Have you ever thought about how tough it is to make a pumpkin pie from scratch?
Keeping the flavor profile spicy yet sweet takes a particular list of ingredients. Plus, nailing the texture is a feat of its own.
The good news is that baking is a science that you can understand and replicate.
So, before you drag a knife to that plump pumpkin, read this post. We’ll go over the top pumpkin pie ingredients and the purpose that each one serves.
What Is in a Pumpkin Pie Crust?
Some recipes skip the dough ingredients entirely and call for a store-bought pie crust. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want to make the whole thing from scratch, you’ll need flour, cold water, butter (or shortening), and salt.
Note that this list applies to pretty much all pies out there. One thing that sets pumpkin pie apart is that it could do better with a prebaked crust.
Either way, let’s see what role each of those four ingredients plays.
1 – All-Purpose Flour
You can’t make a traditional crust dough without flour. That much we all know, but there’s some science here.
For one, the flour proteins (namely, glutenin and gliadin) are prone to hydration reactions that end by forming gluten.
Gluten isn’t all bad, though. It’s an elastic network of proteins that gives the crust the structure it needs.
Plus, flour has starch molecules that swell up and burst to release amylose as the crust bakes. You don’t really need to know a lot about the chemistry of amylose other than it acts as a gel.
Of course, the key factor that swells up the starch and hydrates the proteins in the first place is (that’s right, you guessed it) water.
2 – Cold Water
So, water is what “activates” the starch in the flour and turns it glue-like. However, if you overdo the hydration, the starch increases to the point that makes the crust leathery.
In most cases, the recipe will call for about 2 tablespoons of ice water for every cup of flour, but you can add a bit more as you see fit. For instance, Martha Stewart’s recipe mentions that it’s okay to go for 4–8 tablespoons for 2 ⅕ cups of flour.
Now, you might be wondering why it has to be cold. Well, that’s to keep the next ingredient on the list from melting too soon.
3 – Fat (Butter and/or Shortening)
You can make pumpkin pie crust with unsalted butter (dazzling flavor), shortening (rolls like a breeze), or a mix of both for the best results.
Either way, the main purpose is to create fat pockets within the dough. As the crust bakes, those pockets should open up, creating the iconic flaky texture.
Ideally, you’ll cut the fat rather than blend it. This way, you’ll make sure that there will be tiny bits left inside the dough to make the pockets.
So, you probably see how using cold water with butter is a nifty trick. It keeps the bits of butter from melting into the flour completely before the crust even hits the oven.
4 – Salt
Table salt might not seem like a major ingredient, but it can be.
Supposedly, it helps stabilize the gluten network. While some people believe it’s a myth, it doesn’t hurt to add a pinch for the flavor balance, if nothing else.
What Is in Pumpkin Pie Filling?
When you think about it, pumpkin pie filling is actually a custard. After all, it’s just flavoring ingredients cooked with eggs, dairy, and sugar.
Let’s see how these ingredients work together.
5 – Cooked Pumpkin
The main ingredient is the cooked pumpkin itself, and there are two ways to go here:
- Cook, skin, and mash some squash yourself. (More tips on that later!)
- Pick a can of pumpkin puree from the store.
Note how we said puree, not filling.
Puree replaces only one ingredient (the cooked pumpkin). Meanwhile, pumpkin filling comes with sugar and spices.
The way we see it, the puree gives you more room to customize the taste to your liking.
6 – Eggs
It might not seem like it, but eggs do a lot of legwork in any pumpkin pie recipe.
As the pie bakes, the egg proteins denature and uncoil to form threads that add volume and structure, eventually squeezing out water. This process tightens the consistency from a soup-like mess to a dense pie filling.
Interestingly, that’s also why your pumpkin pie could crack after you take it out of the oven. That’s because the egg proteins might continue their coagulation process.
That’s a risk worth taking, though, since the lecithin in egg yolks plays the role of an emulsifier that suspends the fats in the water-based pumpkin filling.
7 – Evaporated or Condensed Milk
Next, we need something to add a creamy body to the pie.
Both evaporated and condensed milk will do fine, but regular milk won’t cut it. That’s because pumpkin itself is 90% water, so you definitely don’t need more liquids sloshing around in the filling.
Knowing which one to use depends on how sweet and thick you’d like your pie to be. If your answer is “loads,” then a can of condensed milk is the way to go.
That said, some recipes swap milk for cream cheese. This could be a good idea if you’re looking for extra tang.
What if you skip this step altogether? Well, you’ll end up with a clunky yet palatable pumpkin pie.
8 – Sugar
Some pumpkin pie recipes, like Libby’s, use white sugar. Aside from sweetening the filling, the sugar might add some color to the top as it caramelizes in the oven.
However, you can opt for dark brown varieties if you like how the molasses taste pairs with the pumpkin’s earthy flavor.
It’s even possible to go with artificial sweeteners and cut down the calories.
9 – Pumpkin Spices (And Salt, Again)
Now let’s move on to the most fun and aromatic part of the ingredient list: the pumpkin spice blend.
Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice are what you’d typically expect from most recipes. Since cinnamon pairs perfectly with pumpkin, it usually takes the largest portion of the blend.
That said, there are no hard and fast rules for the blend.
So, go ahead and play around with the ratios to boost the flavors and aromas you like best. Even a kick of cardamom would be okay!
Finally, salt makes a second appearance on the ingredient list.
Some would say that salt helps raise the boiling point and, thus, affects the texture of the pumpkin filling. However, it would be hard for a tiny bit of salt to have any significant effect.
Still, that pinch does a perfect job of balancing the flavor.
What Part of the Pumpkin Is Used for Pie?
The flesh of a pumpkin is what you’ll need for a pie—not the seeds, stringy parts, or the skin.
To separate the flesh, you’ll need to chop the stem, slice the pumpkin in half, and scoop out all the “guts.”
Since skinning the whole thing raw is challenging, we recommend roasting the halves facedown in the oven first. Then, you can peel back the skin with your hand or scoop out the cooked flesh with a spoon.
All that’s left is to grab a hand blender and go to town on the cooked pumpkin flesh to make a puree for your pie.
The top ingredients for a pumpkin pie? Those would be flour, cold water, fat, table salt, cooked pumpkin (or a can of puree), eggs, evaporated milk, sugar, and a whole lot of spices.
Of course, it’s possible to tweak the recipe, but understanding the science behind this list of ingredients is the first step!
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.