For years I've been searching for a way to candy wild plums into a tart, sweet preserve where the texture is firm, but tender. This is one of the best wild plum recipes (as far as preserving goes) I've had. It should be as it's taken me about 4 years to dial it in properly.
The key is the classic candying procedure where an ingredient is cooked for a number or days slowly in a syrup that gets gradually more and more concentrated, a method I modified from my friend Amy Thielen, who modified her's from an old recipe in Time Life Magazine, if I remember correctly.
Before I forget, too, since there's a number of them, I'm speaking specifically about American wild plums (Prunus americana) here, as they're the most well-known wild plum in my area.
A Classic Method of Preserving Fruit
The candying liquid penetrates and changes the integrity of the plums, turning them from astringent, mouth-drying bites that beg you to suck out the pulp and spit out the skin, into soft, pleasantly tart little orbs with tender skin.
If you've ever had marrones glace, (candied chestnuts), you'll understand what we're going for here: the gradual cooking with syrup is magical in how it transforms the texture of the plum flesh.
That being said, the sugar syrup, and the method outlined here, can be used for a lot more than just plums: citrus zest, angelica stems, tiny whole apples like chestnut crabs (peeled), thin peels of fresh ginger, all kinds of stuff. When you're finished candying the wild plums, they make great additions to all sorts of things, if, you can stop yourself from eating them out of the jar.
If you tell people beforehand, you can leave the stones in, say, if you wanted to make something like clafoutis (to die for with these) since, just like olives, wild plums taste better stone-in.
Generally, I leave the stones in at home, and discard them in a dish as I eat. If I'm serving the plums to others, especially in a pay-to-eat format, I remove the stones, because liability.
Over the course of my career, I've seen way too many guests bite hard things they probably shouldn't, and too many restaurants not be as watchful over things as they should've been. Even an old crouton made from lean or under-proofed bread can break the tooth of someone with a delicate mouth just like a rock.
The ol' paper bag trick
The last thing to mention is the ripeness of plums: how to get them there, and the importance of it. For the first few years I tried to make these, I had a hell of a time getting consistent results--it just didn't happen. Some plums would be perfect, tender jewels, others would be chewy, desiccated, or so soft that they exploded during the candying process.
This was because my plums were at different stages of ripeness when I cooked them. You see, wild plums are tricky, and don't seem to like ripening evenly on the tree like cultivated ones. Putting the plums in a bag for a day or two was what seemed to do the trick for me, you end up losing a few to over-ripeness, but the majority ripen nicely.
Sweet and Sour Candied Wild Plums
- Mason jars, water bath canner (optional)
- 1 large mixing bowl
- 1 Soup pot or pasta pot
Plums and Syrup
- 3 lbs wild plums
- 5 cups apple cider vinegar
- 2 cups water
- 8 cups white sugar
- 1 two-inch cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 tablespoon allspice berries
- Zest of half an orange, peeled
- Prick each plum with a needle (in a pinch I use a paper clip stuck through a wine cork).
- Toast the spices except the ginger and zest if using, then tie the spices, ginger and zest in a piece of cheesecloth to make a sachet for easy removal.
- Bring the sugar, sachet, water and vinegar to a rolling boil for a few minutes, then carefully pour over the plums. Cover the bowl with cling film, or something else to hold in moisture and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, carefully remove the plums with a spider or large slotted spoon. Put the syrup back in the pot and bring to a boil for a few minutes to concentrate it, then carefully pour back over the plums and cover again with cling film. Cool the plums overnight and repeat the process one more time.
- To can the plums, warm the plums by heating the bowl containing them and the syrup, discard the sachet, then strain out the warm plums into freshly sterilized jars, boil the syrup, and top the jars off with it, leaving ½ inch headspace. *(See note)
- Screw on the lids and process for 15 minutes in a water bath, then cool to room temperature and store. Transfer any jars that have not formed a seal to the fridge and eat within a month. Sealed jars of candied wild plums will last a long time.
CanningI have to be honest that I do not process my jars of plums in a water bath. Since the recipe contains sugar, vinegar, and a multi-step saturation process I hardly find it necessary. I simply fill the jars with plums and boiling hot syrup nearly to the brim, screw on the lids tight, and turn the jars upside down to seal, but if it makes you more comfortable to can them in a water bath instead, go right ahead!
- Warm up the plums and serve on ice cream
- Eat out of the jar
- Stone and add to different desserts
- Use in place of cherries
- Clafoutis, clafoutis, clafoutis,
Foraging and Cooking with Wild Plums
This is exciting; over the summer I harvested and made plum sauce from some wild plums growing along our driveway that looked too nice to pass on, but the sugar didn't remove the astringency, even though I left the skins and pits behind in a sieve. Here, it sounds like you're succeeding even with the skins left on! I also note that your ripeness criteria (at least color-wise, between this and previous posts) has shifted from the redder end of the spectrum towards the yellower. That would make harvesting easier, since (as you noted previously) the window of opportunity between a little red and starting to go soft is very brief. Tasting the raw plums last summer, I noted that the riper ones were sweeter, but it didn't really remove their inherit astringency. Sweet doesn't mitigate astringency as it does sourness. But I'm willing to believe that maybe the acidity of the vinegar will do the trick? I had written these plums off as "not worth it", but I'm happy to give this technique a whirl before I resign myself to giving up on Prunus americana.
