How To Pick The Perfect Pumpkin For Carving

Oct 14, 2020

Illinois is the top pumpkin producing state in America and Grant McCarty is a local foods and small farms educator with the University of Illinois Extension. He said when we talk about pumpking producing, we're really talking about pumpkin processing.

"We're talking about the pumpkin that ends up in the cans of Libby that you'll find at grocery stores," he said.

And most of those cans of pumpkins come from Morton, Illinois; a village that, since 1978, holds the distinction of being Pumpkin Capital of the World

"If you visit Morton and the area around it, you will find these fields of pumpkins that are growing...and yet they do not look like pumpkins," McCarty said. "They actually look more like winter squash."

McCarty said they appear dull in color.

"They don't have that traditional orange color that you think of when you think about pumpkins," he said. 

But, McCarty said, nearly 85% of processing pumpkins are grown in Morton and the history of this can be traced back to a man named Elijah Dickinson who made his way to Eureka, Illinois by way of Virginia and later, Kentucky.

"He noticed there was an opportunity for him, and his brothers, to open canning facilities in that Eureka-Morton area," said McCarty. "While he was canning beans and other vegetables, there was this opportunity to grow and can pumpkins."

This led to the Dickinson variety of pumpkin that was grown and canned for decades until Illinois achieved its "pumpkin capital" status.

"It was through the 1950s and '60s that Libby Pumpkin kind of took over the operation and started contracting with farmers to grow this particular variety of pumpkin that would then go into Libby pumpkin cans that we see today," he said.

Furthermore, McCarty said you can trace "about every single can of pumpkin in the United States as starting in the soil of Illinois, specifically more around Normal." Normal is about 25 miles from Morton.

But if you are more interested in jack-o-lanterns than pumpkin pie, Illinois is also a top producer of carving pumpkins and they are readily available. Just drive in the country and you will soon see a farm stand by the side of the road selling pumpkins, or a small field of pumpkins near someone's house, or a pumpkin patch situated near an apple orchard. 

McCarty explained why.

"Our climate works well for growing pumpkins and we also have really good soil," said McCarty who added, "Illinois really just checks all the boxes when it comes to growing pumpkins and growing the squash family."

With so many options to grow or buy pumpkins, how do you know how to pick the perfect pumpkin for carving?

McCarty says you want something that has "a little bit of weight to it."  But there's more to it than that.

"You also want to think about it being a bit more hollow -- because that's really what you want for carving -- something that is going to allow for you to get your knife in and carve the right shape for it."

Here are McCarty's tips for picking the perfect pumpkin:

  • It should have a uniform "traditional orange" color
  • No blemishes or discoloration
  • About 12 inches in height
  • Have "some weight to it"
  • Knock on it to see if it has a hollow quality
  • Has a stem (sometimes called the "handle") that is about two to three inches long.

Carry your pumpkin from its base.
Credit Connie Kuntz

Regardless of it sometimes being called the "handle" do not carry a pumpkin by its stem. Carry it from its base.

Once you get your pumpkin home, wash it with warm water and dry it off. If your pumpkin has any cuts or nicks on it, he said you can then spray those areas with a rubbing alcohol solution to slow down the decaying process.

After that, keep it in a cool area until you are ready to carve. 

The more "hollow" the pumpkin, the easier it is to control your carving utensil, but of course, be careful. Hand injuries from pumpkin carving is a common holiday-related injury. 

After you are done carving, you can coat the outside cuts with Vaseline. This is another "trick" that will help slow down the decaying process.

Happy Halloween!
Credit Connie Kuntz

McCarty recommends lighting your jack-o-lantern with a battery-powered LED lights, especially if they have Vaseline or rubbing alcohol applied on their shell.

"That can be a really great thing to consider," he said. "I worry about fires especially after you've put all this rubbing alcohol on your pumpkins."