Harvesting and Preserving Pumpkins
by SCMG Stephanie Wrightson
If you are planning to store pumpkins, leave them on the vine until they mature. Mature pumpkins have hard outer shells and are generally even-colored. The side touching the soil may be lighter colored. If the stems are fleshy, the fruit is immature.
To harvest, use a sharp knife to cut the stem of the pumpkin to avoid bruising, leaving three to five inches of the stem. Do not pick up your pumpkins by the stem.
Store pumpkins in a dry, fairly cool location – ideally, 55-59ºF at 50-70 percent relative humidity. Under these conditions, if you harvest mature, not over-mature fruit, you can expect a storage life of up to 60 days. Pumpkins generally cannot be held beyond 90 days even in ideal storage conditions. Once the shell has been cut, cooking/baking pumpkins must be placed in an airtight container and refrigerated.
When your jack-o-lantern has served its usefulness or you have completed your harvest, compost your pumpkin vines and shells or place them in the green bin. Do not reuse jack-o-lanterns in a recipe. Carved pumpkins are a perfect place for bacteria to grow and the varieties grown for jack-o-lanterns are not the best varieties for eating.
Besides using fresh pumpkin in recipes, you can freeze, can, or dry them. Always practice safe food handling practices. UC preservation and storage publications are available online.
According to the USDA-funded National Center for Home Preservation (NCHP), freezing is the easiest preservation method and will produce the best quality product. This process involves washing the pumpkin, removing the seeds, and cutting it into cooking-size sections. The pumpkin is cooked until soft in boiling water, steam, the oven, a pressure cooker or a microwave (click here for microwave instructions). Remove the pulp from the rind and mash. After cooling, pack the mixture into rigid containers leaving about one inch of headspace at the top for expansion. Freeze.
Canning is only recommended for cubed pumpkin. Ten pounds of pumpkin produces 9 pints. Refer to the NCHP canning instructions. [CAUTION!! USDA instructs NOT to can mashed or puréed pumpkin or pumpkin butter. Pumpkin is a low-acid food capable of supporting the growth of the bacteria that causes botulism. Therefore, it is essential to comply with the USDA’s warning.]
The drying preservation process produces “vegetable leather” similar to fruit roll-ups. This involves cooking, straining and spicing the fruit, followed by drying the thinly spread mixture at low oven heat. For more information, see NCHP drying instructions that include a recipe for pumpkin leather.