People are getting picky about their pumpkins, and that bin of dusty orange ones at the local market may not produce the perfect specimen to display on the porch or front steps. You've seen the white ones, the green ones, the tall ones, and squat ones, but what are their names and varieties? And if you need the perfect pumpkin for carving or cooking, which type should you choose, and how do you pick a good pumpkin? Starting with some basics and learning about the different categories of pumpkins will give you all you need to know to make the right choice.
- Skin: This is the outside, colored part of the pumpkin.
- Flesh: The stuff inside, used for cooking, is the flesh.
- Carvability: Is the pumpkin fairly easy to carve with a knife or pumpkin-carving kit? If not, it's probably more suited for painting or just leaving alone.
- Shape: Pumpkins aren't just round. They can be squat, tall, long, uneven, etc.
- Texture: Glide your fingers across the pumpkin's skin. Is it bumpy, slightly rough, or smooth as a baby's bottom? That's the pumpkin's texture.
- Ribbing: If you were drawing a pumpkin, the ribbing would be those vertical stripes you create to indicate that it is a pumpkin and not some other round object.
- Size: Pretty straightforward—big, small, miniature, medium. Size is sometimes indicated in weight.
- Keeps well/poorly: This describes a pumpkin's "shelf life" or if it has a tendency to last a few months (uncarved) or quickly wither off the vine.
Here are some of the most popular types of pumpkins for cooking and displays.
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The Big Boys
Big, fat, monster-sized pumpkins are the stars of county fairs and international pumpkin harvest festivals, where they are trucked in and hoisted on scales. Like farm animals, the largest pumpkin is the winner of an event, usually earning an award, ribbon, cash prize, and notoriety. In some places, boats are carved out of the giant pumpkins, and races are held. The world record for largest is over 2,600 pounds of orange, lumpy prize-winning pumpkin.
Jumbos also make eye-catching displays on porches and in public places. Huge pumpkins are not grown to be eaten or carved. Why? They often lack the flavor of their smaller cousins, and scooping out the pulp can be a chore.
Meet some of the heavyweights:
- Atlantic Giant: Some of the world's largest pumpkins. Size: Up to 500 pounds. Skin: Bright orange. Texture: Rough. Ribbing: Pronounced but not deep.
- Big Max: These can be pale to bright orange. Size: Can grow up to 300 pounds; slightly over 100 is more common.
- Big Moon: Skin: Bright orange color; shiny skin. Texture: Bumpy but not rough. Size: Up to 200 pounds.
- Dill's Atlantic Giant: Size: Can grow to a whopping 990 pounds.
- Musquee de Provence: Ribbing: Large and deep. Color: Orange-brown. Size: Commonly up to 20 pounds but can get much larger.
- Prizewinner: Size: Grows to an impressive 200 pounds or more. Shape: The most uniform in shape of the giants.
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Blue pumpkins contrast with their warmer orange and yellow siblings, giving them a ghostly appearance. The best of the blues include:
- Blue Lakota: An heirloom variety from the Midwest. A mix of blue and green. Ribbing: Slight. Shape: Round to oblate.
- Blue Max: See Jarrahdale, below. Color is pale blue.
- Kabocha: A squash masquerading as a green pumpkin and goes by the names Japanese Pumpkin, Ebisu, Delica, Hoka, Hokkaido Pumpkin. Popular in Japan; grown in other nations for export to Japan. Skin: Tough and green. Flesh: Yellow; stays firm and retains shape after cooking. Shape: Rounded, irregular. Edible: It has a firm texture and a sweet flavor, which makes it a great choice in the kitchen.
- Kakai: Produced in Japan. Skin: Gray with orange stripes or ribbing. Size: 5 to 8 pounds. Carvability: Good. Edible: Not a first choice for cooking, but Kakai is popular for its blue seeds, which can be roasted.
- Jarrahdale: An Australian heirloom pumpkin that was developed as a cross between the Cinderella and Blue Hubbard. Shape: Flattened but rounded like Cinderella. Skin: Light blue-gray. Ribbed: Deeply. Flesh: Golden yellow. Edible: Some pumpkin experts believe Jarrahdales are the finest pumpkins for making pumpkin pies. Its flavor is mildly sweet, with a texture that is creamy and dense. Display: Teamed with their red-orange sisters, the Cinderellas, they could potentially be the best-looking porch pumpkin display in town.
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Looking like the bright orange pumpkin that the fairy godmother turned into a carriage in Disney's animated classic, Cinderella, the aptly named pumpkins have been favorites to use as decor since the late 1800s. Red-orange varieties include:
- Cinderella (Rouge, Rouge Vif d'Estampes): Cinderella pumpkins have become increasingly popular because of their shape, bright color, and enchanting name. Shape: Flattened, yet rounded. Ribbed: Deeply. Edible: Semi-sweet, moist, and good for pies. Display: Attention-getters because of their bright red-orange skin and whimsical shape. They look especially smart when stacked on top of one another, intermittently with faux or real fall leaves.
