By Jennifer M. Wood, MS, RDN |

Pumpkins are actually a type of winter squash and although known for making Jack-O-lanterns, pumpkins are quite tasty and nutritious too! The bright orange color should be a dead give-a-way that pumpkin is loaded with an important antioxidant called beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in your body.

Current research indicates that a diet rich in foods containing beta-carotene may reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer and may offer protection against heart disease and other degenerative diseases.

But, there are different types of pumpkins, and when cooking a pumpkin for pie, muffins, or pumpkin pudding, you want to choose a small sugar pumpkin, also known as a pie pumpkin, rather than a large field pumpkin. Sugar pumpkins tend to be smaller with a darker orange skin and when cooked, they have a smoother, less stringy texture, than large field pumpkins. However, a field pumpkin is edible too, it just won’t have as smooth of a texture.

There are different ways to cook a fresh pumpkin, and although I used to cut them raw, scoop out the seeds and bake them, I’ve learned that cooking pumpkin whole in the microwave is a lot easier than trying to cut it raw. So today I am going to show you how to cook a pie pumpkin in the microwave and make a pumpkin puree that you can use in any recipe or even enjoy with just a touch of brown sugar and cinnamon.

First, you want to wash your pumpkin and poke holes in it with a sharp knife just like you would when cooking any squash whole in the microwave. This lets the steam escape and keeps it from exploding. Next, you microwave it on high for about 5 minutes per pound of pumpkin, so a 2-pound pumpkin will take about 10 minutes. You will know your pumpkin is done if you poke it with the knife and it easily goes through the skin and flesh.

After the pumpkin is cooked until soft, you will want to let it cool a little, so it is easier to handle. Then you cut off the top, and then cut it in half, and scoop out the seeds. Next, you can usually just peel off the skin.

To make this cooked pumpkin into a puree, you simply put the cooked pumpkin into a blender or food processor and process until smooth. The puree is ready to use as is, but if you need it thicker for some recipes, some chef’s will tell you to place it on cheese cloth, and squeeze out the extra liquid or set it on a strainer placed over a bowl to drain for a few hours. However, I’ve found that it works in most recipes just fine without ever needing to drain it. You can also freeze this puree for up to 6 months to use at a later date.