If you think pumpkins are only for decoration and pumpkin pie comes out of a can, you’ve probably never known what a treat growing and harvesting your own pumpkins can be. All pumpkins aren’t created equal and bigger isn’t necessarily better. Although it’s easier than ever to grow some of those giant pumpkins entered into competition, an 800 pound pumpkin isn’t practical for carving and just think of the left-over pie!
There's a lot of variety in pumpkins. It pays to consider what you'll be using your pumpkin for - cooking or carving - when you go shopping for one. The choice between carving pumpkins and cooking pumpkins is actually very practical. When choosing a carving pumpkin, you’re looking for a nice shape and a pumpkin that will last several days, once carved. The choice of a cooking pumpkin is all about taste and texture.
Whatever type of pumpkin you’re looking for, there are some basic guidelines.
- First, your pumpkin should be fully mature when it’s picked, so that it is hard enough for short-term storage.
- Never pick up or carry a pumpkin by its stem. It is not a handle. The stem can break off very easily, leaving the pumpkin with an open wound that invites infection and rot.
- Check the pumpkin well for soft spots and dark bruises. Once a pumpkin starts to rot, it goes downhill pretty quickly. The smallest nick is enough to let infection in. Don’t forget to look at the bottom of the pumpkin, where it’s been resting on the cold, damp ground.
When to Harvest
- Pumpkins are ready to harvest when the vines start to dry up and the pumpkins turn the expected color, whether that’s orange, white or some type of combination. You don’t want to pick your pumpkin too soon, because it will stop changing color once it’s cut.
- Check to make sure the skin has hardened enough so that pressing it with your fingernail will not crack it.
- Pumpkins can be left in the field, even after the vines have withered. However don't leave them out if a hard frost is expected or if hungry critters are about.
Picking a Pumpkin for Carving
- You can carve any type of pumpkin, gourd or squash. A good carving pumpkin should be firm and healthy. Ideally you want one with a shell that is hard enough to protect it, but still allows you to get a knife through. Pumpkins with outer shells that feel as hard as a piece of wood are very difficult, and dangerous, to slice into.
- Tap the pumpkin gently and listen for a slightly hollow sound. Lifting the pumpkin will also give you a good idea of how dense it is. The heavier the pumpkin, the thicker the walls. Thick walls block the candle light and carving details will be lost. If worse comes to worse, you can shave the walls from the inside.
- The tall, oblong-shaped varieties tend to be stringier inside, making it difficult to make precise cuts.
- Shape is up to your own taste, but test to see if your pumpkin has a good, balanced base to sit on, so it doesn’t roll over when you try to display it.
- Don’t discount the smaller pumpkins entirely. They’re great for kids to carve and to use as decorations. ‘Wee-B-Little’, ‘Baby Bear’ and the white ‘Baby Boo’ are all charming.
- White pumpkins, like ‘Lumina’ give a spooky look to your jack-o'-lantern. They can also be painted more easily than orange pumpkins and most make great cooking pumpkins too.
Keeping a Carved Pumpkin Fresh
Your jack-o'-lantern will start to dry and shrivel as soon as it is cut and exposed to the air. If you need to carve your pumpkin a few days before you’ll be displaying it, try these tips to keep it fresh longer:
- Keep it in a cool spot, out of direct sunlight.
- Spray it with an anti-transpirant, like Wilt-Pruf.
- Drape the entire pumpkin with a damp towel.
- Protect it from animals that might be tempted to take a bite.
- Don’t leave it outdoors if there’s a threat of frost.
Pumpkins for carving are strictly for show. If you’re going to be using your pumpkins for cooking and baking, you want the sweetest pumpkins you can find. A smooth, creamy texture is important too. And having an outer shell on your pumpkin that doesn’t require a power tool to remove is a nice plus.
Tips for Picking a Great Pumpkin for Eating
- The smaller varieties are favored for cooking. They have denser flesh with a smooth texture and a higher sugar content. Cooking pumpkins usually weigh in between 4 -8 pounds.
- Pumpkin shells get dull as they age, but the flesh should remain intact and can even get sweeter. Don’t shy away from a dull pumpkin unless it is also bruised or blemished.
- Many cooking varieties help you find them with names like ‘Small Sugar Pumpkin’ or ‘New England Pie Pumpkin’.
- Besides the traditional pie pumpkins, there are several new varieties being bred specifically for cooking. Some nice, recent introductions include: ‘Baby Pam’, ‘Autumn Gold’ and ‘Ghost Rider’. The white pumpkin ‘Lumina’ is also rapidly becoming a favorite. Although its outer shell is ghostly white, the flesh is still bright orange.
- You can also use winter squash as a substitute for cooking pumpkins. These tend to be the related species, Cucurbita maxima, (pumpkins are C. pepo), which has a harder shell and stores longer. Butternut squash, in particular, shows up in a lot of old recipes as an alternative. Most commercial canned pumpkin is actually some type of C. maxima squash, like ‘Dickinson Field’.
- Crook-necked squash, sometimes called neck pumpkins, are long and curved with a bulbous end. Their smooth tan skin is easier to peel than other pumpkins and the orange flesh is flavorful and stringless.
- The Cinderella or Fairy Tale Pumpkin, ‘Rouge Vif D'Etampes’, is delicious, but very hard to shell. It looks beautiful though and since it’s a C. maxima, it lasts for months.
- Although you can roast and eat the seeds of any pumpkin, ‘Kakai’ is an orange and black pumpkin from Australia, with the type of seeds that are being studied for their ability to promote prostate health. They’re delicious too.
Pumpkins are more than a Halloween oddity and it’s a shame we don’t use them more in cooking. Maybe these recipes will tempt you to grow and eat more pumpkins.