Want Your Jack
Like the ghouls and ghosts who spook us every Halloween, jack-o’-lanterns—so tempting to tiny predators and susceptible to mold and rot—are not really meant for this earthly plane.
“The typical jack-o’-lantern normally has a three-day life expectancy at best,” said Marc Evan, co-founder of Maniac Pumpkin Carvers in Brooklyn, New York, in a phone interview. “With something so highly perishable, it’s a very zen thing, to carve a pumpkin knowing that it might not last as long as it took you to make it.”
However, if you’re determined to make your jack-o’-lantern endure for as long as humanly possible, Evan and his Maniac Pumpkin Carvers co-founder, Chris Soria, say you can take several preventative steps to decelerate its demise. I also spoke to Wirecutter contributor Taryn Mohrman, who wrote our step-by-step guide on how to carve a jack-o’-lantern, for further advice. Just keep in mind that, as Evan pointed out, “Even with everything that you do to try and preserve them, sometimes they still rot in three days. But you can always carve more pumpkins.”
We do not recommend brining pumpkins, spraying them with bleach or, um, coating them in WD-40, as some questionable advisors on the internet might suggest. Any of these options can be harmful to wildlife—not to mention that they are a lot of work for what might still be little or no payoff.
That’s right: Most people are cutting their jack-o’-lantern’s hole (through which you scoop out the inside) in the wrong place.
The stem is crucial to preserve for structural reasons. As Soria put it, “It’s almost like the top of an umbrella holding the pumpkin together. If you cut through the top, after a day or two, that lid tends to fall right through the hole you’ve made. Then it’s only a matter of time before the pumpkin is completely gone.”
So when you’re ready to turn your pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern, begin by either cutting a hole in the bottom, as Taryn recommends, or on the back side of your creation, as Evan suggests. And either way, save that piece so you can put it back in place like a stopper when you’re done. The Messermeister 3-Piece Pumpkin Carving Set we recommend comes with a sawtooth carver that’s perfect for this step. And we like the Homemory Flameless LED Tea Light Candles to light it up.
This durable stainless steel set includes everything you need to cut, scrape, and etch your way to the perfect jack-o’-lantern.
Fresh pumpkins last longer, and “typically, the freshest pumpkins are available at farm stands, farmer’s markets, and pumpkin patches,” Evan said. “Pumpkins from grocery stores or big-box stores are never as fresh as when you go directly to the source.”
Pumpkins at optimal freshness display telltale signs, starting with that essential stem: A fresh gourd has its stem firmly attached, and the greener the stem, the better. “The stem is the lifeline,” Evan explained. “Some nutrients are still going into the pumpkin through the stem after it’s been picked. As pumpkins get older, the stems get dry and brittle and tend to fall off pretty easily.”
You should also pick up the pumpkin (by the bottom, never the stem—it’s not a handle) and give it a visual once-over. Look for smooth, unblemished skin that’s free from bruising (a sign it may rot quickly) or holes created by burrowing critters.
Pumpkins like cool temperatures and circulating air, so they fare better amid chilly autumnal breezes than inside your house (especially if you have your heat on). “If you keep it indoors, how long it’s going to last is going to be hit or miss,” Evan explained. “If it’s kept outdoors or at least cool prior to carving, it’s going to last a long time.” Don’t worry about wildlife showing interest at this stage, as he added that “the animals tend to leave them alone until they’re carved.”
Alternatively, you can stash your pumpkin in a fridge if you’ve got the space, and if you’re certain it won’t get too cold in there. “Refrigeration is good; freezing is bad,” Evan said. “Pumpkins are made mostly of water, so once you freeze them, the cell walls can break, and they can lose their structure.”
A basic scrub-down with soap and water helps remove some of the bacteria, yeast, or airborne contaminants that may be on your pumpkin’s surface, Evan said, which could be transmitted to the interior during carving and speed up the degradation process. For the same reason, you should also wash your carving tools before getting to work.
As Taryn has noted, removing all of a pumpkin’s seeds and pulp is crucial for keeping moisture at bay. After using a scraper (like the one included in the Messermeister set), ensure that all seeds and strings have been eliminated by “reaching your hand inside the pumpkin and swirling your fingertips around to make sure nothing slimy has been left behind,” she says.
When in doubt, it’s better to cut away some of the pumpkin wall along with the pulp than to leave any pulp behind. While you’re scraping, Taryn adds, “try to keep everything smooth so moisture doesn’t have any channels or divots to build up in.” Because dampness is more of a problem on a pumpkin’s hollowed-out interior than its more rugged exterior, finish by patting the inside dry with a paper towel.
The fewer holes you carve into it, the longer your finished jack-o’-lantern will last, Soria said. As much as possible, try scraping intricate designs into the flesh at varying depths. (The Messermeister set contains an etching tool that does the trick, and we recommend the Speedball Linoleum Cutter for this purpose as well.) It may take a little extra elbow grease, but you can thin out the flesh so that light still shines through if you want to place a battery-operated candle inside your finished piece.
Taryn suggests choosing a spot that’s relatively dry and shady. Avoid grass and direct sunlight, and consider putting your pumpkin on a literal pedestal, such as a turned-over planter, to prevent condensation from accumulating on the bottom.
Little critters aren’t the only gourd gourmands in your neighborhood; deer love them, too. Evan and Soria have found that putting jack-o’-lanterns right outside your door can dissuade larger animals from stopping by for a bite.
Because squirrels, chipmunks, and their friends can’t resist a carved pumpkin, consider storing your jack-o’-lantern inside—or somewhere protected outdoors, like an enclosed porch if you have one—overnight and during other viewing downtimes. “Bringing it in every night is what we recommend,” Evan said. “If you bring it in for the hours when it’s not on display, it will definitely give you the most time with your pumpkin.” (This might contradict the fact that pumpkins prefer a cool, dry place, but remember: You’re battling Mother Nature on multiple fronts here and just trying to outmaneuver her as long as you can.)
“The easiest, simplest, and most effective way to keep your pumpkin fresh is to check on it like you would your houseplants,” Taryn says. (Tack this task onto another thing you already do every day, like grabbing the mail or walking the dog.) “Excess sun and moisture can lead to a jack-o’-lantern’s early demise, so ask yourself: Does it need an extra pat dry? Can it be moved out of the sun and into the shade?” If there’s moisture underneath, relocate the pumpkin to a new spot until the area dries.
“One of the most common questions we get is, ‘how can I get my pumpkins to last longer—or forever?’” Soria said. “What we like to tell people is: Some of the best things in life don’t last forever, so the best thing you can do is take a photo.”
This article was edited by Annemarie Conte.
Rose Maura Lorre
Rose Maura Lorre is a senior staff writer on the discovery team at Wirecutter. Her byline has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Salon, Business Insider, HGTV Magazine, and many more. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, her daughter, one dog, two cats, and lots and lots of houseplants.