If you're shocked to see the first pumpkins at the store, the reality is that it's already pumpkin season. As usual, pumpkin is showing up in everything from pumpkin lattes and donuts to pumpkin puree and even pumpkin Cheerios.
But is there really any of that gooey jack-o'-lantern fruit in any of these purportedly pumpkin items?
"Ironically, there's no actual pumpkin in pumpkin flavoring," says Anne Cundiff, a registered dietitian in Des Moines. "It's actually a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice and cloves."
Pumpkin flavoring actually harkens back to the pilgrims, Cundiff says.
"In the early 1600s, pumpkins were a source of vitamins and minerals and used in a multitude of dishes prepared to help nourish the pilgrims," Cundiff says. "When the Native Americans helped the pilgrims navigate the land for food, the Native Americans also introduced the pilgrims to different spices, including pumpkin."
And, while pumpkin pie didn't top the first Thanksgiving table, the dish began evolving in the mid 1600s as spices were added to enhance pumpkin flavor.
Why is pumpkin so popular?
No product is immune from the pumpkin spice invasion. (Photo: Mike Mozart [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
For pumpkin aficionados, there's nothing like something pumpkin-flavored on a crisp fall day.
"Pumpkin flavors make us nostalgic," Cundiff says. "And, with the season changing to fall, people are seeking out farms to pick pumpkins, go on hay rides and drink apple cider. Pumpkin flavors make us think about the rural life of farms, family and food."
Pumpkin-flavored products also immerse us in the season, says Matthew Robinson, a chef who runs the popular food blog, The Culinary Exchange.
"Those flavors also transport us to all the hopefully happy emotional connections we have with autumn," Robinson says. "Who wouldn't like it? Flavors and smell memories have the power to transport us, and pumpkin is no different."
DIY pumpkin spice
It's easy to make your own pumpkin spice. Cundiff suggests you tweak the flavors to get the combination exactly to your liking. (For example, you might like cinnamon more than ginger, so add more of one and less of the other.)
Cundiff offered this tip: "Use this in warm drinks, smoothies and dessert, sprinkled on roasted pumpkin itself, squash, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and other various fall vegetables. Don't just limit it to your latte!"
Cundiff's Pumpkin Pie Spice
- 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- Mix all together. Taste the mixture and add/subtract spices as you desire. Store in an airtight container.
- Make new every year so it stays fresh and full of flavor.
Robinson's Pumpkin Pie Spice
You can make this spice two ways: savory or sweet.
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 whole cloves
- A small knob of fresh ginger
- Dash of nutmeg
- 1 cup sugar (for sweet)
- For the savory version, add one cup of water, boil the mixture for two to three minutes. Turn off the heat and let steep for at least 30 minutes.
- For the sweet version, add one cup of sugar and boil until the sugar is dissolved, then let steep.
Pumpkin flavor direct from the source
Want a "purer" pumpkin flavor? First, ask your green grocer to direct you to a sugar pumpkin, Robinson suggests. "Then seed, peel and dice it," he says. "Put the diced pumpkin in enough water to cover it. Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes until it is totally cooked and a mushy mess."
Next, strain the pumpkin in the finest sieve you can find. The result will be pumpkin water that can be used as flavoring.
"If it’s not concentrated enough, reduce it over medium heat until it is concentrated and the taste profile is to your liking. Of course, you can add spices and herbs to this, too, to make it more complex," advises Cundiff. And be careful as concentrating some herbs or spices can make them very strong or bitter.