Your Complete Guide to Buying a Pumpkin for Halloween

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Young boy holding up pumpkin at pumpkin patch
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Halloween is just two weeks away, which means it's time to start putting some serious thought into your costume. But there's another critical element of the holiday that you shouldn't neglect: The pumpkin.

Those big orange gourds are virtually ignored for most of the year, but as soon as fall arrives, pumpkins are everywhere -- in your pies, in your lattes, and even in your beer. And most importantly, they are on the stoops and decks of America, preferably carved with snaggletoothed smiles (or some other, more creative design).

With that in mind, we've put together a guide to buying and carving the perfect pumpkin for your Jack-o-Lantern.

When to buy. Timing your pumpkin purchase is less important than you might think, because it won't start to seriously rot until you carve it.

"If you keep your pumpkin in a cool space outdoors, it won't rot -- you could buy it Oct. 1 if you wanted," says Tom Nardone, author of Extreme Pumpkins. So long as you can refrain from carving it until a couple of days before Halloween, you can feel free to buy at your convenience.

But as experienced deal-hunters know, waiting until the last minute to buy holiday decorations can allow you to get a great price, as merchants will put their wares on clearance. Should you follow this strategy for your pumpkins?

"If you buy on Halloween, you'll get the best price," acknowledges Kendal Perez, savings expert for CouponSherpa.com. "But do you want the best price or the best selection?"

Waiting might save you a few bucks, but you'll be left with the dregs of the patch. As with buying a Christmas tree, you want to balance the two considerations.

Where to buy. Speaking of the pumpkin patch, is that the best place to buy your pumpkin?

"It sounds nifty to go to the patch, but I have better luck when I go to the big farmer's market closer to my house," says Nardone. He also notes that in rural areas, locals may sell pumpkins from stands on their front lawns.

In urban or suburban areas, your best bet might be a grocery store, where Perez says you can typically find a pumpkin for somewhere between $3 and $10. Nardone, though, finds the supermarket's round pumpkins to be lacking in personality.

"Supermarkets like perfect pumpkins," he grumbles. "They buy them like they buy apples. I like the rejects."

What it should look like. That brings us to a consideration of what to look for in the pumpkin itself. Nardone says he eschews the classic round pumpkin in favor of one that is taller than it is wide, like an actual human head.

Your tastes might be more traditional. But whatever shape you prefer, be sure that you choose a healthy pumpkin.

"You want it to have a uniform color, you want it to be firm, want to make sure stem isn't feeling soft," says Perez.

Finally, if your pumpkin purchase is for culinary endeavors rather than decoration, steer clear of the big orange pumpkins, which have stringy flesh that make them unsuited for pumpkin pie. Instead you'll want to go with a smaller variety, known variously as "sugar pumpkins" or "pie pumpkins."

That said, extracting the flesh from a pumpkin is a labor-intensive process, and starting with a fresh gourd might not make a big difference in the flavor of your pumpkin pie.

"Last year, was the first time I tried to make one from scratch," recalls Perez. "I personally didn't taste a huge taste difference, and I don't feel like the cost of pumpkin puree is that prohibitive."

So unless you really get a kick out of going old-school in your pie baking, you might be better off just buying canned pumpkin.

Scooping and carving. Nardone is a professional pumpkin carver, so he uses professional tools: A drywall saw to take the top off, and a jigsaw for the face. But if you don't want to spend money on power tools just to make a Jack-o-Lantern, you have a choice between two frugal options: The kitchen knives you already have, or a pumpkin carving kit that will run you $5 to $10.

Nardone votes for the latter. "If I had a choice between what's in my knife block and a $4 carving kit, I'd go with the kit," he says.

Still, there's one kitchen utensil that should get some use during the process: An ice cream scoop, which Nardone recommends for scooping out the seeds and "goop" prior to the carving itself. And as for that goop-scooping, he has some advice for people who make a mess during the process.

"My advice is to scrape all the goop off the sides of the pumpkin, and then dump it all out," he says. "You don't want a stream of stringy goop from wherever you're working to the trash."

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.


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