It might be the only time of year you head down this particular grocery store aisle, but here you are in November, facing down a daunting display of canned pumpkin in all its many incarnations. Sure, you said you’d make the pumpkin pie for this year’s Thanksgiving gathering, but you forgot about this part, where you have to decode the difference between “pumpkin pie mix” and “100% pure pumpkin,” then decide which brand to choose and — hoo boy, it’s enough to make you want to buy a supermarket pie, put it in your own pan and walk away quickly from the dessert table, claiming innocence.
Step away from that frozen pie aisle and don’t despair. We talked to the professionals — bakers and chefs who turn out thousands of pies all year long. They have very strong opinions about which sort of product and brand you should use for the best possible pumpkin pie, so let’s get to it.
Canned pure pumpkin or pumpkin pie mix? Experts were unanimous.
None of the experts we talked with recommended anything but buying pure pumpkin in a can. Not one of them advocated for buying a can of pumpkin pie mix, which contains added sweetener and spices.
Curtis Stone, the chef and owner of Maude and Gwen Butcher Shop and Restaurant in Los Angeles, said he goes for the pure and simple. “If I don’t have time to roast and puree pumpkins myself, and I’m in a crunch, I’ll always err on the side of a 100% pure pumpkin puree,” he said. “It gives me control over the flavor of whatever I’m cooking, especially since I like making my own spice blends.”
“It’s great because you can find it everywhere, and it’s reliably consistent. When I choose a can, I know exactly what I’m getting, and that’s what’s needed when prepping a big, high-stress holiday meal,” he said.
Rick Rodgers wrote the book on Thanksgiving (literally) with his revered classic cookbook “Thanksgiving 101.” These days, he’s teaching baking online at coffeeandcake.org. “I never buy the pre-spiced pumpkin pie mix because I already have cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger in my kitchen,” he said (the “duh” was silent).
Which brand do they buy? It’s Libby’s (mostly).
Nostalgia reigned supreme as chefs and bakers recalled why Libby’s is their favorite brand. Sandy Davis, a chef for New York-based Roxo Events, burst into song: “If it says LIBBY’S, LIBBY’S, LIBBY’S on the LABEL, LABEL, LABEL, you will LIKE IT, LIKE IT, LIKE IT, on your TABLE, TABLE, TABLE,” he warbled, referencing the 1970s commercial jingle.
Ken Haedrich, dean of The Pie Academy, said simply, “It’s always been Libby’s for me.”
Diane Phillips, author of James Beard-nominated cookbook “Perfect Party Food,” recalled the brand’s ties to her past: “I grew up in an Italian household in which there was never a box or can of anything in the house. But when it came to Thanksgiving, my mother would buy Libby’s canned pumpkin, use the recipe on the back of the can to make a pie, and we’d finish it up by breakfast the day after Thanksgiving. I’ve used Trader Joe’s organic and some other brands, but Libby’s seems to be the standard when following recipes.”
Robin Selden, the executive chef and managing partner of Marcia Selden Catering, is another ride-or-die Libby’s fan, asking, “Is there anything else? It’s what my mom used when I was growing up, and it’s all I’ve ever used. It has such a great pumpkin flavor, and it’s filled with nutrients.”
“Libby’s is the brand I used to make my first pumpkin pie when I was a little kid, the name Libby’s has just stuck with me till this day,” said chef Jonathan Scinto. “I haven’t found any other brand I like as well, since I find they have that canned, metallic taste and often contain lots of pumpkin fibers. Libby’s has a beautiful rich copper-orange color, along with a taste and texture that aren’t matched by any other brand.”
But wait, just when you thought this was an all-Libby’s landslide, there is an alternate brand suggestion from chef and cookbook author Robin Asbell. “Your guests will wonder why your pie is so much better-tasting if you use canned butternut squash instead of pumpkin,” she said. “I use the Farmer’s Market brand, which is a beautiful orange color and has that sweet, mild butternut flavor. Forget the brown, slightly bitter canned pumpkin. If you use it, you may never go back.”
What to do if you bought an extra can (or more).
With all this pumpkin love in the air, it’s understandable if you bought an extra can or 12, but there are lots of things you can do with the excess. “It is really handy to keep a can of pumpkin around the house because curried pumpkin soup is super-easy, super-fast and super-delicious on a cold night,” Davis said. “Pair that with a pan of cornbread, and you’ve knocked out a home run.”
Selden said she uses cans of pumpkin in lots of ways, “even in pumpkin smoothies.” Her recipe: In a blender, add 1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk, a splash of agave or maple syrup, 1/4 cup pumpkin puree, 1/4 cup vanilla low-fat yogurt, a pinch of pumpkin pie spice, a scoop of protein powder and about a cup of ice. Blend and enjoy.
But wait, there’s more. “Canned pumpkin can be used to make frozen pumpkin ice cream pie, pumpkin streusel cheesecake and pumpkin cake,” Phillips said. Finally, don’t forget that 100% pure pumpkin — whichever brand you buy — is a great ingredient to share with your dog.