In this post, we attempt to sort through the thousands of pumpkin bread recipes on the internet to figure out the best, once and for all.
To start, I scraped 40 pumpkin bread recipes off the internet and analyzed them by percentage of ingredients. I then tried to select the 12 most unique recipes and then on one very long Saturday, my all-star baking friend, Jacqueline, and I baked all 12 loaves and held a tasting with 24 friends to see which one fared the best.
We omitted all mix-ins and toppings like nuts, chocolate chips and crumbles, unless it was a really simple topping like sugar for the purest pumpkin bread tasting experience.
Below, you can see the ingredient composition of each recipe, in order from lowest percentage of pumpkin to highest.
The far left of this data visualization shows the results to our question “how would you rank this pumpkin bread on a scale from 1-10?” Recipes are listed by score from highest to lowest (i.e. Tartine was #1 with an average score of nearly 8). The shaded bar represents the 25-75 percentile of ratings.
In the middle section, you can see how people ranked the moistness of each bread on a scale of 1-10 (1 being extremely dry, 5 being ideal, and 10 being overly moist). As you can see, the top-rated breads tended towards the moist side of the scale whereas some of the lower (but not all!) of the lower-rated breads were rated as dry. We had some problems baking Cook’s Illustrated, and Epicurious was tasted right out of the oven, which likely accounts for their high moisture rating–more notes below the chart.
Lastly, tasters were asked: “would you eat this again?” The far right column is pretty self-explanatory: the most desirable breads were generally the top-rated breads, and that percentage shrinks the father down the list you go.
A few notes on some of the wonkier results since, disclaimer, we are not a professional kitchen or professional bakers:
- Due to the time constraints of baking 12 loaves in one day, we baked the loaves two at a time. Smitten Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated went in at the same time (just after we raised the temperature from 325 for the first few loaves to 350 degrees for the remainder of the loaves). Unfortunately, both of these loaves exited the oven with dense, spongy bottoms (although the top half of Smitten Kitchen looked normal, and we tried to serve just the normal section to our judges). We’re still not too sure what happened (any enlightenment on this front is welcome!) but in any case, you should especially take Cook’s Illustrated’s rating with a grain of salt–I assume the rankings could have been very different had both loaves been baked properly, and this is probably a factor in why CI’s was rated so moist.
- Also due to time constraints, Epicurious came out of the oven last and in the midst of the tasting. Can room temperature pumpkin bread hold a candle to warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven pumpkin bread? Unlikely no, so assume Epicurious’ ratings are a little inflated (though I still think it’s a very good bread), and that it’s probably a little less moist than indicated above.
- I included Cookie and Kate’s “healthy” recipe and Joy the Baker’s vegan recipe out of curiosity if tasters would be able to detect the difference between more traditional pumpkin breads. Obviously, they definitely, definitely can. However, I think if you made these breads on their own, they are perfectly respectable breads!
And now, my extended thoughts on all the breads in order from #1 to #12.
Here’s what you should make if…
You want to impress fancy foodie friends (and you don’t care about calories): Tartine.
With a 96% would-eat-again score and the overall highest rating at 7.7, Tartine (of the San Francisco bakery fame) was the clear winner of the tasting. At a cup of oil per one loaf, it’s also hands-down the most decadent. It has a VERY moist, tight-crumbed, melt-in-your-mouth texture akin to cake with a spice mix that is heavy on the cinnamon (5 teaspoons!) and nutmeg. Most importantly, it has a crazy-delicious lid of sugar that shatters when you slice into it. It makes a giant mess and is virtually irresistible.
You want an easy, classic, butter-based pumpkin bread: The Domestic Rebel.
I chose Haley’s recipe since it was one of the only recipes I found that used all dark brown sugar. Ultimately, this resulted in a super caramelized looking loaf with an excellent crumb and a crowd-pleasing, well-balanced spice profile (one of my personal favorites). This loaf took a well-deserved 2nd place–did I mention it’s a one-bowl affair? It would be a knockout for best-flavor-for-least-effort except that you do have to cream butter, which is not my personal favorite kitchen task.
