What’s the difference between pepitas and pumpkin seeds from your jack o’ lantern? There’s not some mysterious machine removing the tough white shells from pumpkin seeds. Instead, pepitas come from what are known as “oilseed pumpkins”. Oilseed pumpkins produce pumpkin seeds that have a thin, papery shell – which is great for those of us who want to enjoy the health benefits of pepitas but don’t like a mouth full of shell. In this post we’ll tell you a little more about these tasty morsels, how to use them and how you can grow your own pepitas.
What’s a pepita? (Hulless Pumpkin Seed)
Pepitas or hulless pumpkin seeds come from a specific type of winter squash known as oil seed pumpkins or Styrian pumpkins. Instead of the hard white seed coating we see in standard “Halloween pumpkins”, these pumpkins have a very delicate skin on the seed that comes off easily. The pepitas themselves are flat, oval-shaped green seeds with a point at one end.
Technically, both hulled and hulless pumpkin seeds can be called pumpkin seeds or pepitas, but when someone says “pepitas”, most people who know about them think of the naked seeds.
Pepitas are loaded with nutrition. Just 1/4 cup (32.25 grams) provides significant amounts of manganese, tryptophan, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, protein, zinc and iron. The World’s Healthiest Foods sites studies that suggest pumpkin seeds may promote prostate health, protect your bones, act as an anti-inflammatory and lower cholesterol.
How do I use pepitas?
I enjoy pepitas as low carb salad topper or snack, but you can use them like you would use other seeds or nuts. Try pepitas in granola bars or trail mixes, in muffins or cookies, or savory dishes.
Warning – Pepitas may be addictive! Personally, I have a hard keeping them in storage once they’re prepared, as they are so tasty! Like most things you grow at home, they seem to me to be just a little fresher and brighter in flavor than their store bought counterparts. You can get quite a few fruits from a hill of pumpkins, but each pumpkin will yield less than a cup of seeds, which is why pepitas are so pricey in the store.
Raw Pepitas are Best
Pepitas are one of the best sources of plant based Omega-3 fatty acids, but to preserve those healthy fats, they should be eaten raw. (If you choose to roast, you’ll still get the other nutrients.)
To make your pepitas easier to digest, I recommend soaking or sprouting to reduce phytic acid. You can use this preparation with home grown pepitas or purchased raw pepitas. When buying pepitas, make sure they smell fresh, not musty. As the seeds get older, the oils in them can go rancid. Note: You can also use these techniques to improve the flavor of raw commercial pepitas, which tend to be rather bland.
To Soak Your Pepitas
If harvesting from a fresh pumpkin, scoop out seeds and rinse off the pumpkin goobers.
Place your raw pepitas in a medium bowl with enough water to cover. Add 2 tablespoons salt. If you’d like a little heat, you can also add a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Cover bowl with dish cloth and leave in a warm location to soak for at least 7 hours or overnight. Drain in colander.
To Dehydrate Pepitas
To dehydrate, toss seeds with a bit more salt or seasoning, if desired, and dry at less than 150°F until crispy, 8-12 hours. (Don’t add extra oil.) Mix the pepitas a couple of times during drying, as they tend to stick together. Once the seeds are dry and crispy, store them in a tightly sealed container. (Wide mouth mason jars work great.) The seeds at the top of the post were dehydrated with no extra salt.
To Roast Pepitas
To oven roast your pepitas, drizzle lightly with olive oil or sesame oil and toss with seasonings or additional salt, if desired. Toast until crispy, mixing every 15 minutes to half hour. At 250°F it’ll take around 45 minutes to an hour to get them crispy, at 150°F it’ll take 8 to 12 hours. These should keep for a week or two in a tightly sealed container.
How to Grow Pepitas
If you want to grow pepitas, it all starts with right pumpkin. As mentioned above, pepitas are pumpkin seeds that come from winter (long season) cucurbits (Cucurbita pepo L. group Pepo, Cucurbitaceae) with seeds that lack a tough outer hull.
