Pumpkin pie is as much a part of Thanksgiving as roast turkey, and in some families, probably more so! But for a relatively straight-forward dessert, there are still different ways to make pumpkin pie from scratch. And strongly-held opinions about which is the best recipe!
To help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through the first nineteen recipes for pumpkin pie that I found on Pinterest. I’ll show you what’s consistent amongst them, what’s different and why. Hopefully that will help you to choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you best.
I’ve chosen recipes for traditional pumpkin pie that don’t use a store-bought spice mix. By traditional, I mean recipes for pie, not for pumpkin pie cheesecake, or pumpkin pie slice, or other variations. (I usually include twenty recipes in my reviews, but missed a sneaky cheesecake in the group until it was too late, so this time it’s only nineteen.)
And I’ve intentionally not paid any attention to pie crusts in this review. Many of the authors offer recipes for homemade crusts, and many use store-bought crusts. I’d most likely use sheets of short-crust pastry because they’re easy to get and store well in the freezer. That said, a number of these authors offer easy to follow (and importantly, easy to do) pie crust recipes. The good news is, there’s success to be found with either approach, so the choice is yours on this one.
A much-loved pie
The first thing that’s obvious from looking through these recipes is that there’s a lot of passion behind them. Of the nineteen recipes, six of them are the “best”. When we add in the first paragraph or so, we’re at eleven of them being the “best”! And the word “prefect” comes up a lot too.
There’s clearly also a lot of heritage inmost of these recipes, with a parent or grandparent being acknowledged more than once. And the recipe on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can has had a pervasive impact as well. Which is a great segway into your first major decision for your pumpkin pie – fresh or canned pumpkin?
Which pumpkin to use?
You may be thinking that fresh, homemade pumpkin puree has to be best, but most of our authors would seem to disagree with you. Sixteen of the nineteen recipes recommend canned pumpkin puree as their first, or in most cases, only choice. It is no doubt much simpler to use canned pumpkin, but several authors swear by canned pumpkin puree for best results too. For example, Alyssa from The Recipe Critic finds the texture of a homemade puree pie a bit grainy and lumpy, even if it’s thoroughly pureed.
The other four authors prefer fresh pumpkin puree. And according to a little experiment by Elise at Simply Recipes, adults prefer the richer flavour of a homemade puree. But all four also offer the option of using canned pumpkin in their recipes.
Based on this, as much as it will pain the fresh food purists, you can clearly get great results with canned pumpkin. As many authors highlight though, be sure you get pure pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling. The latter will come with spices included, and if used in these recipes your pie will be over-spiced.
And if you do choose to use homemade pumpkin puree, make sure you drain it well, and even squeeze any extra moisture out, before using it. Fresh pumpkin will have more water in it than canned, which can affect how your pie sets after baking. Several of the authors provide tips on how best to get the extra moisture out of your fresh pumpkin.
How much pumpkin?
As for quantity, the results here are completely unanimous if you’re using canned pumpkin. Eighteen of the recipes use one 15oz/425g can of pumpkin puree for a 9in/23cm pie. One author lists a 12oz can, but in her video she uses a Libby’s can which looks suspiciously like a 15oz can. I also couldn’t find a 12oz Libby’s can available for sale, so I’m going to go with 15oz being unanimous.
If you’re using fresh puree, there is a little variation, but not much. If you go with two cups, or weigh out 15oz/425g, you’ll be in the right place.
One interesting addition here – Debi from Life Currents adds a cup of candied yams to her filling along with the pumpkin. If your first reaction is bewilderment, either about what yams are, or why you’d candy them, you’re not alone, but probably only if you’re from somewhere outside North America. If you’re from the US or Canada, you quite possibly thought “wow, what a great idea”!
Yam means slightly different vegetables in different countries, and are unknown in some others, like Australia. Where they are known, they are all a type of tuber, but vary in their size, colour and starchiness depending on which country you’re in. And as for candying them, it’s not really any different from adding sugar and spices to pumpkins in a pie, which is also fairly uncommon outside North America. There’s a long history of these types of desserts in the US and Canada, likely related to their ease of production, large size and cost effectiveness. Regardless, Debi’s addition draws quite a few positive comments from her readers, so if you’re intrigued by the idea, it may well be worth a try!
