By Kendra Vizcaino, Epicurious.com
With Halloween just around the corner, it's time to start thinking about costumes, candy, party favors, and, of course, pumpkins. Carving jack-o'-lanterns is one of the most beloved ways to celebrate the holiday, but it can be one of the most dangerous. There are easy steps you can take to stay safe and have fun while creating a masterpiece.
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When picking a carving tool, bigger isn't always better. Larger cutting tools like chef's knives give you less control and make it difficult to create more detailed designs. They're also more dangerous, since they require more force to maneuver. A pumpkin's outer shell is hard, but not so hard that a small cutting tool can't get through it.
Small tools, like the miniature saws sold with pumpkin carving kits, are ideal for the job. They are sturdy enough to get through even very large pumpkins, and ideal for cutting out tiny patterns. Little wood carving tools also work well. If you only have kitchen knives available, pick your smallest one, preferably a paring knife.
The same idea about size goes for the pumpkin itself. While larger gourds certainly make a big statement, they also take up more space and require more time to carve as their walls are thicker. Not to mention the work it takes to scrape out the insides.
Once you've got your tools and your canvas, you shouldn't be afraid to get a little dirty. Pumpkin carving is fun but messy. While it's normal to dread the feeling of sticking your hand into cold, slimy pumpkin pulp, don't be tempted to reach for rubber gloves, which limit your mobility while cleaning and carving. Because pumpkins are wet inside, the gloves can get slippery, affecting your grip on your cutting tools and the gourd. Instead, keep a clean dish towel or paper towels close by and dry your hands off regularly.
Draw your pattern or design on the pumpkin before you start cutting. Freehand designs can result in very funny and creative jack-o'-lanterns, but if you're going for a polished pumpkin, use a stencil. It will guide the movements of your cutting tools, and you will be less likely to make mistakes. Accidents and mistakes occur when carvers use more force as they rush through the work. The best way to avoid this is to go slowly and make deliberate cuts in the pumpkin.
However if you go too far and overcut or take out a chunk you didn't mean to, you don't have to start over with a new pumpkin. Grab some toothpicks or pushpins and secure the pieces back onto the pumpkin, no one will ever know it wasn't a deliberate decision.
A good way to avoid overcutting is to hold the pumpkin in your lap with your legs crossed and the pattern, or cutting surface, facing up. Placing your pumpkin on a table or other flat surface on its base doesn't secure it in any way, and it will wobble while you're cutting. If you hold it in your lap you will have more control and it won't roll around.
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And now, my ten steps to the perfect pumpkin:
Wash Your Pumpkin Rinse your pumpkin well and dry it thoroughly.
Open It Up Cut a hole around the top stem of the pumpkin. Make sure to make it big enough that your hand will fit in the pumpkin with a few extra inches of space around it. (About 6-8 inches in diameter, this can be larger for bigger pumpkins). Lift the top off and cut the hanging pulp from the bottom.
Scoop Out the Guts Using a scooper from a pumpkin carving kit or a large very round spoon, scoop the pulp out of the pumpkin. Scrape out all the pulp and some of the inside shell. You want to have the shell be about 1-inch thick.
Pick Your Design Stencils are great for achieving the look you want for your jack-o'-lantern. You can buy stencils at craft stores, in pumpkin carving kits, download them online, or draw your own.
Start Drawing Once you have your stencil, tape it to the pumpkin. Then, use a toothpick (or another small pointed hand tool) to poke tiny holes through the paper stencil into the pumpkin's surface. Follow along the lines of the design. This will give you a perfect guideline to follow while cutting (and doesn't leave leftover ink marks like drawing the design would).
Time to Carve Using a small cutting tool, first cut out the smallest parts of the design. Tackling the smallest details first gives you more control. If it has large chunks missing, the walls of the pumpkin won't be as sturdy, and cutting small parts will be difficult. Then continue on to the medium parts and then cut out the largest pieces.
Wash Again When you are done cutting out your design, give the jack-o'-lantern a second rinse--inside and out--and dry it thoroughly. Keeping the pumpkin clean and dry will help it last longer.
Light It Up Place a tea candle inside your jack-o'-lantern in the center of the bottom. A tea candle will give plenty of light to illuminate your design without having a tall candle be visible and distract from your design.
Cut a Chimney Once you place the candle inside keep it lit for about 5 to 10 minutes. Never leave candles inside your jack-o'-lantern unattended. When time is up, lift the top off the jack-o'-lantern and check for a dark spot. Cut out the spot and about an inch around it. This will be the "chimney" that will allow the heat from the candle to escape. If you don't want to watch your pumpkin, battery-powered flameless candles are a great alternative.
Pumpkin Preservation To keep your Halloween handiwork looking (and smelling) good for as long as possible rub all the cut surfaces with a thin coat of Vaseline. This helps keep it from rotting and drying out. Also, if you carved your pumpkin well before the holiday, stick it in the fridge when it's not on display to extend its life.
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