Pumpkin Pie Vs Sweet Potato Pie: What To Know About These Seasonal Favorites

Pie is one of the reigning most popular holiday desserts. There are countless variants, of course, like pecan, apple, cherry, or key lime ... but the two that seem to end up pinned against each other the most are the brightest orange of the bunch. Cue pumpkin and sweet potato, the creamiest of baked delicacies that Americans around the holidays simply can't get enough of. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of Cool Whip to the top of a triangular slice, and you're set up for the perfect end to your Thanksgiving meal.

Though the two pies can often appear indistinguishable sitting atop a dinner table due to their remarkably similar color, they are actually quite different. While it is true they are both brought into being from the flesh of orange vegetables, everything from their flavor to their texture to their very history is unique, making the two sweet treats as distinct as apples and oranges. Despite this, either choice can make a perfectly suitable and delicious option for your final course this Thanksgiving. Before you sit down at the table to craft a detailed grocery list for the rapidly approaching holiday meal, here's what you need to know about these two seasonal favorites.

What is pumpkin pie?

There is a stereotype surrounding pumpkin pie that says it is an "American thing" — and as it turns out, it's true. Pies made from the bright orange winter squash have been whipped up in the states since the arrival of the very first pilgrims from England, who, being familiar with the vegetable thanks to its popularity back in Europe, crafted the dish in the newly established colonies as a fond taste of home.

The earliest versions, according to The History Channel, were less altered and less custard-like than the ones we know today. One early recipe called only for pure pumpkin flesh to be boiled with some milk before being drained and placed within a crust ... which, unlike the modern flaky pastry vessels we love, might simply have been the shell of the pumpkin itself. The recipe evolved and grew more complex over time until a cookbook printed around 1796 featured a pumpkin pie recipe very similar to the one we follow in our kitchens today.

Little do many know, pumpkin pie has further historical significance than just the Mayflower; it also came to represent anti-slavery in the United States during the Civil War era. The treat tended to be a Northern preference, and many relevant abolitionists used it as a symbol in their political campaigns. Abraham Lincoln himself, in fact, made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 ... and the pumpkin pie has been paired right along with it ever since.

What is sweet potato pie?

While the pumpkin pie was developing into a popular holiday staple in the northern states, the sweet potato version was becoming an instant hit in the southern states. The orange potato crop arrived in America on ships during the transatlantic slave trade, according to Greatist, and was found to grow extremely easily in the hot, humid climate of the South. At the time of its arrival, the sweet potato was also taking off in Europe, becoming a staple in trending desserts and pastries ... and when notable plantation owners and other wealthy figures in the states caught wind of the overseas baking movement, they wanted in. They began requesting that sweets be made from the prevalent starchy vegetable growing out in the fields ... and not long after, the sweet potato pie was born.

Understandably, knowledge of baking with (and forming delectable pies with) the flesh of sweet potatoes developed much more heavily in the southern states, and this propensity has persisted to this day. The consistency of the dessert tends to be much less smooth texturally than its pumpkin counterpart, with chunks of softened potatoes that escape the mixer often popping up in delectable fork-fulls. For many, these pleasant inconsistencies (as well as its naturally sweet flavor, of course) are part of the pie's enduring appeal. 

Sweet potato is naturally sweeter, while pumpkin is more mild -- making it a better vessel for spices

Sweet potatoes can be a parent's secret weapon when it comes to vegetable-fighting kids. Why? Because, as the name suggests, they are genuinely sweet. Cooking causes enzymes within the starch-heavy root vegetable to break down, activating an almost candy-like sweetness in the softened bright orange flesh. Pumpkin, on the other hand, is considered to have a much more mild — even bland — flavor profile. And both of these things come with their own advantages when it comes to baking.

For a naturally sweeter dessert, sweet potato pies are always going to come out on top. However, when it comes to being the perfect vessel for heaping loads of interesting spices, pumpkin take first prize. Because of its plainer base flavor, seasonal favorites such as nutmeg or cinnamon can be sprinkled generously — and if you're a spice-lover, this might create a much more enjoyable after-dinner course. But if you're the parent of a picky kid — or even the spouse of a picky partner — and want to rely on the prospect of pure, unadulterated sugariness to encourage eating, sweet potato might be a better bet. You'll have to assess your family's own personal preferences and needs in determining which dessert will turn heads at your table.

