Can You Eat Your Decorative Gourds?

Squash, pumpkins, and gourds aren't technically the same thing.

For centuries, seasonally minded people have welcomed fall by displaying a bounty of decorative gourds atop their dining room tables, mantles, and front porches. This phenomenon reached levels of ubiquity courtesy of a continually resurfaced McSweeny's piece originally published in 2009.   

And, sure. To a certain degree, it makes sense. Decorative gourds are fun, relatively harmless, and give any room a small dose of seasonal charm. But have you ever wondered about their practical benefits? By which I mean: Can you eat ornamental gourds?

If you've ever looked at an autumnal cornucopia and pondered whether those lumpy gourds could actually become dinner, well, you've come to the right place.

First off: What's the difference between pumpkins, gourds, and squash?

This is not as simple of a question as it might seem. All three are subcategories of the Cucurbitaceae family, meaning they are all fruits that stem from herbaceous vining plants, and so their genetics and terminology tend to overlap.

The word "pumpkin" doesn't really pertain to much, botanically. Pumpkins are just a type of squash, as is butternut squash or acorn squash. The word "gourd," on the other hand, is meant to represent a different branch of the Cucurbitaceae family.

Generally, gourds are going to have rigid exteriors, and don't have an abundance of "fleshy" insides that make them good eats—unlike squash. Most squash is cultivated for consumption, while most gourds are grown for purely decorative purposes. So really, when people define something as a gourd, they basically mean "inedible squash."

But again, these definitions are more circumstantial than anything else. A full-grown pumpkin can be considered a squash, but the miniature pumpkins people use for decor are more like gourds, in that they're small, extremely hard to open, and don't contain much edible substance. It all really comes down to whether or not it's going to be a good bite.

So, can I eat gourds or not?

Technically, yes, but there are some inherent difficulties in eating gourds. They're hard to cook, don't contain much edible substance. In other words, there are all sorts of gourds you can eat, but you probably wouldn't want to. If your gourds were good to eat, they'd actually be squashes. Get it?

What do gourds even taste like?

The simple answer? Pretty much like less-tasty squashes—definitely more bitter. In some cases, they can have a pseudo-zucchini flavor. (Zucchinis are actually members of the squash family, too.) 

What type of gourds are actually edible?

The better question is: When should we eat gourds?

The trick to eating gourds, if you want to do that in the first place, is eating them before they are fully "ripe." Basically, the earlier, the better. Younger gourds will be be softer, more malleable, and easier to cut into. The longer you wait, the tougher and more bitter your gourd will be. But it doesn't really matter which kind you decide to eat, to be honest. 

Let's assume I want to do this: How do I cook them?

Treat gourds like you would any pumpkins or squash you want to eat. Peel the skin—the skin will often be super bitter, so you'll probably want to get rid of as much of it as possible—then scoop out the flesh inside, which is the part you want to eat. From there on out, it's pretty much up to you. You are definitely going to want to cook them, either in boiling water for 20 minutes, or in your oven for about an hour at 350 degrees. You can add them to stews, soups, curries, pastries, or even just eat them raw (though to be honest that probably won't taste great).

And don't forget about the seeds. Just like you can sprinkle a little bit of parmesan cheese or cinnamon sugar atop a plate of pumpkin seeds, your gourd seeds have the chance to be a light bite ideal for autumn snacking.

So, you're saying I can eat those mini-pumpkins?

Well, yes. But eat them while they're still white, before they turn green and/or orange.

But also, maybe just decide to paint them, put them on your porch, and eat some butternut or acorn squash instead. 

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Wil Fulton is a former staff writer at Thrillist and a passionate doer of other stuff. For more info, you'll have to do a free background check.