This time of year conjures up images of cooler weather, autumn leaves and anything pumpkin flavored! These colorful, festive and nutritious gourds go hand in hand with our fall traditions. But did you know that these American natives have been cultivated for thousands of years, and carving them is a tradition that originates hundreds of years ago with the arrival of Irish immigrants?
Despite this enduring history, why is picking the perfect pumpkin for cooking or carving so intimidating? Fortunately, to ease the fears in making the best choice there are a few things to consider — knowing when to harvest, how to care for the fruit when removing it, and lastly caring for it so that it can be stored and enjoyed later.
For the gardeners who planted seeds in the spring, it’s time to harvest your bounty that usually takes 75 to 115 days from sowing to picking, depending on the variety. The ripened fruit can be orange, white, gray, or blue gray, depending on the type. When thumped with a finger, it should sound hollow, and the rind should be shiny and very difficult to scratch. Additionally, the stem should be hard, requiring sharp pruners or a knife when cutting it from the vine. Leaving three to four inches of the stem will slow its decay. Lastly, handle with care to prevent bruising, not lifting or carrying it by the stalk, since the heavy pumpkin can detach and break. Stemless pumpkins don’t store well.
Once harvested, allow the pumpkins to cure in the sun for seven to ten days to toughen their skin and significantly improve their flavor. However, they may need to be moved to a shed or garage on cold nights or covered with a blanket. Once cured, clean them with a weak solution of one-part bleach to ten parts water to kill any pathogens and remove any soil. Dry them thoroughly before storing them in a cool, dry location. Optimal conditions are 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit at 50 to 70 percent humidity. Do not allow the stored fruit to touch, which allows for air circulation and slows rot. Cured pumpkins may keep for two to three months.
Now that the pumpkins have been harvested, cured, and stored, it’s time to get creative! For cooking and baking, you’ll want to use a pumpkin that has a smooth, dense grain or texture and a very mild, sweet flavor. They’re often labeled “sugar pumpkins” or “pie pumpkins.” They can be cooked, frozen, canned, or immediately used in a favorite bread, soup, or pie recipe. Save the seeds for planting in next year’s garden. Keep in mind that saving pumpkin seeds from hybrid plants may not work as well as non-hybrid varieties. Always wash the pumpkin pulp off the seeds, letting them dry thoroughly before storing them in a tightly sealed jar.
Don’t worry if you didn’t include pumpkins in your garden this year because there are many shapes and sizes to choose from at the farm stand, pumpkin patch, or supermarket. How then, can you pick the very best pumpkin for carving? Any pumpkin can be carved, but generally the ones that are chosen are known as field pumpkins, having a stringier flesh. Look for one with consistent color throughout and has a hollow sound when thumped, which means that the walls are not too thick, and it’ll be easier to carve.
Ensure that the pumpkin is not soft and mushy when pressed with your finger and has no scratches, bruises, or dark spots, which may cause it to decay quicker. The pumpkin’s shape is up to personal taste but sit it down to make sure it’s flat, so it’ll not roll around. Lastly, check that the stem is green, firm, and secure.
In the end, the final product depends on the weather, summer, and a whole host of other factors. Whatever is chosen, all that really matters is making the colorful season memorable.