- Lakota: This is an heirloom variety that hails from the Midwest. Skin: Red with green and black markings that follow light ribbing (lines). Shape: Pear-shaped. Size: Weighs 5 to 7 pounds. Edible: Delicious butternut squash-like flavor.
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Pumpkins for a Good Cause
The first known pumpkin to be developed and grown for a good cause: breast cancer awareness. A percentage of proceeds from the sale of pumpkins and seeds benefits the Pink Pumpkin Patch Foundation. The nonprofit was created in 2012 as part of October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Proceeds will be given to organizations involved in breast cancer research.
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- Porcelain Doll Pink Pumpkin: Shape: Squarish. Ribs: Deeply ribbed. Flesh: Deep orange. Edible: Contains a sweet flesh that is great for pies, soups, and gourmet pumpkin recipes.
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Named for their resemblance to big wheels of cheese, these pale yellow-orange pumpkins come in a variety of sizes. They are striking when displayed at different levels on the porch or front steps or when paired with bright orange pumpkins and flower pots filled with fall bloomers like chrysanthemums and calendulas. Among the best cheeses:
- Long Island Cheese: A classic pumpkin of the 19th century. Skin: Pale cheese colored. Ribbing: Light. Flesh: Deep orange. Shape: Medium; averages 10 pounds. Keeps well. Edible: Sweet Varieties include 'Long Island Cheese' and 'Shakertown Field.'
- Musee de Provence: This beauty is often sold in slices in French markets. Skin: Pale orange-yellow. Ribbing: Deep and distinct. Flesh: Yellow-orange. Shape: Medium to large. Edible: Rich, sweet, creamy, and dense.
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Ghostly White Pumpkins
White pumpkins are attractive in fall porch displays and look especially striking when paired with orange varieties. White pumpkins include:
- Baby Boo: These palm-sized minis are best in numbers―the more the merrier. Skin: Bright white; tends to turn yellow if exposed to direct sunlight. Size: Miniature. Ribbing: Deep. Edible: No. Carvability: Too small.
- Lumina: Skin: Brilliant white. Texture: Smooth. Flesh: Bright yellow. Edible: Valued for its flavor; good for baking. Carvability: It can be carved or painted; however, it doesn't last long.
- Casper: Skin: Bright white. Shape: More round than squat with only slight ribbing. Edible: Good for pies and baking. Carvability: Better to leave alone or paint than carve.
- White Ghost (also known as Valencia): Skin: Pure white. Flesh: Bright yellow and thick. Shape: Squat. Edible: Tasty. Carvability: Challenging.
- White Pie: Skin: Ivory and somewhat smooth like its orange counterpart. Shape: Small and oval. Edible: Sweet, with a buttery texture. One pumpkin is enough for a whole pie. Carvability: Average.
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The greens may resemble squash, but they are true pumpkins. Check out these varieties:
- Fairytale: An old French heirloom variety. Skin: Dark green with orange/peach blush when young. As it ages, the dark green turns to buff orange. Flesh: Surprisingly, inside it is bright orange. Shape: With its flatness and deep ribbing, fairytale bears a striking resemblance to the Cinderella pumpkin. Size: About 15 inches diameter; 6 inches high and 20 to 30 pounds. Carvability: Not good. Edible: Fairytale's sweet, creamy flesh makes this variety a good choice for cooking or baking pumpkin pies.
- Green Striped Cushaw: Skin: Stripes of green and white; green is heavily flecked with white. Flesh: Pale orange, similar to cantaloupe flesh. Shape: Crook-necked. Size: 10 to 20 pounds. Carvability: Not good; but nice for decoration. Edible: Excellent, old-fashioned favorite for pies.
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Even if your decorating space is limited, you can find room somewhere to display one or more minis. Not surprisingly, these are the kids' favorites. Popular varieties include:
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- Baby Boo: See above, Ghostly Whites.
- Jack-Be-Little: Skin: Orange. Shape: Classic plump pumpkin shape with pronounced ribbing. Size: 3 inches wide and 2 inches tall.
- Munchkin: Similar to Jack-Be-Little (above) but slightly larger, as 4 inches wide.
- Sweetie Pie: Skin: Medium orange; scalloped. Size: 3 inches wide and 2 inches tall.
- Tiger: Skin: Yellow with orange mottling. Ribs: Deep at the top, then fading at the bottom. Shape: Flat with a recessed stem. Size: About 5 inches diameter; 3 inches tall.
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Warty or Pimpled Pumpkins
Most of these are hybrids or heirlooms, cultivated for their witchy and goblin-like appearances. Textured pumpkins include:
- Galeux d’Eysines: Skin: Salmon pink with warts that look like peanut shells. Edible: Good for soups; scent reminiscent of sweet potatoes and apples.
- Marina Di Chioggia: A green heirloom Italian variety. Skin: Thick and warty Shape: Squat. Size: 6 to 12 pounds. Flesh: Yellow/orange. Edible: Nice, sweet flavor makes it a favorite for cooking.
