An enduring symbol of autumn in America, pumpkins evoke thoughts of scrumptious pies, creamy soups, moist breads and a variety of other nutritious, delicious dishes. Every favorite pumpkin recipe begins with a properly ripened pumpkin, and choosing the best pumpkin isn't based on luck. Learn to identify the good and not-so-good pumpkin traits to become a pumpkin-picking pro.
Use Your Senses
Sight, smell and touch are your tools when it comes to spotting a rotten pumpkin. Look for damage to the pumpkin skin and soft or discolored spots. The pumpkin should feel firm and possess a hard skin. Smell the pumpkin, especially the stem and blossom ends. You'll notice an unpleasant odor at the ends first if the pumpkin is overripe.
What Causes Spoilage?
Poor food hygiene and rough handling cause pumpkins to spoil. Nicks, cuts and scrapes in the outer skin that result from rough handling during harvesting, shipping and market displays leave open wounds in the pumpkin that allow mold and bacteria to enter. Bruising can also soften the shell and allow bacteria in. Diseases from the field may eventually initiate rot. For example, soilborne fungi that affect the side of the pumpkin resting on the ground may be cleaned away during harvest. Residual fungi can cause rot to develop later.
Selecting a Fresh Pumpkin
Whether you're buying a pumpkin at the market or visiting a pumpkin patch to pick your own, look for traits of a good pumpkin:
- Pumpkins come in a variety of colors, including green, white, yellow and orange. Find one with bright color and matte skin. Shiny skin typically means the pumpkin was picked before it was ripe.
- Thump a pumpkin with a light knock of one knuckle. It should sound hollow.
- Examine the outside of the pumpkin, looking for spots, discoloration, open wounds or insect damage.
- Pick up the pumpkin. It should feel heavy for its size.
- Test the stem of the pumpkin, also called the handle, by gently moving it from side to side. It should stay firmly attached. Pumpkins should be cut from the vine during harvest, not pulled or broken, so the handle should be flat on the end. The stem should be about 3 inches long, dry and hard with no splits. The area of the pumpkin around the stem should also be hard.
- Check the bottom of the pumpkin, or the blossom end. Press gently on the button where the blossom was attached. It should be firm and unyielding.
Storing a Fresh Pumpkin
Pumpkins are classified as hard winter squash. Depending on the variety, pumpkins have a shelf life of 2 to 3 months at room temperature and 3 to 5 months if refrigerated. Keep the pumpkins indoors in a dark, dry place at cool room temperature, between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in a cold climate, avoid storing pumpkins outdoors without protective shelter. Frost and freeze damage can penetrate beyond the pumpkin's outer skin, causing a breakdown in the cell structure of the flesh that encourages spoilage. A pumpkin that undergoes freeze damage becomes soft as soon as it thaws and must be discarded.
As pumpkins ripen and are separated from the vines at harvest, they go through a natural curing process, during which the outer skin hardens. Small injuries to the skin may scar over during curing. Scars appear as dry, light-colored areas, sometimes raised. They actually protect the interior of the pumpkin, so leave them intact.