The Atlantic calls pumpkins “an American obsession.” According to the National Retail Federation, 46% of American households carved one in 2016. In spite of being a nearly ubiquitous Halloween activity, pumpkin carving is by no means easy or intuitive. But with the right preparation and tools, you can carve a next-level jack o’lantern that will put your past efforts to shame.
Be a pumpkin patch pro
The perfect pumpkin carving job starts at the pumpkin patch, or wherever you acquire your pumpkin. The cardinal rule of pumpkin picking is to choose a pumpkin with a stem, preferably one that is thick and green. Pumpkins with thick stems usually have thick walls, which are ideal for carving. A green stem indicates freshness. Stemless pumpkins, and gourds that are blemished, bruised, or softened, have likely been mishandled. In order to keep your jack-o’-lantern from rolling, make sure the pumpkin you choose to carve has a flat bottom.
Handle with care
A pumpkin that is grown and handled with care should be easier to carve and preserve, but only if you continue to care for it once it’s yours. Never pick up or carry a pumpkin by its stem, even if it feels like a natural handle.
Use proper pumpkin carving tools
To prepare and carve your pumpkin, you’ll need some sort of marker, a scraper, and cutting tools. While you may decide to acquire a pumpkin carving kit, you certainly don’t have to. An array of cutting, paring, and sculpting tools are suitable. Ice cream dishers are highly effective pulp scrapers. A lemon zester can be used to shave a pumpkin, adding depth. Wood-carving tools and linoleum cutters, designed for use in print-making, come in handy for intricate line work.
Cut lid at an angle, or not at all
Before cutting the top of your pumpkin, consider removing a circular chunk from the back instead. This gives you the same access to the gourd’s insides without cutting the supply of nutrients and moisture coming from the vine.
If you decide to remove the lid from your pumpkin to access the inside, take care not to cut straight up and down. Instead, cut at an angle that will prevent the lid from falling into the pumpkin when you replace it. Large carving knives and serrated knives are generally effective tools for this task.
Remove every last string of pulp
Don’t stop scraping away at a pumpkin’s insides after removing all seeds. Stave off mold by removing every string of pulp. It’s alright if some of the rind comes out with the pulp. If the inner wall of your pumpkin is much thicker than an inch, you’ll want to thin it down anyway so it’s easier to pierce.
Trace your design
Unless pumpkin carving is your niche, a pre-designed pattern or template will benefit both you and your jack-o’-lantern. Templates come standard in pumpkin carving kits these days. They’re also available for free online. Find one you like, secure it to the front of your pumpkin, and carefully trace its design.
Carve in your lap
Holding a pumpkin in your lap while carving provides stability and makes it easier to get the facial features just right. Aim for clean, up-and-down slices, using a linoleum cutter or key saw for the most intricate details. If you opted for the traditional lid-cut over a hole in the back, consider carving a second pattern on the pumpkin’s backside. When you place the pumpkin against a wall with a light source incite, it will generate some supernatural-seeming shadows.
Preserve your pumpkin
Jack-o’-lanterns rarely look and smell fresh longer than a week after they’re carved. Take this into account when picking a date to carve your pumpkin. Deterring mold is one preservation battle you’ll face. The other obstacle is dehydration. Keep your pumpkin from drying out by spraying it with water while carving. Continue to spray the pumpkin daily, adding a few drops of bleach to a spray bottle to help fight mold. Another helpful hydration strategy is to apply a layer of petroleum jelly on the pumpkin’s inside and all cut edges. This seals in moisture.
If you notice your pumpkin is drying out, try soaking facedown in cool water for several hours. After displaying your jack-0′-lantern each night, wrap the pumpkin in plastic wrap and refrigerate it. To keep your pumpkin smelling fresh, sprinkle cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves on the underside of the lid. Your apartment will smell like a bakery or cafe during the holidays.
The classic image of a jack-o’-lantern almost always includes a flickering flame on the pumpkin’s inside. But burning a candle inside a carved pumpkin is neither particularly easy nor safe. If you do decide to burn a candle, use a tea light inside a high-sided glass. This is a necessary safety precaution that doubles as shelter against wind. You’ll also need to create something resembling a chimney to provide the flame with the oxygen it needs to burn continuously.
Safer illumination alternatives include small flashlights, string lights wrapped around a glass jar, and battery-operated votive candles. Electric lights look good, are less likely to flicker out, and have the added advantage of not cooking your pumpkin. This is good for a jack-o’-lantern’s longevity.
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