If a recipe calls for squash, you’re likely thinking that you’ll be reaching for the summer squash, maybe a butternut squash, or a spaghetti squash — probably not a pumpkin. However, technically, yes, a pumpkin is a member of the squash family.
More specifically, pumpkins are a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, also called the gourd family. This family can be broken down into three different genera, putting pumpkins and what you might more commonly think of as squash together, cucumbers, and melons together, and watermelons mostly on their own. (And if you’re getting into that whole vegetable versus fruit debate, rest assured that squash is considered a fruit.)
That said, just because they’re members of the same genera, pumpkins aren’t the same as all squashes and you can’t use pumpkin in place of all squashes, in every recipe.
Here’s what you need to know.
Summer Squashes vs. Winter Squashes
Pumpkins are firmly winter squash. In contrast, zucchini is a summer squash. What’s the difference?
The main difference is going to be growing time and how that growing time impacts the final result. Zucchini takes very little time to grow (if you’ve ever grown summer squash and zucchini at home before, you’ve likely become quickly overrun with the fruits by mid-summer). In comparison, winter squash like pumpkins take longer to grow and that’s why we don’t start harvesting them until the fall.
Due to the shorter growing period, summer squash are thin-skinned, in contrast to pumpkins and other winter squash, for example, acorn squash or buttercup squash. You can easily press your fingernail through the skin of a zucchini. You can’t do the same with a pumpkin.
This all means you’ll need different cooking methods, and want to use different recipes, for summer squash versus winter squash. The more delicate texture of summer squash makes for easier, faster cooking and, if you overcook it, you’ll end up with a pile of mush. Pumpkin and other winter squash, meanwhile, take a fair amount of patience, work, and time.
When Can You Sub Pumpkin for Another Squash? (And What Can You Use in Place of Pumpkin?)
All of the above said, if you’re hoping to use pumpkin in a recipe in place of another squash variety — or you’re looking for a replacement for pumpkin in a pumpkin-based recipe — only swap pumpkins with other winter varieties and vice versa. Otherwise, you’ll likely find that the texture, flavor, and cooking methods required are all wrong.
Pumpkins and butternut squash are often used in place of one another. In fact, some may even prefer to use butternut squash in place of a pumpkin in many recipes, because butternut squashes are just easier to cut, peel, and cook. You can also interchangeably use acorns quash, Hubbard squash, and butternut squash. In fact, if you’re really in a pinch and don’t have any winter squash at all on hand, you can even swap out pumpkins for sweet potatoes, in some recipes.
All in all, these gourds (and spuds) can be used interchangeably in equal quantities, once processed and mashed, pureed, or diced.