How do you keep your grinning jack’o’lantern from collapsing into shrivelly, bug-infested mush before the season is over? Using a good preservative (commercial or homemade) is important, but it’s only part of the story. There are lots of simple steps you can take to keep your pumpkin firm and vibrant for as long as possible.
Choose the right pumpkin. It should be very firm, blemish free, and without soft spots, which are a sign that the pumpkin is already starting to rot. You should also test the pumpkin to be sure that the bottom is level enough for your masterpiece to sit upright.
Get your timing right. Gotta have realistic expectations: no matter what you do to preserve your pumpkin, you can only expect it to be at its peak for about a week. So if you want it looking its best on Halloween, plan and carve accordingly.
Carve wisely and use the right tools. You can buy nice pumpkin carving sets in almost any grocery or discount store at this time of year, and they work great. But if you don’t want to go that route, chances are you already have everything you need in your kitchen – serrated knives will cut through the tough skin and walls of the pumpkin, and ice cream scoops are great for removing the pulp and seeds. If you happen to have a rotary tool like a Dremel, a high-speed cutting attachment (which is available at any hardware store, if one didn’t come with your original kit) turns it into a fantastic carving device. For really big pumpkins a hand-held jig saw will take a lot of the labor out of carving, and you can use a drill with a fine bit to make starter holes. No matter what you’re using to do the actual carving, wash the outside of the pumpkin before you start cutting, and try not to bruise the pumpkin or break the skin unnecessarily. Remove as much of the pulp and seeds as possible.
Use some kind of preservative after the carving is complete. The commercial pumpkin preservatives available in grocery and discount stores are relatively inexpensive and work great. If you’d rather go the homemade route, submerge the carved pumpkin in a mixture of water and household bleach (1 tablespoon bleach per gallon of water) and let it soak for a couple hours. Some people say that drying it well and giving it a coating of shellac, polyurethane, or spray adhesive after the soak will extend its freshness significantly. If you don’t go with a post-soak coating, spray the pumpkin with a bleach/water mix daily. If the pumpkins starts to look seriously shrivelly, an hour or two soak in a bleach and water bath can help a lot.
Keep the pumpkin as cool as possible, but don’t let it freeze (which will speed decay). Outdoors is best for jack’o’lantern longevity, but remember to set it in the garage overnight if a frost is expected. If you want yours to be part of your interior decor, try to keep the temperature under 70 degrees. The warmer the environment, the faster mold and rot will set in and grow. And indoors or out, keep it dry! If your pumpkin gets rained on, bring it indoors, dry it off (including the inside), and give it a night in the fridge. Pumpkins will last longer if they’re not carved, so if you want a significantly longer display period consider painting rather than carving the face.
Go for battery-powered lighting. If you want to illuminate your jack’o’lantern use a small battery light instead of a candle. It’s safer and more reliable, and it eliminates the chance of soot marks, singeing, and burns (which could make your pumpkin decay faster).