What exactly is pumpkin spice? A breakdown and recipe for anyone who thrives in fall

Our team is dedicated to finding and telling you more about the products and deals we love. If you love them too and decide to purchase through the links below, we may receive a commission. Pricing and availability are subject to change.

Joey Skladany is an In The Know cooking contributor. Follow him on Instagram and visit his website for more.

Whether you want to admit it or not, it’s likely you’re already sipping that PSL from Starbucks while rocking UGG boots and a knockoff Burberry scarf. Fall is, inarguably, the best season for any self-proclaimed basic, branded by its trademark pumpkin spice flavor that seemingly arrives earlier and earlier each year. 

But what exactly is in pumpkin spice? After all, the orange gourd isn’t being pulverized to create a peppery powder for coffee drinks, baked goods and practically anything corporate food America can infuse it into (looking at you, pumpkin spice cheese). 

The mixture is actually quite simple, utilizing a range of spices you likely already have in a cabinet or pantry. It can also be adjusted to accommodate individual seasoning preferences (i.e., some like a little less cinnamon and more bold, aromatic cloves).

Traditional pumpkin spice gets its roots — err — vines from the ingredients used to flavor pumpkin pie. Despite not containing any pumpkin at all, the spicy combo pays homage to the crave-worthy, comforting smells and tastes associated with fall’s most signature dessert. Generally, it’s a balanced mix of the aforementioned cinnamon and cloves, as well as ginger, nutmeg and, sometimes, allspice. McCormick & Company introduced the product commercially in 1934, though its use in cookbook recipes dates all the way back to the late 1700s. 

While you can, of course, purchase a jar of McCormick’s famous variety, it’s also one of the easiest things to make in your own kitchen (and a great way to salvage the containers that will likely hit the recycling bin by spring for lack of use.) 

Hoping to make pumpkin spice yourself? Here’s a simple recipe, taken directly from my own cookbook, Basic Bitchen (appropriately titled, right?). Incorporate it into cakes, pies, muffins, cookies and autumn’s most iconic accessory: the pumpkin spice latte, for which I’ve also included a recipe. That smiling green siren could never.

Pumpkin Spice Blend

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons ground cloves

Directions:

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and clove until combined. Transfer to an airtight container, and use as desired. 

Pumpkin Spice Latte

Ingredients for the sweetened whipped cream:

  • ½ cup heavy cream, chilled
  • 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Ingredients for the lattes: 

  • 2 tablespoons pure pumpkin puree
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • ¼ to ⅓ cup freshly brewed espresso

Directions:

  1. Make the sweetened whipped cream by whisking the cream, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla in a large bowl until the cream holds soft peaks. Keep chilled until ready to use. 
  2. Make the lattes: In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the pumpkin puree, ½ teaspoon of the pumpkin spice blend and granulated sugar. Cook, stirring constantly, until heated through, for about 2 minutes. Whisk in the vanilla and milk until fully combined and hot. Remove from the heat and transfer to a blender. Blend until frothed, 1 to 2 minutes. 
  3. Divide the espresso between two coffee mugs and add the frothed pumpkin mixture. Top with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream and garnish with a sprinkle of additional pumpkin spice blend. Serve immediately. 

Some quick tips: 

  • Whole milk is best, but you can use 2% or skim.
  • Use your favorite sugar replacement instead of granulated sugar for a lighter alternative.
  • You can roast off your own pumpkin and put it in the food processor instead of buying canned. 
  • Make this iced by adding ice to the glass before your espresso and other ingredients.

If you enjoyed this article, find out why superfood pumpkin is more than just a seasonal flavor!

Listen to the latest episode of our pop culture podcast, We Should Talk: