We’ve officially entered into the spookiest season of them all. With Halloween right around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about how you want to decorate your jack-o’-lantern.
Pumpkin carving is a great opportunity to decorate for Halloween while letting your personality shine through. Will you carve another creepy face this year? The classic toothy grin? Something unique that reflects your personal interests? A reference to one of your favorite shows or movies? My favorite jack-o’-lantern design I’ve ever created was the year I carved “88 mph” enclosed by two fiery streaks in homage to my favorite 1980s sci-fi movie.
Whatever design you land on, if you want the final product to look as good as you’re picturing it in your head, you need to know what goes into carving the perfect pumpkin. Here are our tips.
Pumpkin Carving: A (Spooky) History
Why do we carve pumpkins as part of our Halloween traditions? You can thank a man called Stingy Jack.
According to Irish folklore, Stingy Jack was a swindler who was known for tricking the Devil. In fact, Jack tricked the Devil so many times that when Jack died, the Devil refused to claim his soul. Unfortunately for Jack, he was such a dishonest character that he couldn’t get into heaven, either. So, the Devil sentenced Jack to an eternity of roaming the earth with nothing but a burning coal to light his way, which Jack put into a carved-out turnip. This is how he became known as “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack O’Lantern.”
To keep Jack and other evil spirits away, people crafted their own lanterns made out of turnips and potatoes, carving scary faces into the lanterns in order to frighten the spirits.
The tradition made its way to the United States when Europeans began immigrating here, and jack-o’-lanterns found their new home in North America’s native fruit, the pumpkin.
Visit HISTORY.com for the full tale.
Picking a Proper Pumpkin
Your first step to a spook-tacular jack-o’-lantern starts with choosing the ideal pumpkin. If you want to ensure that your pumpkin stays fresh for as long as possible and is easy to carve, you need to start while you’re still at the pumpkin patch. Pick one that looks healthy, feels firm and has a flat bottom.
You’ll also want to choose a pumpkin that is even in color and doesn’t have any soft spots or significant imperfections, as these can lead to premature rotting. Your chosen pumpkin should feel sturdy and sound hollow when you knock on it.
Make sure you pick a pumpkin that is the ideal size for the design you want, as well. You’ll need ample space to carve out your design, because the more cramped the space you’re working with is, the more likely you’ll end up making mistakes when it comes to carving those smaller details.
Prepping Your Pumpkin
Figure out where you’ll be doing your carving and prep the area. If it’s still warm where you are, you might consider going outside to minimize the mess, but this can also be done in the comfort of your kitchen or dining room. Wherever you are, you’ll want a sturdy surface. To make the process a little less nightmarish and to keep your workspace as neat as possible (dried pumpkin pulp can be a fright to clean), line your sturdy surface with newspaper or something similar. If you’re worried about the liner moving during the carving process, tape it down so it can’t slide around.
Get your tools ready. You can buy pumpkin carving kits at most grocery stores this time of year that come with all the basic tools you’ll need, plus a book of pre-drawn templates you can use to trace onto your pumpkin. You could probably round up some makeshift tools by using items you already have in your home, but the tools that come in kits tend to be a little safer to use than a regular kitchen knife.
Removing a pumpkin’s guts (spooky!) can be one of the most time-consuming parts of the pumpkin-carving process. However, it doesn’t have to take forever. Here’s our favorite trick: Cut the pumpkin open from the bottom rather than the top. When you cut the hole in the bottom, the majority of the pulp comes out with it, as a lot of it is attached to the bottom. Plus, it’s way easier to light a candle and place the pumpkin on top of it than reach into the pumpkin with a lighter and risk a burn.
For Halloween traditionalists who prefer a top cut or those with small children who enjoy the process of removing the “goop,” be sure to make your cut around the stem at a 45-degree angle so the lid doesn’t fall into the pumpkin.
To make the process go faster, swap the flimsy pumpkin scraper that came with your carving kit for a big spoon or ice cream scoop. Clean out as much of the pulp as you can. You want a clean, dry interior to make your pumpkin last as long as possible. If the walls of your pumpkin are particularly thick, scrape away a little bit to make it easier to carve.
Carving a Masterpiece
Like Dr. Frankenstein, you too must create a monster.
Begin by deciding what design you want for your pumpkin. It doesn’t necessarily have to be scary or even be a face at all. People have done funny faces, popular movie or TV characters, superhero logos, animals or even simple patterns like polka dots or stars. The only limit is your imagination and your carving abilities.
If it helps you to have a guide, you can use the templates that came with your carving kit or download a free one from the internet. Tape the template on your pumpkin and use the punching tool that came with your kit to poke out the design into the skin of the pumpkin. Then, remove the template and carve along the dotted lines you created. A cookie cutter can also make a useful stencil if you’re able to find the shape you want.
If you’re having trouble finding a design, you can draw your own on a piece of paper and use that as your template. You could also draw your design directly onto the pumpkin, as long as you’re confident in your abilities (or have a marker that is easily erasable if mistakes are made). Or, if you’re truly bold, skip the template, grab your carving knife and freehand it.
When it’s time to begin the carving, cut out the big chunks first and take care of the details later. Use a smaller knife or carving saw to do the details and be careful when you’re dealing with any pieces that are thin or delicate. If you accidentally chop part of the design off, you can use a toothpick to stick it back on.
Displaying Your Creation
You want your pumpkin to be in good shape for Halloween, so you probably shouldn’t take this endeavor on too early in the season. In fact, it’s best to wait until you’re one to two weeks out from Halloween before you carve. As soon as you start carving, the clock starts ticking.
There are a lot of methods touted as ways to prolong the life of your jack-o’-lantern, such as cleaning the inside of the pumpkin with a bleach and water solution, giving it an ice bath, or just keeping it in your refrigerator when it’s not on display. However, if you’re looking to keep your pumpkin maintenance to a minimum, just rub a little bit of petroleum jelly on the cut edges to keep them from drying out.
The final step is deciding how you want to light your pumpkin. Candles are traditional, but they can be a pain. LED tea lights or glow sticks are an easy and safe alternative. Some stores also sell battery-operated lights specifically made for lighting jack-o’-lanterns.
Set your pumpkin out on your doorstep, light (or turn on) your candle and get ready for the trick-or-treaters. Happy Halloween!
Bonus: Treat Yourself to a Halloween Snack
Roasted pumpkin seeds are a delicious and healthy snack, so make the most of your pumpkin and don’t let the seeds go to waste with the rest of the pumpkin scraps from your carving session.
While you’re cleaning out the inside of your pumpkin, set aside all the seeds you come across. Once you’re done collecting seeds, run them under water and scrub with your fingers to remove any large chunks of pulp. Pat the seeds dry with a paper towel, toss the seeds in some melted butter or cooking oil, and sprinkle with salt or any other seasoning you want to use. Spread the seeds on a pan lined with foil and bake at 300 degrees Fahrenheit until golden brown and crispy. Delicious and resourceful.
Fancy yourself a master carver? Share your best tips with us in the comments!
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