What if you don’t have (or don’t like) pumpkin?
The most obvious substitution is sweet potato. Sweet potato pie is almost as popular as pumpkin pie, and even more so in the south. And the filling recipes are remarkably similar.
But a reader of one of the recipes commented that if you can’t get pumpkin, to use carrots! Carrots! This may not be a surprise to you, but it definitely was to me. I’ve heard of carrot cake, but not carrot pie. The comment suggested that it’ll look and taste like pumpkin pie! Mind blown! I’m going to have to try this some time, as much for curiosity as anything!
Which dairy ingredient should you use?
Pumpkin pie is a custard pie, so dairy is an integral component for a rich, creamy filling. And when it comes to your dairy ingredient, you have some choice.
Evaporated milk is by far the most common dairy ingredient, used in nine of the recipes. This is also the dairy product used in the Libby’s recipe, so no surprises that it’s popular. The quantity is also extremely consistent, with most recipes using one 12oz/340g can.
With some of the other dairy choices, more than one dairy product is used together, but this is not the case with evaporated milk. In fact, only one recipe adds a second dairy product. Rebecca from Sugar and Soul uses half a cup of sour cream in place of some evaporated milk. Hers is also the only recipe with sour cream. Apparently it makes the filling really silky. Something to think about if you’re looking to shake your filling up a bit.
The second most popular dairy product is heavy cream, and it’s not far behind, appearing in seven recipes. Five of these use heavy cream on it’s own, and two use it together with whole milk. And the quantities vary from one cup of cream, to two cups in total (one of cream + one of milk), and everything in between.
If you’re outside North America you may struggle to find heavy cream in your supermarket or grocery store. Heavy cream is pure cream with at least 36% milk fat. Your alternatives will depend a bit on where you live:
- In the UK, the best alternative is whipping cream, which also has around 36% milk fat. If you can’t find that the next best thing is double cream, which has minimum 48% milk fat.
- In Australia, thickened cream is the closest match at about 35% fat. It has a small amount of vegetable gum added to enhance its whipping characteristics, but this shouldn’t make a difference to your pie. Your next closest choice would be double cream, which, like the UK, has about 48% milk fat. Unlike thickened cream, it is pure cream, with no additives.
- In New Zealand, standard fresh cream is the closest equivalent, with around 35-38% milk fat. Thickened cream is also available, and is very similar to Australian thickened cream – 35-38% milk fat, with thickening agents added.
Elsewhere in the world the products will be different again, but if you look for 35-38% milk fat you’ll have the right product. I dig into this a little bit deeper in my glossary of terms and ingredients.
The heavy cream group was also where the only other dairy ingredient popped up. Catalina from Sweet & Savory Meals adds a third of a cup of melted butter to her filling mixture. Given that butter is about 80% milk fat, it’s easy to imagine this is a decadently rich addition.
Sweetened Condensed Milk
Three of the authors use sweetened condensed milk. If you’re not aware, evaporated milk and condensed milk are very similar, with one important difference. Both are milk that has had the water content reduced significantly. This leaves them thicker and creamier than milk. And evaporated milk is just that.
Condensed milk has sugar added before the removal of the water, and so it ends up with a high concentration of sugar (40-50% or more!). So it’s really, really sweet. And because the sugar is added before the condensing process, it caramelizes during the process, resulting in a thick, almost caramel-like product. Which is dreamy eaten straight out of the can. Not that I’d ever do that. It’s also great in any number of baked sweets and desserts. Dorothy from Crazy for Crust swears by condensed milk for a thicker, smoother filling than one done with evaporated milk.
But importantly, they are different products. Abeer from Cake Whiz points out that readers should not replace condensed milk with evaporated milk. The latter is thinner and unsweetened, so without significant adjustments to the recipe the results will not be the same. And because it has so much sugar, the three recipes using condensed milk don’t use any added sugar in their recipes.
What if you’re lactose-intolerant?
If you need to avoid lactose, Sara from Simply Recipes advises commenters that you could substitute coconut milk or cashew milk for evaporated milk or cream. None of the authors had tried these substitutions, and you’d want to check your fat content as well. Too low or too high and your filling will have a different texture, and a different level of richness.
