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No amount of candy corn can make up for the moment you realize that your carefully carved pumpkin’s smile has turned into a rotting grimace just as the trick-or-treaters start showing up at the door. The freshest pumpkin is carved October 31, so if you are tempted to start the festivities earlier, follow this advice for how to preserve a carved pumpkin. With it, you’ll have a plump pumpkin to greet the neighborhood kids once the big day arrives.
First, completely hollow out your pumpkin.
With a keyhole saw (you can purchase one from Amazon), either take off the top of the pumpkin (best if you intend to put a candle inside) or make a hole in the back. Then dig out the pumpkin pulp with a scraping tool—a spoon can do, but it helps to have something with a sharp edge or teeth, like this pumpkin scooper from Target. Be sure to remove 100 percent of the pumpkin guts, because any that remains could make a bed for mold and mildew growth.
Carve your design.
Carve the gourd by affixing a stencil and using an awl—or another thin, sharp tool—to outline the pattern with small holes before cutting. Then dig in carefully with a miniature saw or sharp knife to complete the Jack-o’-Lantern’s face (this kit from Target has all the tools you need). Even a drill can double as a carving tool—use a ½-inch or ¾-inch spade bit for making the eyes.
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Dry the interior and all cut edges of the pumpkin.
Once you’ve got the perfect ghoulish grin, the preserving process begins. Former floral design instructor with the New York Botanical Garden Adult Education Program (and pumpkin expert) Joyce Martin Demchak suggests drying the pumpkin interior using a paper towel. “Carving the pumpkin exposes it to the air, and to bacteria, which is what causes pumpkin rot,” Demchak says.
Bleach to preserve a carved pumpkin.
To delay the eventual decay, spray all open surfaces with bleach (an adult’s job, as this is not a child-appropriate task), including the edges of its face and the bottom of the lid. If you don’t have a spray bottle, Demchak recommends applying the bleach with a craft brush.
Top with a layer of petroleum jelly.
After bleach application, blot again with the paper towel to catch any residual moisture, then start smearing petroleum jelly—just a thin layer—on the interior, the cut-out spots, and the lid. The jelly provides a barrier to keep bacteria from reaching the flesh.
Set it out, but keep a bleach spray nearby.
Finally, set out Jack with a battery-operated candle for an eery glow that should last until Halloween or later. You can continue to ward off mold and insects by spraying the carved pumpkin with a water and bleach solution.
Bring your pumpkins in before bed.
If outdoor temperatures are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, don’t leave them out on the porch overnight. Tie up the pumpkin in a trash bag and then temporarily store the bag in your fridge, which should be set between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit—cold enough to slow bacterial growth yet not so much that the gourd freezes. When you retrieve your pumpkin in the morning, it will look as fresh-faced as the day you decorated.
Resuscitate a carved pumpkin with an ice rinse.
If your pumpkin starts to shrivel, submerge it in cold water anywhere from a couple of hours to overnight. Once the walls of the pumpkin rehydrated, it should come back to life! Just make sure to dry it well on the inside to avoid mold.
Now that you’ve preserved your pumpkin, you’re ready for trick-or-treaters! For tips on warding off Halloween pranksters this season, check out this video:
Additional reporting from Jennifer Noonan and Manasa Reddigari.