It's a little more complicated than you might think.
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Pumpkin-Coconut Cheesecake with Dulce de Leche Glaze

Pictured recipe: Pumpkin-Coconut Cheesecake with Dulce de Leche Glaze

It's that time of year—the Pumpkin Spice Latte is flowing, which means it's just about time to break out the pumpkin pie recipes for your Thanksgiving feast. While it's pumpkin spice that draws us to fall's favorite pie, it's the main ingredient that may need some clarification when you're browsing cans in the grocery store: pumpkin puree. But what is pumpkin puree, exactly? Knowing what it is might just help you bake a better pie.

What Is Pumpkin Puree?

Pumpkin puree is, in theory, just mashed pumpkin. But it's not the kind of pumpkins you're probably imagining. The majority of canned pumpkin puree produced today is made from Dickinson pumpkins, also known as Dickinson squash. These pumpkins are tan with uniform, smooth skin and are much larger than the average field pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo), which are the pumpkins that we carve into jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween. Dickinson pumpkins are also better tasting than field pumpkins, whose flesh is watery and stringy.

Oftentimes, there is confusion about what canned pumpkin is, and that is in part due to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 1957 definition of canned pumpkin: "Canned pumpkin and canned squash is the canned product prepared from clean, sound, properly matured, golden fleshed, firm shelled, sweet varieties of either pumpkins or squashes by washing, stemming, cutting, steaming and reducing to pulp."

Basically, the line between what you can call a pumpkin and what you can call a squash is blurry. What the FDA considers "pumpkin" is a list of types of winter squash that are all very similar in flavor and texture to pumpkin. The squash used as pumpkin puree is less watery and stringy than Halloween pumpkins, so adding other winter squash makes the puree more smooth and improves the taste and texture.

So yes, that can of pumpkin you are buying could technically be a mix of pumpkin and squash—but by the FDA's definition they're one and the same. And if the label on the can says 100% pumpkin, it is 100% true.

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Pictured recipe: Spiced Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin Puree (Canned Pumpkin) vs. Pumpkin Pie Filling

There is a big difference between pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie filling (also called "pumpkin pie mix"). Although they both come in cans and the packaging looks almost identical, they can't be used interchangeably. Pumpkin puree doesn't have anything added to it, but pumpkin pie filling comes with pumpkin spice and sugar already mixed. It makes getting pie on the Thanksgiving table easy and convenient, but you wouldn't want to stir it into a savory pumpkin soup or fill pumpkin ravioli with it.

If you're the type to get your hands dirty in the kitchen (and you want 100% pure, actual pumpkin), you might want to make pumpkin puree using fresh pumpkin yourself. All you need is your oven, a baking sheet and a pie pumpkin.