Pumpkin seeds, with their rich, earthy flavor and powerful nutritional profile, make a tasty addition to both sweet and savory meals. We often think of pumpkin seeds as an autumnal delicacy, but they are available – and delicious – year round.
Pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas, are flat, dark-green seeds with a light, nutty taste. Straight out of the pumpkin, they’re often encased in teardrop-shaped husks. If a recipe calls for pumpkin seeds, it’s usually referring to already husked pepitas, which is how pumpkin seeds are most often sold. When purchasing, choose seeds that show no sign of shriveling, moisture damage or insect damage.
Pumpkin seed oil is also available at select stores. Because of its strong flavor, this khaki green, fairly thick oil – pressed directly from pepitas – is usually blended with other oils for use in salads and cooking. Pumpkin seed oil is concentrated in polyunsaturated fatty acids, so it must be used only in recipes that don’t call for heat. Heating changes the molecular structure of the oil and releases cancer-causing free radicals.
Pumpkin seeds contain no starch, are lower in fat than most nuts, and are an excellent source of protein and essential minerals. They’re also rich in vitamin K, which may help prevent cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis. Each seed contains more than 50 percent oil, which has a notable amount of carotenoids, zinc and omega-3 fats. Zinc has been shown to help reduce tissue inflammation, while heart-healthy omega-3 fats are also known to promote healthy skin and optimum brain function. The phytosterols in pumpkin seeds inhibit the absorption of intestinal cholesterol, which may help reduce cholesterol in the bloodstream, bolster the immune system and decrease the risk for some cancers.
- After removing fresh seeds from a pumpkin, rinse them thoroughly to remove the pulp. Lay out evenly on a paper towel. Once dry, remove any remaining pulp strings. For roasting tips, see “Eat Up!” below.
- You can eat fresh seeds with or without the husks. To de-husk, crack shells open with your teeth the same way you would a sunflower seed.
- De-husking more than a few whole pumpkin seeds is a tedious task. If a recipe calls for a sizeable quantity, consider buying the seeds ready-shelled. Most grocery stores carry already-husked pumpkin seeds in bulk.
- Pumpkin seeds will keep easily for one to two months, or twice as long if kept in the refrigerator.
Pumpkin seeds can be eaten raw or roasted. To roast pumpkin seeds with or without the husks, first lightly coat them with melted butter or canola or olive oil on both sides. Lay out evenly on a baking pan and let dry overnight. Roast in a 160-degree F oven for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season while hot with coarse sea salt or a mixture of cayenne pepper and honey for a naturally sweet-and-spicy snack. Roasted or raw pepitas can be used in a variety of ways:
- Stir chopped pepitas into hot or cold breakfast cereal.
- Sprinkle pumpkin seeds on green salads and stir into fruit salads, like Waldorf or pear salads.
- When making smoothies, blend pepitas with fresh fruit for a boost of protein and a slightly sweet and nutty flavor.
- Replace pine nuts with roasted pumpkin seeds when making pesto to reduce its calorie and fat content, while increasing its protein value.
- Serve on pizzas, soups, pasta, grilled veggies or fresh-cooked fish entrées.
- Substitute pumpkin seed oil for canola, olive or other nut oils when making light salad dressings or drizzles that don’t require heating.
Chef Cary Neff is president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of The New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).