Sweet potato will take more preparation -- unless, of course, you use a fresh pumpkin

Sweet potatoes won't be sweet unless cooked, so to create the filling for a tasty dessert, you'll have to bake before you bake the pie itself. This extra step naturally doubles the preparation time, something to keep in mind as you approach the Thanksgiving holiday. Pumpkin pies, on the other hand, are usually made with already pureed, canned pumpkin. That means that preparing a filling is as easy as using a can opener and a spoon to scoop the contents of a store-bought can into a mixing bowl full of ingredients.

However, this won't be the case if you opt to use a fresh pumpkin. Using the flesh of fresh-picked squash from the vine has become increasingly popular over the last few years, with many seasonal pumpkin patches labeling smaller, prime squash picks as "pie pumpkins" and pricing them accordingly. If you go this route, you will have to bake the pumpkin flesh in order to soften it and create a puree of similar texture to that which you would find in a can. This includes removing seeds and stringy innards ... just as you do when carving a Jack-O-Lantern. If you opt for fresh pumpkin, you may end up putting just as much work into the preparation as you would with sweet potatoes — maybe even more so.

Pumpkin pies are often lower in calories ... but sweet potato offers more nutritional benefits

With weight gain being a major concern for many over the holiday season, it stands to reason that things like calorie count, health benefits, or total sugars would come into play when planning a Thanksgiving Day dessert. And when it comes to the two most popular orange pies, we have some good news: they both present as nutritionally beneficial — albeit in different ways. 

Pumpkin measures very low, calorically speaking, and contains far less sugar than sweet potato. While one cup of cooked pumpkin flesh contains 5 grams of sugar, the same amount of sweet potato contains a whopping 18.8 grams — making pumpkin the superior choice for those whose main concern is weight loss or sticking to a lower-calorie diet plan. Sweet potatoes, however, while bringing higher amounts of both sugar and calories to the table, also bring greater amounts of nutrients than their squashy counterparts. This includes protein, healthy fats, vitamins A and C, fiber, calcium, carbohydrates, and cancer-fighting anthocyanins ... among others! These orange potatoes are a powerhouse of health benefits that deliver even when concocted into a dessert pie ... so assess your and your individual family's needs when deciding which to craft in your kitchen.

Pumpkin is overwhelmingly more popular ... unless you're from the South

The numbers speak for themselves when it comes to people's preferences, and according to a survey conducted by Instacart in 2021, pumpkin is the winner of the holiday pie popularity contest by a landslide. In the days before Thanksgiving, 46% of the pies purchased by consumers from grocery stores across America were pumpkin ones ... and interestingly enough, sweet potato didn't even make the top three. Instead, the second and third most commonly purchased selections were apple and pecan.

But despite its lack of widespread popularity, sweet potato pie is an important contender in concentrated areas of the United States — especially among Southerners and the African-American community. According to Ryan Shepard, a writer for Southern Kitchen, sweet potato pie in his African-American household was a revered staple. This popularity within his culture, the article explains, stems from the Civil War era, when enslaved people working on southern plantations had access to the root vegetable and mastered cooking with it. The dessert, Shepard insists, is an important piece of both his family and community heritage.

But the love for the potato dessert seems also to extend throughout the entirety of the South — regardless of consumers' ethnic background. Under a Reddit thread inquiring as to the pie's origins and fan base, one user commented: "I'm white and southern and my whole family eats it. Basically, a staple dessert at any gathering here in Alabama." 

Making sweet potato pie instead of pumpkin may save you money this year

There's no doubt about it — inflation is alive and kicking. And when it comes to preparing food for dozens of people come Thanksgiving Day, many are finding themselves intimidated by the potential grocery bill. Thankfully, there exist lots of helpful tips for cutting costs this season. Chicken instead of turkey? Check. White wine instead of red with dinner? Sure! But what about making sweet potato pie instead of pumpkin for dessert?

According to NPR, the price of canned pumpkin went up 18% in 2022. Ouch. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, have grown in abundance this year; thus, their prices have stayed low despite surrounding groceries' price tags steadily going up. Additionally, pumpkin pies often call for more ingredients, given that the squash's bland flavor profile requires a bit more zing to turn into something truly enjoyable. Extra items in the cart, like cinnamon, nutmeg, or evaporated milk, can quickly begin to add up. Thankfully, you can keep a sweet potato pie relatively free from expensive ingredients and still end up with incredible flavor thanks to its innate sweetness. There's no doubt opting for sweet potato over pumpkin can save you money this holiday season. That being said, if you're used to pies made from this squash, tradition can be hard to break ... so you'll have to decide if the extra cash in your pocket is worth it.

