Life, Left Over

Tutorial Tuesday – What To Do With A Pumpkin

Posted on: October 11, 2011

It’s October, which means it is Pumpkin Season! My daughter looks forward to the ubiquitous pumpkin patches all year, and I hardly blame her! Pumpkins are an amazing vegetable. Delicious AND gorgeous. What more could you ask for? In this entry, I’m going to lead you through the entire process of selecting, decorating, preparing and eating a pumpkin. I know many people who seem to be intimidated by pumpkins – afraid that carving will be difficult or won’t look good, unsure how to use the flesh, whatever. Pumpkins are easy and fun, so rev up your gourds and let’s go!

Selecting a Pumpkin:
The best place to get a pumpkin (like just about any other vegetable) is at a farmer’s market, or even directly out of the farmer’s pumpkin patch. We get ours from a local nursery (which also sells giant mounds of apples, yum!). Your grocery store or even Walmart will also carry lots of pumpkins to choose from.
Pumpkins will be priced in one of two ways. They can be sold by the pound, or by the unit.
Generally, larger pumpkins will go by the pound. We paid 29¢ a pound for ours, but prices will vary (a medium-large pumpkin at that rate costs around 4$). Smaller pumpkins are usually sold individually. Sometimes they will be labeled “pie pumpkins.” This category goes for 2$ each at our nursery. And then there are the itty-bitty ones. These are often among the most decorative, and go for 50¢ each here.
I have seen grocery stores sell all their large pumpkins at a flat rate (say, 5$ each), and the tiny pumpkins and other gourds may be gathered into bags and sold in groups (and I have actually seen them go by the pound as well).
The best thing to do if pricing is a concern for you is shop around as much as you can, and then buy from the place you trust the most, that gives you the best deal.

Pumpkins are beautiful
So pretty.

To determine a pumpkin’s ripeness, look at the stem and the surrounding area. If it’s soft or shows signs of rotting, move on to the next one. You want the outside rind to be firm. Examine the pumpkin for mold, mildew, or worm holes (dirt is fine, and so are bumpy blemishes). Lastly, give the pumpkin a knock. It should sound hollow.

Veins are normal

Finally, the most important part. If you’re planning to use your pumpkins for decoration, give it a critical eye. Pumpkins with a smooth, evenly-curved side are best for carving (but of course you can carve any one you’d like). Many pumpkins will have a flat or indented side that is often discolored (due to how they laid in their garden), so make sure that this won’t interfere with your plans for the pumpkin. Smaller pumpkins tend to be pretty all the way around, so if you’re using them, say, as a centerpiece on your table, you may want to go small. Make sure to find a pumpkin with “personality”! Look for the ones that really speak to you. I like the ones with fine green veins, and lots of bumps. 🙂 You can carve any size of pumpkin, so if a tiny one is begging you to carve a cute little face on it, you don’t have to say no.

Bump in the Night
It’s gonna be a bumpy road…

When you’ve purchased your pumpkins, you may want to know how best to store them. Pumpkins like to be cool, but not too cold. I live in Northern New York, where it’s already getting rather chilly, so we’re keeping our pumpkins outside. If it frosts, cover them with a sheet to protect them. If you live in a warmer climate, your pumpkins might prefer to be inside, or even in a refrigerator. An unopened pumpkin will keep for quite a while if it’s kept cool. Opened pumpkins have a shorter life span, but cooler temperatures will give them a bit longer.

Decorating a Pumpkin:

Tools Needed:
Vegetable Brush
Carving tools – saws, scoops, etc
Several bowls or buckets
Patterns and Tape
Marker (if desired)
Any other decorative tools you’d like

A – saws, B – scrapers, C – use to scrape the outside rind, D – use to poke small holes, E – pounce wheel, F – use to make slits in the rind, G – use to make triangular cuts, H – veggie brush

Bring your pumpkins home and unload them into your kitchen. Lay out a towel on the counter and run a bit of warm water in your sink (just an inch or so). Use your veggie brush to give each pumpkin a good wash, getting into all the wrinkles. Usually they’ve been washed before they hit the market, but they can get dirty again. You won’t be eating the outside rind, though, so don’t obsess. This washing is just cosmetic. Dry them off.

If you’re painting your pumpkins, like these or these, take off from here. I love to do this, too, but I’m focusing on carving today.
I’ve seen tons of creative takes on pumpkins (I’m partial to this one using thumb tacks), so let your imagination run wild!

A note on patterns and carving tools: during the month of October, pattern books, often packaged with plastic tools, are easy to find, and cheaper than dirt. It’s quite easy to assemble a large collection of both. More expensive tools are available, but we never buy them. Eventually the plastic ones will deteriorate, true, but so will the metal ones. If the pattern books don’t pique your interest, you can find downloadable patterns all over the internet, and pull-out ones in many home and crafting magazines. And of course, freehand is always acceptable. If you don’t have special pumpkin tools, a spoon and a serrated knife should get the job done.

