This story was originally published in October 2020.
Picking a perfect pumpkin and carving it is a hallowed fall tradition. No matter if you are picking a pumpkin from the pumpkin patch or from a bin in the supermarket, choosing a pumpkin amongst the piles or vines of orange gourds can be intimidating. Luckily, there are certain techniques you can use to pick one that is suitable for carving — and perfect for you.
Here are the basic steps to choosing the best pumpkin for you to carve, whether you are making simple jack-o-lanterns with your kids or flexing your artistic gourd carving skills.
Step 1: Pick the right variety
There are several different varieties of pumpkins available at supermarkets, farm stands and pumpkin patches. Make sure you are choosing one that was grown specifically for carving.
Michael Smith, development director of Camp Sunshine in Casco, which has been holding an annual jack-o-lantern festival since 2003, explained that there are two main types of pumpkins that you would find at a store: a carving pumpkin and a pie pumpkin.
“The difference is that carving is a softer pumpkin and pie is a hard pumpkin,” Smith said.
Within the subset of carving pumpkins, though, there is still variety. For example, white pumpkins are particularly good for carving.
“We found that the smooth white ones, the skin is a little bit softer than the orange ones,” said Judy Florenz, one of the directors of the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta. “It’s kind of easier.”
Step 2: Make sure the pumpkin has a stem
Once you have found the carving pumpkins, the next step to choosing a suitable one to carve is to make sure the pumpkin has a sturdy stem or “handle,” with no rotting around the edges.
Florenz said that she would never get a pumpkin that does not have a handle.
“It should have a really good looking stem,” Florenz said. “It should be solid and chunky and it shouldn’t be shredded or soft. That’s the point of entry for bacteria and that’s where a lot of them start rotting. If you feel around the top of the stem and feel any softness, I wouldn’t get that one.”
Step 3: Check for rotting
In general, avoid pumpkins with suspicious soft spots or open, fleshy holes.
“If you feel a squishy spot, you should not pick that one,” said Matt Pellerin, agricultural director of Treworgy Orchards in Levant. “Anything that if you touch it it’s soft, that’s the beginning of decomposition.”
Not all blemishes are deal breakers when it comes to choosing pumpkins, though. Some pumpkins will have scars where they were damaged while growing that have since healed over.
“You can feel with your finger,” Florenz said. “If it’s healed over and it’s nice and solid that shouldn’t in any way indicate that’s going to rot there. [It should have] no open, kind of weepy areas, but if there’s a scab where it’s been nicked and healed over, that’s not a problem.”
Step 4: Consider your carving style
Choose a pumpkin that is large enough for your carving project.
“Some of the smaller ones don’t have enough hollowness on the inside to put a candle in there,” Pellerin said.
Aside from the basics of choosing a large, healthy gourd, the pumpkin that is best for you to carve ultimately depends on who you are and what design you hope to create.
For example, there are two basic ways to carve a pumpkin. One is the classic jack-o-lantern way, where you scoop out the insides and cut through the pumpkin. The other carving style, which is gaining more popularity, involves carving out the top layer of flesh as opposed to cutting all the way through and backlighting it from the inside for an eerie, shadowy effect.
William Janelle, an artist based in Bridgton, has been doing the latter type of pumpkin carving for several years since entering a pumpkin carving competition in New Hampshire. The criteria for choosing a pumpkin for this kind of carving are slightly different.
“I try to stay away from light colored pumpkins and too smooth of a rind,” Janelle said. “I’ve found that the very thin smooth rind means it’s a thin pumpkin.”
Janelle said he will tap on the pumpkin to determine how thick the rind is.
“I’m looking for the highest pitch sound I can find,” Janelle said. “It usually means there’s a thicker rind there.”
If you are picking a jack-o-lantern for your child to carve, though, you should probably be looking for a lower pitched sound, indicating thinner walls that are easy to cut through.
“[Look for a] light colored pumpkin with smooth skin that has a deep bass-y kind of sound,” Janelle said.
Step 5: Think creatively
When it comes to size, shape and color, having a design in mind might help you figure out which gourd you want. Janelle said that he specifically looks out for “deformed” pumpkins, like those that are misshapen from laying and growing on one side.
“I can play with that, see something that’s in it and pull it from that,” he said.
Smith said that different carvers are going to gravitate towards different characteristics of pumpkins, from an interesting color to a specific imperfection. Having an idea of what you want to carve will help you see beauty in a pumpkin’s imperfections and the one that is perfect for you.
“At the end of the day, there’s a gourd for everyone right?” Smith said.