6 Tips for How to Pick a Pumpkin That’s Perfect for Your Jack O’ Lantern

Everyone wants to pick a pumpkin that's just right for their jack-o'-lantern, but choosing one can be tricky. Here are a few tips to know before you hit the patch.

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 (or decorating), you’ll need to know these dos and don’ts for pumpkin picking.

1. Avoid soft spots and cuts

While trekking through farm fields and nurseries to pick a pumpkin, be sure to avoid any squash with soft spots or cuts. These are tell-tale signs that that pumpkin is starting to rot. Instead, make sure the pumpkin you pick is firm all over.

2. 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 at least two inches wide. Also try to choose pumpkins with green stems. This is a good indication that the pumpkin was freshly harvested, meaning it’ll have the longest lifespan on your porch.

3. Check on the color

When choosing a carving pumpkin, make sure its color is orange throughout. Avoid green patches or brown spots, which means the pumpkin is either under- or over-ripe. A pumpkin like this can be harder to carve.

4. Avoid frost-bitten 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.

5. Don’t always pick a picture-perfect pumpkin

Of course, you want to pick a pumpkin that’s free from blemishes and soft spots, but that doesn’t mean your gourd of choice needs to be flawless. Odd-shaped pumpkins can have extra character which can make carving fun. In fact, expert carvers recommend pumpkins that are imperfect.

6. Never carry a pumpkin by its stem

When you have decided on your ideal pumpkin, carry it from the bottom. The stem might seem sturdy, but it’s not a handle. The last thing you want is to find the perfect pumpkin drop it and bruise it (or worse—split it open) when the stem breaks. And don’t be ashamed to use your local pumpkin patch’s wagons—they’re there for a reason.

Post-Picking Tips

Picking a pumpkin is the hard work—the carving and decorating is the fun part! But before you dive in and start carving, follow these bits of advice:

  • Don’t carve too early: This is a mistake many of us have made. You get excited for Halloween, you decorate the house with all the cutest (and spookiest) decor and then you carve your pumpkin right away. Before you know it, that pumpkin has seen better days. If you can stand it, wait until just a few days before Halloween to carve. Your pumpkin will be in better shape for the big day. If you can’t wait, buy a backup pumpkin to carve later in the month.
  • Don’t use traditional flames: Flickering candles look so great in jack o’ lanterns, but they aren’t the best thing to keep your ghoulish designs intact. Candles can cook the inside of your pumpkin, causing it to decay. Instead, try a battery-operated light or glow stick.
  • Don’t bake with carving pumpkins: 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 pumpkin dishes, 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. Here’s how you can make pumpkin puree ready for baking at home.

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Laura Pucillo
A freelance writer focusing mainly in food, wine and travel.