh. Cover with lukewarm water and swish to loosen more flesh. Use a strainer to lift the floating seeds into a clean bowl. Wash with more clean water, then rinse through a colander. Don’t worry if there are still a few tiny pieces of orange flesh attached to the seeds. I find that after washing them, drying pumpkin seeds on a clean cotton towel results in much of the dried flesh sticking to the towel when the seeds are moved to a dry plate a few hours later. At normal indoor temperatures, pumpkin seeds are dry enough to store after about a week. Nicely dried pumpkin seeds break rather than bend when folded in half.
2. Freezing Pumpkin
Back to our cooked pumpkin. Most recipes call for pumpkin puree, which is easily stored in the freezer. You can use a food processor to turn cooked pumpkin into puree, but I find that an immersion blender works great for this task, and it is much easier to clean. Most people freeze pumpkin puree in plastic freezer bags, in recipe-size portions, which stack neatly if you freeze them on a flat pan. Use a silicone muffin pan or ice cube tray to freeze pumpkin puree in smaller amounts.
3. Dehydrating Pumpkin
Pumpkin butter is another storage option, but after much dabbling in the best ways to preserve pumpkin, I have found that dehydrating pumpkin puree into pumpkin “jerky” or fruit leather is a great way to go. You season pumpkin puree as if you were making a pie, using a little brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves and salt. Use a light hand, because the flavors will become concentrated as the jerky dries. Spread on silicone sheets in a food dehydrator, and dry at a very warm temperature (135°F/57°C) for several hours. The pieces will lift off easily when dry. Dehydrated pumpkin leather looks like jerky when you tear it into pieces, or you can cut it into strips and roll them up like fruit rolls. Either way, expect it to taste like a chewy version of pumpkin pie.