You can freeze them both ... but pumpkin will better maintain its texture

You came to the Thanksgiving table hungry and ready. You got through the appetizer spread with no problem, followed by the main course of turkey, ham, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. You start to feel your stomach complain as you take on the roasted brussel sprouts, the cranberry sauce, and the melty gravy, but you're hanging in. It's only as the gigantic dessert pie is brought to the table that it finally hits you: there's no way you can eat anymore.

Because you don't want such a delectable home-baked treat to go to waste, however, you have two options. Overeat big time — or freeze whatever leftovers the rest of your family doesn't finish for later. And when it comes to freezing to enjoy at a later date, it appears that pumpkin is the superior option. While sweet potato will likely experience major textural changes during the thawing process and feel much wetter than when it was served fresh out of the oven, one can expect minimal sogginess from a thawed-out pumpkin slice. Due to the overall creaminess of pumpkin pie filling, it holds its texture well — as long as it's prepped properly before being placed in the ice box. Be sure to wrap the remaining pie in a tight layer of plastic before condemning it to the cold — and make sure it has cooled completely on the countertop before you do.

You may be able to upgrade your pumpkin pie toppings than sweet potato

Wanting to jazz things up this Thanksgiving? Look no further than your pie ... well, your pumpkin pie, that is. Pumpkin, because of its mild flavor, can adjust to just about any creative new topping you want to throw its way. Ever thought of adding some streusel crumble on top of your orange baked creation as a sweetening, finishing garnish? What about some shredded coconut or even a decorative caramel drizzle? And did you know there even exists a Pumpkin Fig pie, in which the classic dessert is stuffed full of both pears and figs for a totally unique twist? We bet you didn't.

However, when it comes to stepping out on a culinary limb with your sweet potato pie, you may be slightly more limited in options. Because of the potato's inherent sweetness and more intense flavors, adding the above examples — streusel, coconut, or even figs — might very well turn into sugar overload, which could enter into the realm of unpleasantness. If you are looking to do something a little different with your sweet potato dessert this season, perhaps consider a topping of nuts such as pecans, almonds, or cashews that might be able to offer the palate a bit of savory relief. But hey, if super-sweet is your thing, then by all means, who are we to stop you from throwing some marshmallow or chocolate topping onto your potato pie dessert?

You may want to skip both of them if you're having international guests

While both pumpkin and sweet potato pie have a rich history of development in the United States, the desserts do appear to be overwhelmingly American. If you're having international guests this season, you might want to be prepared for a bit of a strange reaction at the sight of your unfamiliar dessert choice. "I was once in the U.S. visiting family members at Thanksgiving," divulged a foreign user on Quora, "and one of the dishes was pumpkin pie with marshmallows. Everyone else was digging into it enthusiastically and so I decided to give it a try. Never again. I suspect it is an acquired taste. And with marshmallows? Bleah!" Another user from the U.K. on a separate thread, speculating on the other orange vegetable pie in question, said: "I can't really imagine what that (sweet potato) tastes like as a dessert."

Although many outside the U.S. admit to being a bit boggled by the idea of America's most popular pies, some, at least, have enjoyed the experience of trying them. "I have lived in Australia, [the] Middle East, [the] Philippines, and South Korea," said another traveling Quora contributor, "and I think it's only in the U.S. that I encountered eating and enjoying pumpkin pie."

You can make ice creams out of both the sweet potato and pumpkin pie flavor profiles for a Thanksgiving day twist

Regardless of how much we may love the pies we grew up sharing around the holiday dinner table, there are some years we may still find ourselves desiring something just slightly different. If you're feeling a little underwhelmed with the idea of consuming yet another classic orange-crusted dessert this Thanksgiving, but you're not quite ready to give up those beloved flavors completely ... perhaps consider making an ice cream out of them.

No, seriously. Did you know that with simple ingredients such as heavy cream, maple syrup, milk, vanilla, and cooked sweet potatoes, you can craft a delicious ice cream with a flavor profile almost exactly like the original baked variant? Or that pumpkin pie filling, brown sugar, and graham cracker bits can get you a smooth frozen dessert reminiscent of the country's most popular holiday pie? Don't be afraid to think outside the box — while still remaining true to your American roots, of course — this Thanksgiving holiday. Your guests and your taste buds will likely thank you.