- Warty Goblin: Skin: Bright orange. Shape: Oval. Carvability: A hardshell, meaning it is difficult to cut.
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When you think about pumpkins, the color orange comes to mind. There are hundreds of varieties and hybrids of traditional orange pumpkins in assorted shapes and sizes. Many are prized for carving, eating, or both. Among them:
- Autumn Gold: An award-winning hybrid prized for early color and harvest. Skin: Classic carving-pumpkin orange. Texture: Smooth, with shallow but even ribbing. Carvability: Excellent. Size: 12 inches tall and 9 inches wide; 7 to 10 pounds.
- Connecticut Field: An heirloom variety often touted as the original Halloween pumpkin. Similar in appearance to Autumn Gold but somewhat larger. Size: 12 to 20 inches tall and 8 to 12 inches wide. Carvability: Excellent. Edible: A traditional favorite for pies.
- Jack-o'-Lantern: Another classic carving pumpkin; also an heirloom. Texture: Very smooth, with shallow ribbing. Size: 12 inches tall and wide; 7 to 10 pounds. Shape: Round to slightly elongated.
- Sugar or Pie Pumpkins: Good for carving but better for eating. Somewhat smaller and rounder than its relative Connecticut Field.
- Winter Luxury: Skin: Netted, or veiled; pale orange. Size: 6 to 9 pounds. Edible: With rich, creamy flesh, this variety is a longtime favorite for baking.
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Turbans resemble pumpkins but are technically squash. These hat- or turban-shaped squash are often bright orange with veins of green and white and are a variety that Native Americans grow. Shape: Looks like a cap or turban. Flesh: Stringy and pale yellow. Edible: Turbans have an excellent flavor that makes them ideal for baking, roasting, in soups, and as a steamed vegetable. Some parts of the flowers are also edible.
How to Pick a Pumpkin
Most people have picked many pumpkins for carving a jack-o'-lantern at Halloween, and this is usually a matter of taste. There are those who like tall, skinny pumpkins; others like short, fat ones; and some just like to survey the offerings at the pumpkin patch and wait for a pumpkin to catch their eye (sort of like picking a puppy). But beyond personal taste, there are a few tricks to selecting a good carver.
You may have less experience choosing a pumpkin for cooking or knowing when a pumpkin is ready for harvest in your garden. It all depends on the type of pumpkin and what you plan to do with it.
Tips for Harvesting Pumpkins
- Pumpkins are ready to harvest when their skins display their mature color. Many pumpkins change color as they develop, sometimes dramatically so. The color is locked in at the time of harvest, so don't expect an immature pumpkin to change color after it's picked.
- Dry and withering vines are another indication that pumpkins are ready to harvest.
- Make sure pumpkins are sufficiently hard if you plan to store them. Test for hardness by pressing the skin with your fingernail: It should not break or crack the skin.
- Nicks, gouges, and bruises invite rot and disease. If any pumpkins are damaged, its better to cook or carve them than to store them or use them for decoration.
Tips for Picking Pumpkins to Carve
- Choose a carving or drilling pumpkin with smooth, hard skin, but not rock-hard. It shouldn't feel like wood, for example. Overly hard skin is difficult—and sometimes dangerous—to carve.
- Avoid pumpkins with very thick skin. Tap on the pumpkin like you're knocking on a door: If it sounds and feels completely solid (not hollow), it's probably very thick-skinned. Pumpkins that are heavier than others of the same size also tend to have thicker skin.
- If you're a fan of tall, skinny pumpkins, be aware that these typically have stringy flesh, making clean cuts more challenging.
- Good carvers have a broad face for carving and a flat base for standing up straight. Of course, a nice-looking stem is always a plus, and this may be a deal-breaker for many carving aficionados.
Tips for Picking Pumpkins to Eat
- The best cooking pumpkins tend to be relatively small, weighing about 4 to 8 pounds, and have flesh that is dense and contains a high percentage of sugar. Most have a smooth texture, but this is not always the case.
- Shinier skin is not necessarily better than dull skin. As pumpkins age, their skin looses sheen, but their flesh gains sweetness.
- Avoid pumpkins with bruises, cuts, soft spots, or other signs of damage or poor condition. Skin damage quickly leads to rot.
- Super sweet pumpkins favored for pie filling often have revealing names, like 'New England Pie Pumpkin' and 'Small Sugar Pumpkin'. Some are simply advertised as "pie pumpkins" or "sugar pumpkins." Other varieties that are generally good for cooking and eating include: 'Baby Pam', 'Autumn Gold', 'Ghost Rider', and 'Lumina', a variety with ghostly white skin and bright orange (and very tasty) flesh.
- Crookneck pumpkins, or crookneck squash, may look strange, with their gooseneck shape and bulbous bases, but they have smooth (not stringy) and tasty flesh and skin that is easy to peel.
- Plan to roast the seeds from almost any type of pumpkin you choose, whether you're cooking or carving it.