There are several varieties of pumpkins that have hulless seeds. They include:
Other varieties are also available – look for the words “hulless”, “naked seed”, “oil seed” or “Styrian” in the description.
Preparing the Soil for Planting Pepitas
Pumpkins and winter squash like heat and rich soil. Oil see pumpkins are particularly susceptible to rot during germination because they lack a touch outer hull. Make sure your soil is warm and not too wet before planting. Work in some compost or rotten manure before planting. You can preheat the soil with garden black plastic or sturdy landscape fabric.
Plant pepitas seeds in hills, with 3-4 plants per hill. Space hills around 4-6 feet apart. Alternatively, place plants 12-18 inches apart in rows. Seeds should be ½-1” deep. Preferred soil temp is at least 65°F. Up to 90°F is acceptable during germination. Once plants are growing, mulching may be helpful to keep soil temperature between 65-75°F.
Starting Pepita Transplants Inside
Here in the upper Midwest, I typically start my pumpkin plants inside in 2-3 inch pots, two to three weeks before planting out in the garden. Do not plant out until all danger of frost is past, unless you give the plants protection. Try not to disturb the roots too much when transplanting, as rough handling will set the plants back. I like to keep the transplants small to avoid them becoming rootbound, which increases the risk of injury. See “Starting Seeds Indoors” for more seed starting tips.
Using Plant Protection
Another option I’ve used to jumpstart my pepitas seedlings is to cover where the seeds are planted with mini-greenhouses made out of old vinegar jugs with the bottoms cut out. I keep the covers on until the seedlings have a set of true leaves. The covers should be removed on a slightly overcast day with minimal wind. Alternatively, you can take the covers off for a few hours each day for several days to help get the plants used to exposure.
It’s Hard to Overfertilize Pumpkins
Sometimes I plant my pumpkins (including pepitas) in beds that are completely covered in half-rotten manure. The manure sheet composts right in the garden. I add some dirt where the pumpkin hills are (or dig some up from below the manure) so the seedlings have a spot to get established. (They won’t grow directly in the manure if it is too fresh.) The bed gets covered with heavy duty landscape fabric, and the vines sprawl all over. The composting manure adds gentle heat to the bed and fertilizes the plants all season long.
At the end of the season, I fold up the landscape fabric for reuse, and the bed is filled with rich, dark compost. The next season I follow the squash with plants that like plenty of nitrogen, like corn and cabbage. (Do not follow with root vegetables. Carrots get hairy with too much nitrogen, and potatoes are more prone to scab. Visit the Common Sense Gardening page for a full listing of gardening posts on the site.)
Harvesting Your Pepita Pumpkins
For best storage life, wipe off any loose dirt and cure at warm temperatures for about a week (I cure them in my greenhouse) before moving into cool dry storage (50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, 60 to 75 percent relative humidity). Stored like this my pumpkins have lasted into March and April the following spring, so I have months of fresh pumpkin seeds on hand.
(Note: These may be a great niche market for small scale organic producers. Check out this article “Oil Pumpkins: Niche for Organic Producers” for more information.)
The only down side with the oil seed pumpkins is that the flesh isn’t particularly tasty. It tends to be stringy and bland. For most pumpkin recipes, I prefer to use winter squash, as the flesh is denser, smoother and sweeter. If you want to use the flesh, I suggest using it similarly to large zucchini, or maybe in spaghetti squash recipes. Chickens love it, too.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please share the pepita love. 😉
You may also enjoy:
- Pumpkin Spice Scones
- Pumpkin Fruit Leather
- How to Make Pumpkin Wine
- 9 Thrifty Pumpkin Decorating Ideas – All Under $10!
- How to Cook Pumpkin or Winter Squash – 3 Easy Methods
Originally published in 2012, updated in 2016, 2018.