Explainers

How to carve a Halloween jack-o’-lantern

We ask three American chefs to share their pumpkin carving secrets.
How to carve a Halloween jack-o'-lanternPexels

Let’s be real for a moment. Down here in the southern hemisphere, Halloween isn’t as huge a production as it is for our friends above the equator. We like any excuse to throw a party, sure, but we’re no experts when it comes to pumpkin carving.

Which is why we’ve turned to American native chefs Danielle Alvarez, George Francisco and Chase Lovecky — three chefs with an impressive number of jack-o’-lanterns in their repertoire for advice. (Francisco alone has carved more than 60).

Here are their top tips for how to carve a Halloween pumpkin, otherwise known as a jack-o’-lantern.

The flatter (and bigger) the better

While in theory you can use any type of pumpkin for a jack-o’-lantern, Alvarez reckons a flatter surface is easier to carve. Francisco, who has carved more than 60 jack-o’-lanterns in his day, prefers the larger varieties. “I’ve used every type of pumpkin but the big orange ones used in the US are the traditional favourite,” he says.

Work from the middle

Lovecky, who grew up carving pumpkins in New England, has always worked from the inside out. “We would start by cutting a hole around the stem and then scrape out all the seeds,” he says, “then we would carve out the face and put a candle in the hollowed-out head.”

Stencils make perfect

Francisco, whose pumpkin-carving portfolio includes the “surgeon skeleton” number pictured above, claims his “big light-bulb moment on pumpkin carving” occurred years ago when he applied the concept of stencilling (borrowed from his love of graffiti) to his jack-o’-lanterns. “You take a photo or picture and tape it to your pumpkin,” he says. “With a push pin you trace the important parts of the picture by pushing the pin into the face of the pumpkin. When the picture is removed you have a perfect follow-the-dots template.”

Don’t be afraid to shade

Francisco also says you don’t have to cut all the way into the pumpkin all the time. “You can just shave off the hard orange outer skin and leave the soft, inner, edible part,” he says. “This gives you the ability to shade certain areas, giving subtlety to the picture with different darker and lighter shades.” Just make sure you cut the key features all the way for maximum impact when the light shines through.

Pick the right blade for your level of skill

Both Alvarez and Lovecky suggest using a small serrated knife, particularly for novices. For those with a little more experience (or courage), X-Acto knives or Stanley knives are the go. Looking to go even more extreme? “A hand-held electric drill is good, too,” says Francisco.

Save the seeds

While the pumpkins more popular for carving are usually less flavoursome than those grown for eating, the seeds are still fair game. “Wash them off, toss them with oil, salt and pepper, then bake for 10-15 minutes,” Lovecky suggests. They can add to the creative process, too. “Occasionally I’ve made them into teeth for an even spookier jack-o’-lantern look,” says Francisco. Alvarez toasts hers with chilli powder, salt and olive oil. “It’s labour intensive,” she says, “but worth it.”

Keep some bleach handy

For a jack-o’-lantern that’ll go the distance, Alvarez suggests pouring a few caps of bleach inside the pumpkin after carving. “Swirl it around the inside flesh,” she says. “It’ll keep insects away and make it last longer.”

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