PS. If you like the Land O Lakes’ pumpkin bread recipe, it is virtually identical to Haley’s recipe except that it uses regular brown sugar and a different spice mix. Haley’s has more spices overall, which is also why I chose her recipe over Land O Lakes.
You love a plush texture and light spices: Epicurious.
Although tasters were likely biased by tasting this loaf fresh out of the oven, I can attest to the fact that it was still shockingly moist days after the event. Whereas other loaves dried out and became slightly grainy, Epicurious remained moist and plush. I think this can be attributed to the fact that it is the only loaf that used both butter and oil–so it’s kind of a pain to make, but if you’re after a really soft and moist loaf that uses a light hand with the spices, make this bread as written ASAP. It did slide into a cool 3rd place after all, with a whopping 94% that was ready to eat this again.
You want the best overall taste for the least effort and/or a “classic” loaf: All Recipes’ Downeast Maine Pumpkin Bread.
This tasty oil-based loaf is a breeze to whip up: just a regular two-bowl, dry-into-wet event. It rose very well and had one of the most photogenic cracks across the top of the loaf (which were surprisingly rare among our group) with a beautifully bronzed, crusty exterior, soft crumb, and subtle, balanced spice mix. It’s a pleasing loaf that scored well with a solid 4th place and a 92% would-eat-again rating. I think of this as the “classic recipe:” it epitomizes what I think of when I think about pumpkin bread and shows that great taste doesn’t have to be super complex. It also, composition-wise, is nearly identical to many others online save for the spice mix and assorted mix-ins (I just chose to call it All Recipes since that is probably the most well-known source).
For a point of reference, if you’ve ever made any of the following recipes, you’ll be familiar with this bread: Skip to my Lou, Food Network, Garlic and Zest, Lil Luna, Serious Eats, Frugal Girls, BHG. It’s also very similar to the following recipes: King Arthur, Genius Kitchen (uses brown sugar), My Baking Addiction (slightly less sugar), Taste of Home, Tasty Kitchen, Libby’s Pumpkin Bread via Epicurious (1/2 sugar, ½ brown sugar–side note, not sure why this recipe was different from the Libby’s recipe on the Nestle site), Sweet Tea & Thyme (1/3 sugar, 2/3 dark brown sugar). These are just the similar recipes of the ones I happened to scrape–it’s a very popular recipe for a reason!
You want a gingerbread-y spice vibe: Serious Eats’ Spice Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Loaf (sans chocolate chips).
You know how when you say a word over and over again it starts to lose all meaning? After eating and thinking about pumpkin bread over and over, we had to ask the question: what IS pumpkin bread? The dark look of this loaf + generous amount of ginger contributed to a very seasonal, gingerbread-y vibe, which made us ask: if you can’t taste the pumpkin, is pumpkin bread really just…spice bread? Like gingerbread in cake form? In the case of Serious Eats, this may be so (gingerbread lovers unite!). This is the only recipe that used browned butter, and this likely contributed to a slightly drier texture since browning butter reduces the overall moisture compared to using regular creamed butter. Still, it snagged a respectable 5th place considering how divisive it was (only 64% would eat again): some thought the texture was too dry while others thought it was nicely spiced–I imagine adding chocolate chips would help boost its rating at any future gathering.
You want a giant, delicious loaf for a crowd: Smitten Kitchen.
First of all, I love Deb for making a loaf that uses up an entire can of pumpkin puree (how annoying is it to have 1/4 cup of puree left in the can?). This does lead to an absolutely enormous, domed loaf. The cinnamon-sugar lid on top is insanity. It’s very moist and pumpkin-forward with a beautiful bright orange color. The only thing I would change about this would be to increase the spices as I thought it was a bit lacking in spice flavor, and perhaps swap out some white sugar for brown sugar. With a 6th place finish, my hunch is that this loaf was not as affected by our baking snafu that left the bottom dense and spongy: although many people praised the moistness of the loaf, many also expressed a desire for more flavor.
You want maximum flavor for maximum effort: Cook’s Illustrated.
As always, Cook’s Illustrated had a very elaborate baking technique that resulted in a balanced, caramelized sweetness that was chock-full of depth–one of the best pumpkin bread flavors in my opinion. However, their method was a pain in the butt. We stirred that damn pumpkin puree mix over the stove for nearly 20 minutes trying to get the lumps of cream cheese to melt and in the end, were foiled by some mysterious baking factors, resulting in a dense, underbaked loaf…that some people still enjoyed (comments included “custardy” and “I like how dense this is.”) I apologize to the great folks of CI for the loaf’s likely undeserved 7th place finish.