Spices – the decisive ingredients
While the preparation and the dairy ingredients will have a big influence on texture and richness, it’s the spice mix that’ll have the greatest impact on the actual taste of the pie. And this is why I’ve chosen recipes that use their own spice mixes. This way we can tell specifically which spices are popular, and which aren’t.
Which spices are most popular?
Across our nineteen recipes there are eight different spices in use, although only four are prevalent:
- Cinnamon, surprise surprise, is included in all nineteen recipes. So this choice is easy…or is it? More on this in a moment.
- Ginger, nutmeg or both always accompany cinnamon, being included in fifteen recipes each, with both used in twelve of these. Ginger is almost always used in greater quantities, usually double the amount of nutmeg. On the topic of nutmeg, Bee from Rasa Malaysia says the secret to traditional pumpkin pie flavour is freshly grated nutmeg. And in case you’re wondering, as a couple of commenters on the recipes did, ginger refers to ground ginger, not fresh.
- Cloves are close behind, used in fourteen recipes.
I’m sure none of these are a surprise to anyone who’s made pumpkin pie before. And as for combinations, twelve of the recipes use cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, and nine of these include cloves as well. Interestingly, nutmeg is not included in the famous Libby’s can recipe, instead using only cinnamon, ginger and cloves.
After these four spices, the only other common spice is allspice, which appears in six of the recipes. If you’re not familiar with allspice, in spite of it’s confusing name, it’s not a combination spice mix, but its own spice. Allspice is the dried, unripe berry of an evergreen shrub. The berries look a bit like peppercorns before they’re ground. It was originally termed allspice because it’s flavour is similar to a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, so you can see why it’s popular in pumpkin spice!
Other pumpkin spice choices
Beyond these five spices, there are three unique spices that appear:
- Rebecca from Sugar and Soul includes a small amount of black pepper in her filling. I haven’t come across this before, but Rebecca swears by the heightened flavour it adds to the mix.
- Rebecca also uses a small amount of mace. Mace is made from the outer covering of nutmeg seeds, and has a similar, but more subtle, flavour.
- Elise from Simply Recipes adds a small amount of ground cardamom to her filling. If you haven’t come across cardamom before, it’s a common ingredient in Indian and Middle Eastern foods. It’s usually used as whole pods in these cuisines. The Spruce Eats describe it as having a strong, sweet, pungent flavour with hints of lemon and mint, although the ground form loses some of it’s punch. I use it often in curries, so I was surprised to learn it’s also a common ingredient in Swedish cuisine, including baking. Elise says it gives her pie an added sparkle.
Other flavour choices
All though they’re not spices, there were a few other flavourings added which would have a significant impact on the taste of the pie:
- Six of the recipes incorporate a small amount of vanilla extract in the filling. It’s been said that vanilla boosts the sweetness of dishes, so this could be a welcome addition.
- Elise from Simply Recipes adds a small amount of lemon zest to her pie filling. It’s easy to imagine this would give her pie a lift of freshness. It does attract a bit of negativity from a couple of commenters though. There appear to be some strong feelings about the combination of lemon and pumpkin!
- Debi from Life Currents and Catalina from Sweet & Savory Meals both add a quarter of a cup of maple syrup to their filling. Maple is a popular flavouring for roast pumpkin, so this could be a great addition to pumpkin pie too.
- None of the authors use alcohol, but some of their readers do. Their suggestions included:
- A splash of Grand Marnier is apparently fabulous.
- A tablespoon of bourbon comes up more than once.
Now, back to cinnamon. You know what I mean when I say cinnamon. You know which jar you’ll reach for in the store, or in your pantry. But are you reaching for the “right” cinnamon?
It turns out that there are in fact several types of cinnamon, and some of them are significantly different in taste.
All types of cinnamon come from the bark of the Cinnamomum genus of trees. But there are several species of these trees, and they’re all a bit different. And as you read around about it, you’ll find there’s all sorts of confusion about which cinnamon is which!
