Sunday, October 24, 2010
When picking a pumpkin this fall, look for high quality and consider what the pumpkin will be used for before making a purchase.
If you are wondering what pumpkins are used for besides jack-o’-lanterns, let me remind you of pie, soup and many other delicious dishes.
Pie pumpkins (the term is used for all culinary varieties) really are different than ornamental pumpkin varieties. Sure, you could carve or paint a pie pumpkin or cook with the flesh of the 2-foot-diameter pumpkin masterpiece. I have even tried it (in my desire to be less wasteful) but plan on being more specific in my future searches.
Ornamental pumpkins are the ones most commonly found in stores, at farmers’ markets and pumpkin patches. They are bred to have thin shells and thin interior flesh, to make them relatively lighter and easier to carve. Miniature pumpkins are an exception but are still bred for ornamental purposes.
Pie pumpkins are usually marked with a sticker in the store or are designated as such by the farmer. They are bred for sweet, good-tasting, thick flesh and have a thick shell that helps them last longer if stored properly.
Consider whether you will paint, carve or just display ornamental pumpkins before purchasing. Think about how bumps, lines and skin texture affect your intended purpose. See if the pumpkin will sit up independently and about which side might become the “front.”
For cooking, you will want a pumpkin that is heavy in relation to its size. Also, pay close attention to spots, bruising, and scrapes or scratches that penetrate the skin.
For any pumpkin you pick, you will also want to pay attention to the following qualities:
• Look for fully mature fruit. Vine-ripened pumpkins have a hard shell that protects the inner flesh from rot. If you are unsure about the pumpkin’s maturity, use a fingernail to gently scrape the skin in an inconspicuous area. The skin of a mature pumpkin is difficult to scratch.
• Healthy pumpkins have firm, dry, stems. Soft or weak stems may indicate disease problems on the vines from which the pumpkins were picked. Stems leaking sap indicate the pumpkin was picked before it was ready.
• You also really do want an intact stem. If the stem is broken off, the broken end may provide a place for water to sit and initiate decay. If cutting the pumpkin yourself from the field, leave as much of the stem intact as possible. Also, avoid carrying pumpkins by their stems — you easily end up with a busted pumpkin. If picking the pumpkin yourself in the field, leave as much of the stem intact as possible.
• Although shape makes little difference, pumpkins should be blemish-free. Discolored patches or spots are often a sign of decay. Some varieties of pumpkins have raised bumps or mottled colors, so ask the grower if you are unsure or use your best judgment.
• Pumpkins prefer to be kept cool, but in temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Now that nighttime temperatures are dropping, pick pumpkins out of the bin inside the store rather than those that have been kept outside, or talk to the farmer about his or her storage practices. Pumpkin degradation begins with cooler temperatures.
• Moisture leads to fungal and bacterial growth, so look for pumpkins that have been kept dry.
• Another tip for high quality: Wait until you are ready to cook with your pumpkin to cut it open. For jack-o’-lanterns, wait until the day of or just a few days before the day you want to display them to carve them. When exposed to air, pumpkin interiors shrivel and rot in less than a week.
— Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Contact her or an Extension Master Gardener with your gardening questions at 843-7058.