If you’re carving, cover your table with newspaper (and maybe some of your floor) and assemble your weaponry. First, you’ll want to use the tape to attach your pattern to the pumpkin. Take care to choose a smoothly-curved surface; that’ll make it easier to transfer the pattern. You can use a pounce wheel (like I have pictured above), or virtually any other pointy object, to trace the pattern, poking holes through the paper and marking the pumpkin. If you have “punch out” patterns, you can use the poking instruments or a marker to trace the pattern. You can also draw freestyle on the pumpkin.

This is the pattern, in marker, for my Raven lantern. I used a pattern – I’m definitely not that good at drawing.

Now, it is time to excavate your pumpkin! First, take your marker and draw a circle around the stem. Make the circle large enough to comfortably reach most of your arm into the pumpkin. Take one of your pumpkin saws (or a serrated knife) and cut out your circle. Angle your cut just slightly inward (the tip inside the pumpkin closer to the center of the circle than the handle) so that there will be a sort of “shelf” to support the “lid” of your pumpkin. Before lifting the lid off, use your saw to make some kind of notch on the back side, so that you can line up the lid properly later.

Beautiful stems are just a bonus

When you lift the lid, it may resist you. Just keep pulling; the stringy fibers inside will pull out. Cut off the dangly bits and put them in a bucket, and set it aside. If you look inside your pumpkin, you’ll see a lot of empty space and a weblike network of fibers covered with seeds. Reach in (yes it’s a little slimy) and start yanking out the fibers and seeds. Dump them all into a bowl or bucket. When it gets hard to get it out with your hands, employ your scoop. Try to get all of the stringy bits and seeds out before you start really scraping at the meat of the pumpkin, so you can put them into different bowls (this doesn’t really matter, but it makes it easier later on).

Use your scraping tool to start digging into the inside of the pumpkin, scraping away the good stuff. Pull it out and put in a container. Keep going until your arm falls off, haha. Your goal should be to get the pumpkin to a relatively uniform thickness of around an inch or slightly less. If it’s too thin, it may be too weak to support your carving. If it’s too thick, it’ll be hard to carve (and you’ll be wasting lots of tasty pumpkin!). Our general rule of thumb is to press on the rind from the inside. If you can indent (exdent?) the rind slightly, you’re about where you want to be. Don’t forget to cut or scrape the flesh from the bottom of your lid. When you’re done harvesting, take your containers of yummy pumpkin into the kitchen. You’ll still need a bowl for the pieces you carve out, however.

Ready to Carve
All scraped and ready to go

Get comfortable with your pumpkin and a saw. Your pattern may have given you instructions about which areas to cut out first; if so, follow them. If not, a good rule of thumb is to cut out the smallest, most detailed, and most interior pieces first. Be aware that as you cut, the surrounding parts will be less supportive. You don’t want to be cutting the center of a spider web last. Other than that, there are no rules. Cut as you see fit. Plastic pumpkin tools are always quite blunt, so don’t worry about cuts. Kids can do this, and generally love to! Follow the pattern you pounced, traced, or otherwise transferred onto your pumpkin (or don’t follow it – it’s YOUR pumpkin), placing the cut out pieces in a container as you go. If you’re not comfortable with the saw, here’s a cool idea involving cookie cutters and a mallet!

Do not start from the outside. Error.
Don’t start from the outside.

Start on the inside. Good job.
Good job.

When you’re done, sit back and give it a look. Does it need any touch-ups? Pay special attention to the angle of your cuts through the flesh, and remember that there’ll be light shining out. When you’re happy with it, use a slightly damp cloth to wipe away any juices or other leftovers. Set a small candle (or one of those fancy little electric lights) inside and let it glow! Pumpkin lanterns ALWAYS look better in the dark, lit from within, so even if you’re not entirely happy with it, don’t consider it a failure. Set your pumpkin carving outside and share it with the world!

They are hard to get good pictures of, especially with a mediocre camera.

When you master the standard technique, there are lots of other cool things to learn. You can scrape off some of the rind from the outside, leaving some of the inner flesh, so the light shines through. You get a lovely muted tone of light. This technique can be used to make much more detailed and subtle designs. This gallery shows this technique used several times. If you’re a true pumpkin master, the internet can be your guide into advanced techniques of pumpkin-fu.

Carving and other forms of decorating with pumpkins are only the beginning of the pumpkin fun. Our Pumpkin Extravaganza continues with a special Bonus Thursday entry on how to turn your pumpkin flesh into puree, and Food Friday will include a number of mouth-watering recipes.


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