As for the pumpkin breads that lingered on the lower end of the scale…
Joy the Baker (regular): My notes for this bread say: ” Caramelized flavor, love the flavor profile, kind of crusty.” However, others noted that this bread was on the drier side and lacking in flavor (it reminded one taster of cornbread), so clearly not everyone was on the same page. Similarly to our cookie bake off, a lower proportion of egg did not do this loaf any favors in the tasting, leading to a drier texture. Still, 45% would eat again! I would make other loaves again before this one, but I honestly didn’t think it was a bad loaf by any means. (PS. I know it’s weird to have two JTB loaves in a tasting when there’s literally thousands of recipes on the internet, but I wanted to include her vegan recipe and her conventional recipe also stood out since it had a very low percentage of egg and also included heavy cream (which was a very small amount and I don’t think actually made a difference)).
Libbys: Libby’s was one of the recipes that used an alternative liquid (apple juice) to the water that was so typical of more widespread pumpkin bread recipes. However, it was also weirdly low in fat (just 2 tablespoons for a loaf), but it was Libby’s, so I figured there had to be a redeeming factor right? NOT RIGHT. Tasters denounced this bread for its dry, grainy, spongy, and overall weird texture. I would not make this again. (Weirdly, Libby’s also has a pumpkin-cranberry bread with more oil that looks much more promising and a recipe published on Epicurious that proclaims it is also Libby’s, but with very different ingredients ratios. Both would probably be better than this loaf.)
Once Upon a Chef: This loaf kept popping up as the #1 search result when I typed in “best pumpkin bread recipe” and the photos looked SO appealing…alas, although it was a beautiful color, it was strangely bland and a little dry (it was one of the all butter loaves, which tended to be more dry than the oil-based loaves). Unfortunately, I would not make this again.
Joy the Baker (vegan): Without egg as a binder, this loaf was super significantly more crumbly than the others out of the oven with a slightly sunken top. Most tasters noted the crumbly texture and didn’t enjoy the spice profile. I’ve made this before and think it performs far better as a standalone loaf than relative to other conventional recipes. I’d still make this again for vegan friends, and at least 38% of my friends would eat it!
Cookie and Kate: Poor Cookie and Kate. When I ate this bread solo, the taste definitely grew on me (although I still think coconut oil and pumpkin is not the best combination; I’d definitely suggest making this recipe with olive or vegetable oil instead). I think it has the potential to be a good “healthy” bread, but when consumed next to the rest of the conventional pumpkin breads composed of way more fat and sugar, this loaf didn’t stand a chance. Only 9% of tasters would eat it again, but there are tons of glowing reviews on Kate’s blog, so if you’re looking for a healthier pumpkin bread, I encourage you to try it!
- Oil makes for a more tender, moist loaf, butter leads to a drier loaf (especially if you brown the butter)
- Oil + butter can lead to a spectacularly plush consistency
- As a general rule, the loaves with a higher proportion egg performed better than those with less (though this was less true for the proportion of fat!)
- Funnily enough, the recipes with more cinnamon performed better (and were my personal favorites–I’m personally not as big a fan of cloves or nutmeg)
- My dream pumpkin loaf would have the flavor from Cook’s Illustrated with the volume from Smitten Kitchen with the crumb/topping from Tartine and the texture from Epicurious, made with the ease of All Recipes. Oh, and the nutrition facts of Cookie and Kate 😉
By the by, this post is part of Sara’s awesome Virtual Pumpkin Party! You can find all the other contributors here. Due to a weekend trip spent literally eating everything I possibly could in Mexico City this past weekend, I didn’t quite finish all the data images I had planned, but will update the post as I have them.
In the meantime, happy pumpkin bread baking! I’d love to hear your thoughts on any VIP pumpkin bread recipes that I might have missed, feedback on the process/analysis/future tastings, or thoughts in general.
PS. For more tasting madness, I also did a chocolate chip cookie bake off last month!