The Best Pumpkins for Jack-O'-Lanterns
Before you head out to the pumpkin patch to buy a pumpkin for your jack-o'-lantern, here's what you need to know to choose the right one. Small, dense pumpkins are the best to cook with. For your jack-o'-lantern, you want a pumpkin that is taller, giving you space for your artwork, and with less flesh, making it easier to carve. There are three varieties of pumpkin that have been traditionally used for carving:
- Jack-o'-Lantern Pumpkins
- Connecticut Field Pumpkins
- Howden Pumpkins
Jack-o'-lantern pumpkins are a smaller heirloom variety that was bred specifically to carve into jack-o'-lanterns. The fruit is ribbed and a deep orange color. Each pumpkin weighs between 7 and 10 pounds and stands about 10 inches high. The vines grow to about 10 feet long. They can be trellised as long as you provide support for the hanging fruit; otherwise, the weight of the fruit will pull the vine off of the trellis. Because this is a smaller pumpkin, it can also be used for cooking.
Connecticut Field Pumpkins
Connecticut Field pumpkins are the original jack-o'-lantern. They were grown by the Native Americans prior to colonization by the Europeans and were part of the original Thanksgiving feast. The name "Connecticut Field" refers to the fact that these pumpkins were grown in corn fields as one of the Three Sisters.
The fruit is a deep orange color and more smooth than ribbed. Each one weighs between 15 and 20 pounds and stands between 12 and 18 inches high. They are easy to carve because the rind is very thin. Connecticut Field pumpkins have flat bottoms, making them very stable and perfect for sitting on your porch or in your window.
The Three Sisters
Native Americans planted corn, squash, and beans together in their fields, calling them the Three Sisters. The beans provided nitrogen to the soil. The corn provided the beans with something to climb, while the squash vines shaded out weeds.
Howden pumpkins were developed by John Howden in his backyard garden in Massachusetts in the 1960s. They have become the classic jack-o'-lantern pumpkin. These are the pumpkins that you most often see offered for sale in stores. The fruit is deep orange and ribbed and can weigh up to 30 pounds. They have the flat bottoms and thin rinds of their Connecticut Field forebears but last longer after carving. The vines grow to 10 feet and produce 4 to 6 pumpkins on each vine.
How to Choose and Carve a Pumpkin
- Choose a symmetrical, unblemished pumpkin with a long "handle"—or, if you are harvesting pumpkins from your garden, when cutting from the vine, leave enough stem to form a long handle. Always cut your pumpkins from the vine rather than trying to pull them off which can damage both the pumpkin and the vine. Pumpkins with long handles will last longer. Short or non-existent handles result in the fruit rotting quickly.
- Cut the top off the pumpkin, making a hole that is large enough for you to comfortably get your hand into. This will make it easier to scoop out the stringy flesh and seeds. After you have completely cleaned out your pumpkin, find its best side and draw your design on the outside with washable marker. Carve out your design with a sharp knife.
- Once they are carved, pumpkins begin to deteriorate. You can extend their lifespan a few ways. During the day, keep your jack-o'-lantern out of the sunlight. At night, illuminate it with a small electric light rather than a candle. The heat from the candle speeds the decay. If you must have the authenticity of a candle, then only light it for a few hours each night.
- And don't forget to roast the seeds for a delicious snack while you are handing out candy to trick-or-treaters.
How to Roast Pumpkin Seeds
- Separate the seeds from the stringy flesh and wash them.
- Soak the seeds for a few hours in salt water and then dry them on a paper towel.
- Season the seeds with salt or seasoning of your choice.
- Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast in a 350°F oven until golden brown.
Roasted seeds can be stored in an airtight container for up to one week.
© 2014 Caren White