For cooking, seek out small, sweet varieties with a thick flesh and a fairly small seed cavity, such as the Sugar Pie, Baby Bear or Cheese pumpkin. Field pumpkins have a fibrous flesh that is not good for cooking. Reserve them for jack-o'-lanterns.
For convenience, you can use canned pumpkin puree. Some are unsweetened and plain, while others, labeled as pie filling, include sugar and spices. It's also easy to make your own puree (click on the link at right).
Choose pumpkins that feel solid and heavy for their size. As they age, they dry out and become lighter. The skin should be hard, with no cracks, blemishes or soft spots.
Hard shells protect pumpkins from easy spoilage. Most will keep for a month or longer if stored in a cool, dry place. Once cut, pumpkins should be wrapped tightly in plastic, refrigerated and used within 3 to 4 days.
To cut open a pumpkin, steady it on a thick towel, very carefully insert a large, heavy knife near the stem, and cut down through the curved side. Always cut away from you. Turn the pumpkin 180 degrees and repeat on the other side. A more dramatic, messier method is simply to drop the pumpkin onto newspapers spread on a hard floor. The pumpkin will break into pieces.
Once you've cracked into the pumpkin, use a large metal spoon to scrape out the seeds and any fibrous strings in the seed cavity. If you like, save the seeds for roasting (click on the link at right).
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion (Time-Life Books, 2000).