The most common type of cinnamon
Broadly speaking though, there are several species which produce the strong, spicy cinnamon that’s popular in the US in particular. These species are variously referred to as cassia cinnamon, saigon cinnamon, korintje cinnamon, dutch cinnamon, and a few other names. These are also the cheaper varieties to produce, and if you’re buying “cinnamon” off the supermarket shelf in most parts of the world, it’s almost certainly one of these varieties.
Sri Lankan cinnamon
The other major variant is known as ceylon cinnamon, and it only comes from Cinnamomum verum (which used to be called C. zeylanicum). It has a more subtle flavour, but is more aromatic than the other species of cinnamon. It is more expensive, and until recently, was more difficult to find in stores.
Even so, most of the larger manufacturers do not specify what type their cinnamon is. Whether it’s to avoid confusion amongst unaware customers, or to allow them to source different species as prices fluctuate, I’m not sure. But you’ll see that a number of smaller niche producers take this as an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the big guys, and specify the type of cinnamon on their packaging, making it easier to find the variety you’re after.
Why all this detail on cinnamon? Because if you’re looking for an authentic American pumpkin pie flavour, you should probably not be using ceylon cinnamon. It hasn’t traditionally been widely available and was more expensive, so is not likely to be the type used by generations gone by. Or, if you’re looking to shake up your traditional pumpkin pie a little bit, you could choose to try the different flavour of ceylon cinnamon. Up to you!
It’s not dessert if it’s not sweet! Sugar is added to every recipe apart from the three using sweetened condensed milk. Brown sugar is slightly more popular, appearing alone in seven recipes, and mixed with white sugar in another three. The other six recipes use white sugar.
The quantity of sugar used varies, but not a lot. Three-quarters of a cup is the most common, but the range is only two-thirds to one cup.
As pumpkin pie is in fact a custard pie, all nineteen recipes include eggs to set the filling. Sixteen of the recipes use either two or three large eggs. The other three authors are clearly fans of a rich pie, adding one or two egg yolks in addition to their whole eggs.
It’s also worth noting that a small amount of salt, mostly half a teaspoon, is added to the filling mix in fourteen of the recipes. Salt is great at accentuating other flavours, which may explain its inclusion here. It also acts as an emulsifier, so it can help bring the different ingredients together.
Only four of the recipes add some form of thickener to their filling, with three using flour and one using corn starch. Otherwise these four recipes are different in terms of the type and quantity of dairy they add, the temperature they’re baked at and the spices they use, so it’s not clear why these four authors choose to thicken their filling. Given that the other sixteen recipes don’t use any thickener, you may wonder if it’s necessary. All of the recipes, including these four, get great reviews, so the only thing for certain is that you can make a great pie with or without adding a thickener.
How to bake your pumpkin pie
The perfect crust
As I mentioned at the top, I intentionally have not focussed on the choice of pie crust in this review. There are however a couple of points that come up frequently regarding how to perfect your crust, either store-bought or homemade.
Avoiding a soggy crust
First, it must be stated that several commenters and authors, like Debi from Life Currents, note that they are not worried about, or even prefer, a soggy, pie-soaked crust. So if you’re in that camp, you can obviously skip this section!
If you prefer a nice crisp, firm crust, there are a couple of things you can do to help prevent sogginess.
Blind-baking the crust is the process of partially baking the crust, on it’s own, to crisp it up before the filling goes in. This helps prevent a soggy crust when used with liquid fillings. Even so, only three authors recommend blind-baking your crust – Bee from Rasa Malaysia, Danielle from Live Well Bake Often and Kristyn from Lil’ Luna, although Kristyn only recommends it if you’re using a homemade crust.
The other approach to avoiding a soggy crust comes from Liz at Sugar Geek Show. She recommends the use of a homemade mealy pie crust dough. This is one where the butter is more finely worked into the dough, which helps to repel the liquids in the filling. If you’re interested she has a recipe for it on her site. Using this approach Liz doesn’t need to blind bake her crust either.
Avoiding a burnt crust
With a deep, dense filling, your pumpkin pie will take quite a long time to bake in the oven. Depending on your oven, and your crust, this may result in the exposed areas of your crust over-browning, or even burning.
