Pumpkin bread is one of my favorite fall staples! In this bake off, I tested 12 popular recipes in search of the best spices, texture and flavor for the ultimate pumpkin bread!
If you’ve ever searched for the best pumpkin bread recipe, you know there are endless options! Pumpkin bread is one of my favorite fall treats–partially because it’s basically cake masquerading as a quickbread (which feels…healthier?).
In my search for the perfect recipe, I wanted a loaf that was cinnamon-forward with balanced spices and a really tender, cakey texture. The ultimate goal? To find a loaf that would outdo all the slices that tempt from bakery shelves every fall. Let’s get into this bake off!
- 24 total tasters
- All 12 recipes were baked the day of tasting
- Tasters ranked each cake on a scale from 0-10 for overall flavor, texture, and as a whole
- Ingredients were measured by weight according to the King Arthur website
- All mix-ins and toppings like nuts, chocolate chips and crumbles were omitted (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.
Best Pumpkin Bread Results
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 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). Definitely 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. 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. So, assume Epicurious’ ratings are a little inflated (though I still think it’s a very good recipe), 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!
Analysis of the Best Pumpkin Bread Recipes
Tartine: a decadent, tender pumpkin bread recipe with a lid of sugar that will impress your fanciest foodie friends
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. With one cup of oil per 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.
The Domestic Rebel: an easy, classic, well-balanced butter-based pumpkin bread recipe
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.
Epicurious: a plush and moist, lightly spiced butter- and oil-based pumpkin loaf
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. While creaming the butter requires an extra step that most others don’t, if you’re after a really soft and moist, lightly spiced loaf, you must try this! It slid into a 3rd place finish with a whopping 94% that was ready to eat this again.
All Recipes’ Downeast Maine Pumpkin Bread: a nearly effortless, classic pumpkin bread recipe with a soft crumb, great crust and subtle spice mix
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). The beautifully bronzed, crusty exterior housed a soft interio 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” as 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.
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!
Serious Eats’ Spice Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Loaf: a slightly drier, brown butter-based pumpkin bread with a gingerbread-y spice vibe
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. This 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!).
As the only recipe that used browned butter, this had a slightly drier texture compared to others. (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.
Smitten Kitchen: a giant, plush and slightly bland pumpkin bread recipe with a cinnamon sugar topping
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. I’d also 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.
Cook’s Illustrated: a deeply-flavored pumpkin loaf with a relatively complex technique
As always, Cook’s Illustrated had a very elaborate baking technique that resulted in a balanced, caramelized sweetness that was chock-full of depth. This was one of the best pumpkin bread flavors in my opinion. However, their method was a pain. We stirred the pumpkin mixture over the stove for nearly 20 minutes trying to get the cream cheese to melt. In the end, we were foiled by some mysterious baking factors, resulting in a dense, underbaked loaf. Despite the gummy texture of the bottom half, some people still enjoyed it! (Comments included “custardy” and “I like how dense this is.”)
Joy the Baker (regular): a slightly drier pumpkin loaf with a crusty exterior
This recipe stood out for its low percentage of egg and inclusion of heavy cream. Ultimately, the amount of cream was so small, I don’t think it actually made a difference.
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). 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, 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.
PS. I know it’s weird to include two JTB loaves when there’s literally thousands of recipes on the internet! But I wanted to include both her vegan and conventional recipe given the unusual recipe characteristics.
Libby’s: a low-fat pumpkin bread recipe with a grainy, spongy texture and very little flavor
Libby’s was one recipe that used an alternative liquid (apple juice) to the water that was typical of other pumpkin breads. 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. There’s an Epicurious recipe claiming to be Libby’s, but with very different ingredients ratios. Both would probably be better than this loaf.)
Once Upon a Chef: a bland and slightly dry butter-based pumpkin bread recipe
This loaf kept popping up as the #1 search result for “best pumpkin bread recipe” and the photos looked SO appealing. Sadly, although it was a beautiful color, it was strangely bland and a little dry. This 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): a slightly crumbly pumpkin bread loaf with a nutmeg-heavy spice mix
Without egg as a binder, this loaf was super significantly more crumbly than the others 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: a healthy pumpkin bread recipe with a grainy texture and unusual flavor
When I ate this bread solo, the taste definitely grew on me. However, I still don’t prefer the combination of coconut oil and pumpkin. I’d definitely suggest making this recipe with a neutral oil instead. This is probably a good “healthy” bread, but it didn’t stand a chance next to the conventional pumpkin breads. 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!
Tips on Making the Best Pumpkin Bread
- Use oil for a more moist texture: Oil will always make for a more tender, moist loaf because it’s 100%. The higher water content in butter will always lead to a slightly drier loaf. Browning the butter can lead to an even drier texture since moisture will evaporate off during the browning process. Most recipes will compensate for this lost moisture by starting with more butter or adding another source of fat.
- Use oil and butter together for optimal flavor and texture: Getting the moisture from oil combined with the flavor and fat from butter can lead to amazing results!
- Be generous with the cinnamon: In this test, the recipes with more cinnamon performed better (and were my personal favorites). Be cautious with the stronger, more divisive spices like cloves or nutmeg unless you already know you love them!
Best Pumpkin Bread Recipe Recommendations
Erika’s Picks: Tartine, Epicurious. My dream pumpkin bread would have the flavor from Cook’s Illustrated with the volume from Smitten Kitchen. Add the crumb/topping from Tartine and texture from Epicurious made with the ease of All Recipes and that’s perfection!
Least work, best payoff: All Recipes, Domestic Rebel
Most pumpkin-forward flavor: Cook’s Illustrated
Heaviest spice flavor: Serious Eats
Best plush textures: Epicurious, Domestic Rebel, Tartine, Smitten Kitchen
My Ultimate Pumpkin Bread?!
Update: After happily making Tartine’s recipe for 5 years, I finally developed my own streusel pumpkin bread recipe combining all of the elements I described above! Let me know if you give it a try!