The smell of hot apple cider and pumpkin spice-flavored everything signifies that autumn is upon us. And with the changing season come fall festivities-baking pies, navigating corn mazes and, of course, scouting out the best pumpkins you can get your hands on. But before you hit the pumpkin patches to find that ideal squash for carving, you’ll need to know these do’s and don’ts for pumpkin picking.
1. Avoid Soft Spots and Cuts
While trekking through farm fields and nurseries, be on the lookout for pumpkins with soft spots or cuts in the skin. These are a tell-tale sign that the flesh has already begun to rot. When you see a pumpkin you like, pick it up and make sure it’s firm all over. By avoiding mushiness, you’ll improve your jack-o’-lantern’s chances of lasting until Halloween.
2. Choose the Right Shape
Ideally, you’ll also want a pumpkin with a flat bottom, to ensure that it it can stand upright to display your designs. If you’re looking to carve a detailed design, look for a plump, round pumpkin that’s symmetrical on all sides. The round shape will give you more room to carve (or paint!). If your kids, however, have their eyes set on a cute, yet odd-shaped, squash, that’s OK, too! Use the pumpkin’s imperfections to inspire your design.
3. Check out the Stem
The size and strength of the stem are good signs of a strong, healthy squash. Choose one with a stem that is 2 to 3 inches wide. And a green stem will tell you your pumpkin has been freshly harvested, meaning it will have the longest lifespan.
4. Find the Heavyweights
Choose a pumpkin that feels heavy for its size. Heavier pumpkins are fleshier, meaning they haven’t decayed as much as their scrawny counterparts. Choosing the chunkiest pumpkin you can find will give it a better chance of lasting until Oct. 31.
5. Color Is Important
When choosing a carving pumpkin, make sure its color is orange throughout. Avoid green or brown spots, which mean the pumpkin is either under- or over-ripe. A pumpkin like this will look unappealing and cutting it will be difficult.
6. Avoid Frosty Pumpkins
If you live in a cooler climate, be extra wary of frost damage. Cold weather damages flesh and skin, making the pumpkin rot faster and giving it a mushy texture. To look for frost damage, check the color surrounding the stem; if it’s duller than the rest of the pumpkin’s vibrant shade of orange, put it back.
Once you’ve gotten your pumpkin home safe and sound, here are some tips on what to do next:
Don’t Carve Too Early
A rookie mistake, one we’ve all made, is getting too eager and carving pumpkins weeks before Halloween. Restrain yourself as long as you can, ideally a few days before the spooky holiday. If you carve too early, you’ll be left with a rotting mess. Keeping the pumpkin intact will make it last much longer.
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Forget the Flame
Another trick? Don’t use those old-fashioned candles to light up your designs. While the flickering lights look hauntingly perfect, the flames will make the flesh cook from the inside and decay rapidly. Instead, use a battery-powered candle or colored light stick.
Don’t Bake with the Pumpkins You Carve
Carving pumpkins were bred to be sturdy, not to pair with the delicate spices in your famous pumpkin pie. Though you can carve up any pumpkin your heart desires, if you’re planning on making Aunt Pam’s favorite pumpkin deserts from scratch, you should opt for a squash that is grown specifically for eating. The sugar pie pumpkin is a favorite. What’s the difference, you ask? The skin is slightly thinner and the flesh is sweeter than that of standard carving pumpkins.
Bring this checklist with you before taking the plunge into pumpkin patches and you’ll have guaranteed success.