Many of the authors recommend protecting your crust from this problem with foil, or with a metal or silicon pie crust protector. Some only apply it if the crust is browning too much. Others protect the crust as a matter of course. As an example, Danielle from Live Well Bake Often covers the edges of her pie crust after blind baking and adding the filling, before it ever goes in the oven.
And if you find the process of protecting the crust without damaging your filling a bit fiddly, Liz from Sugar Geek Show recommends placing an oven rack with foil or a cookie sheet/baking tray on it above the pie.
Preparing your filling
A few valuable tips and tricks, and differences of opinion, came up with regards to how to put your pie filling together.
Beating your eggs
Most authors advise beating your eggs separately before adding them to the filling mixture, and for good reason. One commenter lamented small bits of egg floating to the top of her pie. Beating the eggs well beforehand will help prevent this.
Mixing your filling
Most authors here hand-mix or whisk their filling ingredients together, but Rebecca from Sugar and Soul specifically recommends using your blender. She points out that the mixture aerates less this way, and also ends up much smoother. Too much aeration can cause your filling to swell or puff up during baking. This is important, because as Liz from Sugar Geek Show notes, too many air bubbles in your filling can lead to cracks in your finished pie. Liz advises letting your filling rest for half an hour after mixing it to allow the bubbles to rise to the surface and disperse.
Only two authors pre-cook their filling. Debi from Life Currents and Rebecca from Sugar and Soul both simmer their fillings before pouring them into the pie crust. Rebecca swears by it for a better pie, highlighting how it gives her a richer flavour and a stronger aroma. It also shortens the baking time, and Rebecca finds a pre-cooked filling is less likely to sink or crack. Given that the other eighteen authors don’t find this problem, it’s hard to know how big the difference is, but it clearly works for two of the authors.
Rebecca also raises something else I found intriguing – pre-cooking apparently reduces the chance of the strong raw pumpkin flavour. I can certainly see how this would work – a bit like briefly sautéing raw garlic gets the sharp raw flavour out. There are quite a lot of people who don’t like pumpkin pie because, as one of the recipes’ readers puts it, it’s too “pumpkinny”. I wonder if heating the filling beforehand would help convert some of these people?
Like I found in my review of roast turkey, there are different approaches to oven temperature with pumpkin pie too. This time there’s a lot more consistency though.
Two-speed approach? Or low & slow?
Fourteen of the nineteen recipes use two different temperatures to bake their pumpkin pies. All fifteen start at a hotter temperature for a short period of time, and then reduce it for the remainder of the baking time. The authors offer several explanations for this, but the one that makes the most sense to me is from Rebecca at Sugar and Soul. She highlights how the initial high temperature quickly melts the butter in the dough. This creates steam, which helps the development of a flaky crust.
This is also why you don’t completely blend in the butter when you’re making a crust from scratch. The baking step that my son hates is working the flour and butter together with your fingers until crumbs form. As tedious as this is if you’re doing it by hand, it is important. Those “crumbs” have little chunks of butter in them. They melt in the oven, leaving a steam-filled pocket in the pastry. And this is one of the most important contributors to a flaky crust, whether it’s for a sweet pumpkin pie or a savoury meat pie.
After the initial blast, you need to reduce the temperature to ensure the pie doesn’t burn, either on the crust or the surface of the filling.
The most popular oven temperatures for the two-speed approach are 425°F/220°C to start, and then 350°F/175°C to finish. Almost every one of these recipes holds the first temperature for 15 minutes. The time at the second temperature varies dramatically, from a minimum of 20 minutes to a maximum of an hour. This obviously depends on the temperature, the oven, the specifics of the filling, the author’s preference for how well their pie is cooked, and more. It’s also worth noting that the two shortest recommendations are from the recipes which pre-cook their fillings.
The other five recipes use one temperature for the whole cooking time, varying from 350°F/175°C to 400°F/200°C. Cooking time varies from 35 minutes to an hour, again varying based on the factors in the previous paragraph.
So, once you’ve chosen a temperature, and got your pie in the oven, when should you take it out?
How to tell when your pie is done
Overwhelmingly the recommendation is to take your pie out of the oven when it is still a little bit jiggly in the middle.
