How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin for Any Occasion

We’ve rounded up the top tips for the pumpkin patch. Plus, how to recycle your gourd post-holiday.

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If you’re heading to a pumpkin patch soon, you’ll likely be wading through a field of orange. Pumpkin patches yield about 1,000 pumpkins per acre—that’s a lot of options. It can be overwhelming to know which one is the best for your pie or jack-o’-lantern.

And even scarier than aimlessly roaming around a pumpkin patch: what your jack-o’-lantern looks like by the end of the holidays. What are you supposed to do with that? Here, we asked experts for their top advice for pumpkin picking and post-holiday disposal.

First Things First: Have a Plan

Know what you’re looking for before heading to the pumpkin patch. Do you want a pumpkin for a jack-o’-lantern or to bake with? Pick the wrong one and you might bend your carving knife on a too-thick pumpkin or end up eating a watery gourd.

Carving pumpkins, otherwise known as field pumpkins, are typically thinner and easier to slice into. They have fewer guts inside, making them stringier and not good for baking. Pie pumpkins, also called sugar pumpkins, are smaller, rounder, and heavier. Farms often label sections of the patch for pie pumpkins and carving pumpkins, so keep an eye out or ask for help when you arrive. Be sure to call ahead and make sure the patch has wheelbarrows or wagons if you’re planning on picking more than one pumpkin.

Carving Pumpkins

Joy Barlogia, owner of Jack Creek Farms in Templeton, California, says a carving pumpkin can be any shape or size, with as many bumps and warts as you want. Just make sure to select one with a flat bottom so it doesn’t tip over on your porch.

Give it a good once-over before committing. “Choose a pumpkin that’s firm and has its stem still intact,” Barlogia says. “Squeezing the pumpkin can tell you how long it’s going to sit on your porch—any soft spots won’t last long.” She adds that a healthy pumpkin has a strong stem, and pumpkins that are dehydrated have brittle stems that easily break off. And don’t lift or carry any pumpkin by its stem, as they’ll likely break.

Baking Pumpkins

The right baking pumpkin will feel heavy because it contains more flesh. James Beard Award-winning food writer Christine Gallary says to look out for varieties like Baby Pam, Ghost Rider, Autumn Gold, and Cinderella. These pumpkins have fewer seeds and, when cooked, have a tender texture and sweet, sugary flavor.

The Peterson Sisters Pumpkin Patch in Chico, California, recommends looking for a variety called the Hobbit pumpkin, especially when cooking for a crowd. These are usually medium-sized, around 10 to 12 pounds, so there’s plenty of pumpkin to use. And if all else fails, get creative: “If only big carving pumpkins are available, choose a winter squash like butternut squash instead for the best results,” Gallary says.

What About After the Holidays?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 1.3 billion pounds of pumpkin end up in landfills throughout the year. These rotting pumpkins release methane gas that contributes to climate change, so recycling pumpkins is a more environmentally-friendly option than throwing them away. The National Wildlife Federation suggests composting pumpkins by removing the seeds, chopping them up, and placing them in a compost bin. If you don’t have a bin already, check with local farms or community gardens to see if they take old pumpkins.

You can also cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds, and leave the pieces underneath a birdhouse or in the yard for squirrels and birds. The Audubon Society has an easy DIY video on how to make a hanging pumpkin feeder that birds will love.

While it’s a treat for the animals, it’s not advisable to eat jack-o’-lanterns after they’ve been carved and sitting out for days. By this point, the flesh is stringy, watery, and tough—not great for pumpkin pie.

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