From gory to gorgeous, nothing sets the tone for your Halloween decor like a jack-o’-lantern. But whether you go with a classic grin or an intricate etching, these tips will help you make the most of your pumpkin.
1. Choose the right pumpkin by choosing the right stem
When choosing a pumpkin, there are a couple of basic things you want to look for — primarily a bruise-free specimen with a flat bottom that will keep it from rolling. But you probably already know that.
Here’s the game-changing key to picking out the right pumpkin: Look at the stem.
Thin stem = thin walls: If you’re making a traditional jack-o’-lantern, look for a pumpkin with a thin-to-medium stem. This means the walls of the pumpkin won’t be as thick, making them easier to cut all the way through.
Thick stem = thick walls: If you want to carve an intricate design into your pumpkin that doesn’t actually completely pierce the flesh, look for a pumpkin with a thick stem. This means the walls of the pumpkin are thicker, so you’ll have more dimension to work with.
2. Resist the temptation to free-hand carve
It’s always best to plan ahead. Sketch your design onto your pumpkin before you start carving, or use a stencil to help guide your hand. Improvising a design often results in a wacky-looking jack-o’-lantern that will have you running to the store for pumpkin No. 2.
3. Check the weather before you cut
If you live somewhere that’s particularly damp or particularly warm through the fall, you won’t want to carve your pumpkin until a couple of days before Halloween. Once you cut into your pumpkin, it becomes susceptible to bugs, mold and rot. I live in Southern California, and I’ve had jack-o’-lanterns completely collapse after just two days in the sun, so I keep my pumpkin indoors for decoration, then carve it the morning of Halloween so it looks fresh for trick-or-treaters.
Likewise, if you live in a colder climate with a danger of frost, bring your jack-o’-lantern inside at night so it doesn’t freeze. Once it defrosts, it’s going to go mushy.
4. Remove the guts through the back, not the top
So, you’ve got your design, and now you’re ready to gut your pumpkin. So you start by cutting a hole through the top, right? Wrong!
Many people don’t realize this, but keeping the stem attached to your pumpkin is one of the best ways to keep it fresh. The stem continues to send nutrients into the pumpkin and also helps it retain moisture.
Instead of slicing through the top, try cutting a hole in the back of your pumpkin and scooping out the innards from there. (You can usually fit that back in after.)
Also, make sure to not leave any strings, goo or seeds behind. They contain excess moisture that can make the pumpkin spoil more quickly.
5. Get creative with your tool choices
You can make a very basic jack-o’-lantern with a serrated knife, but for more intricate designs, pick up some specialty tools. An X-Acto knife, apple corer and many clay working tools are useful if you want to carve something more elaborate into your pumpkin.
6. Stop the browning
Like a cut apple or potato, pumpkins can start to turn brown where they’ve been cut. Spray your pumpkin with acidulated water as you carve, then spread a thin layer of petroleum jelly on the cut sections of your design when you’re finished carving. Just remember to use an LED light instead of a regular flame candle if you use this method.
7. Think beyond candles
Instead of a tealight candle, why not try something new? Add colored holiday lights, neon glow sticks or a blinking battery-powered light to your jack-o’-lantern’s interior to give it a flashier appearance.
Before you go, check out our slideshow below.