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Canned Pumpkin

Published October 2016

How we tested

Canned pumpkin puree is the nation’s top-selling pumpkin product. Americans rely on it to add a subtle, squashy sweetness and bright orange color to fall favorites like pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread. But does it really matter which product you choose? To find out, we picked three widely available pumpkin purees and had 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers sample each plain, baked into pumpkin cake, and whipped into our no-bake Rum Pumpkin Chiffon Pie. We were immediately struck by the drastic visual differences between the samples: Two were bright orange, like we expect from pumpkin, while one was pale and made cake and pie that were shockingly jaundiced and mustard-colored—an immediate turn-off for tasters.

Those who got past the color differences were flummoxed by the variety of textures. The yellow puree was a pulpy paste reminiscent of baby food and made an oddly thick pie filling and an overly dense cake. Another product was prominently fibrous when sampled plain, and though this wasn’t an issue in cake, tasters noted a chalky grittiness in its pie. Nutritional labels showed that these two products had 33 percent more fiber than our top-ranked puree—14 grams versus 10.5 grams per 15-ounce can—which resulted in a thick, unappealing texture. We preferred the smoothness of the pumpkin with less fiber, which made tender cakes and airy, smooth pie filling.

As for flavor, tasters described lower-ranked options as metallic and bitter, while the top-rated product was deemed pleasantly sweet. Here, sugar was the culprit: While lower-ranked purees contained 14 grams of sugar per can and were deemed aggressively squash-like, our top-ranked pumpkin had 17.5 grams of sugar per can and was lightly sweet, with minimal bitterness. In fact, every product had just one ingredient: pumpkin. Clearly, some products were relying on pumpkins with more natural sugar, but what accounted for the drastic color, texture, and flavor differences?

As it turns out, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t have strict guidelines for what can be labeled as pumpkin. Instead, botanists define pumpkin as any squash with a firm shell, round body, and golden flesh—though many pumpkin varieties lack some of these traits. This explains why the products varied wildly: They’re made from different varieties of pumpkins.

We reached out to manufacturers and learned that our top-ranked product uses Dickinson pumpkins cultivated in Illinois, while the poorest-performing product is made from Golden Delicious pumpkins harvested in Oregon. And though our runner-up is also made from Dickinson pumpkins, each brand uses a proprietary cultivar unique to its product. These differences in variety and climate add up to ensure that no two canned pumpkins are alike.

Our favorite was Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin, which tasters praised for its silky consistency and subtle sweetness. Fortunately it’s also the easiest to find: Libby’s makes 85 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin from a special variety of Dickinson pumpkin known for its tender flesh and sweeter flavor. The result is canned pumpkin that makes moist, rich cakes and fluffy, delicate pies.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*
Done in 281 ms! 61.385 KiB - 7.5% = 56.776 KiB