How to Pick Pumpkins to Carve or Eat

Person in black boots standing amid colorful pumpkins

 Unsplash / Briana Tozour

If you think pumpkins are only for decoration or that pumpkin pie comes out of a can, you've probably never known what a treat growing your own pumpkins can be. There is a lot of variety in pumpkins. And it's important to consider what you'll be using the pumpkin for—cooking or carving—when you're planning what to grow or purchase. The choice between carving pumpkins and cooking pumpkins is actually very practical: Carving pumpkins should look nice and be fairly easy to cut through while cooking pumpkins should have a nice taste and texture. The following tips will help you select the right pumpkin.

How to Pick a Pumpkin

Regardless of the type of pumpkin you are looking for, there are some basic guidelines to select a good one.

  • Pumpkins are ready to harvest when the vines start to dry up and the pumpkins turn the expected color—orange, white, or a hybrid. Don't pick your pumpkin too soon because it will stop changing color once it's cut.
  • A fully mature pumpkin should be hard enough for short-term storage. Check to make sure the skin has hardened enough before picking by pressing it with your fingernail; this shouldn't crack the skin.
  • Carefully check the pumpkin for soft spots and dark bruises. Don't forget to look at the bottom of the pumpkin. The smallest nick can be enough to let in disease. And once a pumpkin starts to rot, it can go downhill pretty quickly.
  • Never pick up or carry a pumpkin by its stem. It is not a handle. The stem can easily break off, leaving the pumpkin with an open wound that invites infection and rot. This also can lead to you dropping and splitting the pumpkin.
Pumpkin growing in a pumpkin patch
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Tips for Picking Pumpkins to Carve

You can carve any type of pumpkin, gourd, or squash. A good carving pumpkin should be firm and healthy. Consider these tips to help you pick a carving pumpkin:

  • The ideal carving pumpkin should have a shell that is hard enough to protect the pumpkin but still allows you to get a knife through it. Avoid pumpkins with shells that feel as hard as a piece of wood. It can be very difficult and even dangerous to try to cut through especially hard shells.
  • You don't want a carving pumpkin with especially thick walls, as this can block light from the inside and obscure carving details. Tap the pumpkin gently, and listen for a hollow sound. The lack of a hollow sound can mean the walls are very thick. Also, lift the pumpkin to compare how heavy it is to similarly-sized pumpkins. The heavier the pumpkin, the thicker the walls. If you end up with a thick-walled pumpkin, you can shave the walls from the inside.
  • The pumpkin's shape is up to your own taste. But it's still important to test to see whether your pumpkin has a balanced base to sit on, so it doesn't roll when you display it. Furthermore, note that the tall, oblong varieties tend to be stringier inside, causing it to be difficult to make precise cuts.
  • Don't entirely avoid the small pumpkin varieties. They are great for kids to carve and for use as decorations. 'Wee-B-Little', 'Baby Bear', and the white 'Baby Boo' are all charming varieties.
  • White pumpkins varieties, such as 'Lumina', can give a spooky look to your jack-o'-lantern. They can also be painted more easily than orange pumpkins.
three jack-o'-lanterns
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Tips for Picking Pumpkins to Eat

The smaller pumpkin varieties are favored for cooking. They have dense flesh with a smooth texture and high sugar content. Take the following into consideration when cooking and eating pumpkins:

  • Cooking pumpkins usually weigh between 4 and 8 pounds.
  • Pumpkin shells get dull as they age, but the flesh usually remains intact and gets sweeter. So don't shy away from a dull pumpkin unless it's bruised or blemished.
  • You can roast and eat the seeds of any pumpkin variety.
  • Many cooking varieties have names that let you know they are destined for pie filling, such as 'Small Sugar Pumpkin' or 'New England Pie Pumpkin'.
  • Besides traditional pie pumpkins, there are several other varieties specifically bred for cooking. They include 'Baby Pam', 'Autumn Gold', and 'Ghost Rider'. The white pumpkin 'Lumina' can also be used for cooking. Although its outer shell is ghostly white, its flesh is still bright orange.
  • The 'Rouge Vif D'Etampes' variety is delicious but very hard to shell.
  • Crookneck pumpkins, also known as crookneck squash, are long and curved with a bulbous end. Their smooth tan skin is easier to peel than other pumpkins, and their orange flesh is flavorful and not stringy.
  • You often can use winter squash as a substitute for cooking pumpkins. Butternut squash in particular shows up in a lot of recipes as an alternative.
Pumpkin gratin with tomato and feta cheese
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