Last, we talked about the tools - now onto the pumpkins!
Here are my tips for picking pumpkins:
- Try to avoid your inner kid that screams for the bigger/biggest pumpkin you can find. It's not a great idea. Pumpkins need to be in proportion to the stencil that you carve in it - usually 8.5" x 11". I could probably google jack-o-lantern and come up with a ton of examples to show you how silly a huge pumpkin is with a small uncentered carving near the top somewhere. They look strange. Make sure your stencil will fill the entire face of your pumpkin.
- In fact, go small! Because most people buy their pumpkins at the grocery store where all the pumpkins are supplied by the same farmer who planted them all at the same time, they're all roughly the same size. But find a little one and do a detailed carving on that one and I think it looks even better than if it were on a "standard" sized pumpkin.
- Make sure your pumpkin can stand unsupported. Pumpkins often grow on their side in the fields, which means that the pumpkin might not stand unsupported on what we consider the bottom. You should check to see that the pumpkin will stand on its own.
- Find a pumpkin with a great face. The pumpkin does not need to be perfect, round, or stately - all you need is one side of the pumpkin that is relatively even that you could put a pattern on.
- Make sure that face is relatively smooth if you are doing detailed carves for the first time. All pumpkins have this undulating scallop around them so you'll never find one that is perfectly smooth, but stay away from the ones with the deep grooves.
- Colour: because the pumpkins that are sold are generally of the same variety, they are pretty solidly pumpkin orange, as you'd expect. However, there are some fantastic white pumpkins that you'll see (note: these are closer to melons than gourds and can be much harder in consistency - like the difference between pink stuff and firm cut), and I really like the orange pumpkins that have patches of green on them. There's actually a really wide variety of size and colours of pumpkins - you just have to search them out. Find a variety, it's the spice of life...
- Check the pumpkin all over for signs of soft spots or rot. If the pumpkin already has a spot like that and you carve it, you'll have a liquid pumpkin in short order. It's cyclical, but some years are great with nice clean pumpkins, other years you can hardly find one in ten without rot. (This year in southern Ontario, the pumpkins are looking good!)
- Look for a nice stem. Some of the farmers cut the stem right down to the flesh of the pumpkin, which I think is sad. I like a nice long woody stem, bonus points if there are also curly tendrils still attached. This has no bearing on the carving of the pumpkin, but I think it looks classy.
Next up: making the perfect first cut!