You may find that this is way too ambiguous for you. You give your pie a shake, and start to wonder…is that jiggly or wobbly? Too jiggly, or not enough? If so, Rebecca from Sugar and Soul has a great description of how to visually tell when your pie is done cooking.
Rebecca also suggests using a meat thermometer to test the filling if you’re feeling unsure. This is a reliable approach, although different authors recommend very different “done” temperatures, ranging from 160°F/70°C to 175°F/80°C. There’s also the risk that the hole you make with your thermometer could cause a crack in your pie.
A couple of authors point out that one sure sign you’ve over-cooked your pie is when you get what looks like condensation on the surface of the filling. The eggs are the culprit here, separating out their moisture when they’re over-cooked. Don’t worry, it’s not the end of your pie, but a good tip for next time.
How do you stop the filling from separating from the crust?
The short answer is, you can’t. A number of authors highlight this, and a number of their readers ask about it. As your filling cools, it shrinks, pulling it away from the crust a little. This is normal and doesn’t affect the taste at all.
How to prevent your pumpkin pie from cracking
The problem of cracking of the filling comes up often, both in the recipes and the comments. The authors offer a number of different tips to help minimise cracking:
- As I mentioned earlier, Liz from Sugar Geek Show advises letting your filling mix rest for half an hour after mixing it to allow the bubbles to rise to the surface and disperse. Apparently more bubbles in your filling means more cracks when it bakes.
- Liz also recommends baking your pie low in the oven to help prevent cracking, preferably on the bottom rack.
- Rebecca from Sugar and Soul advises that the eggs are starting to overcook when your pie cracks, so you should be removing it from the oven a bit earlier than you think. Don’t forget that once you remove your pie from the oven, the residual heat in the pie and the pan will continue to cook the filling for a few minutes.
- How your pie cools is also important with regards to cracking.
- Nora from Savory Nothings recommends resting your pie in the oven with the door ajar for fifteen to thirty minutes to help prevent cracks. By slowing the initial cooling of the filling, it is less likely to crack.
- Lauren from Tastes Better from Scratch advises not to rush your cooling process. It may be tempting to pop it in the fridge or the freezer to speed things up, but cooling it more slowly at room temperature will reduce cracking.
Even though it doesn’t look picture perfect, it’ll still taste great. And as a number of authors point out, a good dollop of the favoured accompaniment to pumpkin pie, whipped cream, will cover almost anything!
Depending on how thoroughly you cook your pumpkin pie, it will need time to cool and set once it comes out of the oven. As tempting as the aroma of the heated spices is, most of our authors variously recommend between one and four hours of setting time to ensure the best results.
While less common, some of the recipes are cooked more thoroughly and can therefore be eaten sooner after coming out of the oven. Alea from Premeditated Leftovers bakes her pie until a knife comes out clean. As a result, she’s able to recommend cooling it for just five minutes and serving it warm.
The essence of Pumpkin Pie
As you’ve seen, there are some really consistent approaches to putting together a great pumpkin pie.
Based on these nineteen successful recipes, you won’t go far wrong with some combination of the following ingredients in your pie:
- Canned pumpkin. It is at least as good, if not better, than homemade pumpkin puree.
- Evaporated milk or heavy cream are great choices for your dairy ingredient.
- Cinnamon is a must, but never on it’s own. Combine it with ginger, nutmeg and/or cloves.
- 2 or 3 eggs, and
- three-quarters of a cup of your preferred sugar.
And as for how you prepare and cook your pie, there are a number of consistent approaches and tips to keep in mind:
- Mix your filling ingredients by hand.
- Blind-baking your pie shell is not necessary.
- Start your pie out in a 425°F/220°C oven for 15 minutes, and then finish it at 350°F/175°C.
- Your pie is done when the middle of the filling is still jiggly, but the sides are not.
- Give your pie plenty of time to rest at room temperature, preferably 2-3 hours.
So there you have it – the essence of a great pumpkin pie. Unsurprisingly, the approach above is almost exactly that given on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can. But that’s not to say this is the only way to succeed. Some of the recipes here use unexpected ingredients, or take a different approach to making their pie, and have great results as well. So you can take the proven path, or wander off the beaten track – the choice is yours.
And if you happen to double the recipe and make two pies, well, the more the merrier!