Hey Carla. If you're referring to my minimalist plum sauce on this site (which should be a little sour and tart--I use it as a garnish to meat) don't give up on it. I worked with more P. americana this year than ever, and I feel like I really cracked the code on the tannins. The problem with them is that the tannins are very water soluble--so anytime we boil them, even if we pass them through the colander to remove skins and seeds, you still get tannin-soaked pulp.
I found either getting very ripe plums (you can freeze them to soften) and passing them through a squeez-o works, or getting ripe to semi-ripe plums, and then baking them to loosen the pulp, means there isn't any place for the tannins to transfer to, and they stay in the skin. Viola. My publisher doesn't want me to share too much info from my upcoming book, but, since I already have a couple plum recipes on here that could benefit from the method, I thought it would be helpful to share. Do try it next year. I'm going to have to go through and see where I can update that method in the site. They're such a bountiful fruit, it would be a shame to give up on them.
Re: ripeness, you have a little wiggle room here, but trying to candy plums that are too under-ripe will result in dried out plums that are tough. Plums that are too ripe may wind up a little softer, but are better than the alternative. When in doubt I'd try to use the ripest ones you can find, and the preliminary pouring over of boiling syrup is designed to be gentle on them here, as simmering them first was a little aggressive, and caused some of my very ripe ones to dissolve over time, leaving nothing but skin.
So, now I'm totally confused. I get it that tannins are water soluble, and yes, simmering the plums extracts the tannins from the skins into the pulp where we don't want them. (Despite my whining about it, that sauce is good enough that I canned most of it, and following your recommendation, I use it with fatty meats like duck or pork chops where the astringency teams up with the sour note to cut the unctuousness.) But unless you were doing something like blanching them and then discarding the water (which is how the bitter is removed from the pith when candying orange peels), I can't understand how the astringency is mitigated in this method as nothing is discarded???
The skins are discarded--that's where the tannins are. The leftover mash makes good vinegar.
Triple-confused now. By "this method" in "I can’t understand how the astringency is mitigated in this method as nothing is discarded???" I mean the current recipe. The skins are still on the plums when you can them, AND when you serve them, right?
The vinegar and sugar work well, and as they sit for a bit, they mellow out. They become candied. Very ripe plums will have the softest skin, but slightly less ripe ones will still be tolerable. Make a batch and you'll see . True, it doesn't seem to make sense, but if you make some with nice ripe plums, you'll see. Come summer time, let me know if I can help you trouble shoot any of this.
Thanks, Alan; I will give it a shot the next time those loaded trees taunt me, and I'll report back here.
can you use these plums to make sweet and sour sauce
Yes, just extract the pulp and discard the skin.
i was comparing your recipe for candied plums to amy thielen's. hers calls for considerably less vinegar. because you referenced her, i was just checking to see that the vinegar you call for is correct amount. thanks for your help.
This is the correct amount. Water and vinegar in equal or nearly equal parts is a nice foil for the amount of sugar IMO.
thanks for the reply, alan. i'm on the 3rd day and so far so good.
I have just canned six half-pint jars of these plums and had a few left over for tasting. Wow! The plums are beyond amazing. I have tried over and over to can plums with disappointing results but now I have plums to serve proudly throughout the long Manitoba winter. As I drove home yesterday, I spied what I thought was a wild plum shrub full of fruit on the edge of a field. I braked and backed up to check it out. Sure enough it was a plum full of golf-ball sized fruits and it was in the road allowance so I wouldn't be trespassing if I picked them.. However, the shrub was surrounded by calf-high poison ivy so I thought, no, I don't need more plums that much. However, now that I have tasted these candied plums, I must make more! So tomorrow I am going prepared for poison ivy and will pick them if the wind hasn't dislodged them. Thank you for persevering with the recipe and sharing it.
Deana, I'm so glad you like them! They're a special preserve, and probably not for everyone, but once you get used to the stones being in them, they're excellent.
Hi Alan! Thank you for sharing this recipe. I made it and was over the moon by how delicious and fine-textured the plums were by the time I put them in their jars. But something seems to have happened since I canned them— I just opened a jar and the plums are now a bit wrinkly, and stuck together, and the skin is much tougher than it was the day I canned them. Do you have any thoughts about what I might have done or what I might do different next time? The flavor remains wonderful, but I’m sad the skin texture has changed! Thanks for any thoughts or guidance.
Hmm.Did you water bath process them after you did the candying process?
Hi Alan— thank you for writing. No, I didn’t water bath can them, just open kettle (for personal and quick consumption). I wasn’t sure if I may have heated them too much in the syrup— would that have caused the skins to seize? I am pretty sure it happened after they had been in jars a few days, though. The second batch I made doesn’t seem to have had this problem, the only thing I think that I may have done differently is during the last step of the second batch I think I strained the syrup first, brought that to a boil, added plums, returned to a boil, and then pulled them out into jars. I think for the first round, I heated them in the syrup. I just wasn’t sure if you had thoughts on what might toughen the skin after it was so lush— a true puzzle for me! The second batch might have been with riper plums, too... a mystery! But they are so delicious, thank you for sharing the recipe.
SC. So wild plums vary widely from tree to tree. I have access to some managed stands of them that produce evenly ripe plums consistently, but many truly feral ones will have some uneven ripening. Re: tough skins, from my experience that can happen a bit with slightly underripe plums, which can be hard to pick out sometimes, especially when they look and smell good. I may have to put a note in here about picking out only the ripest plums.
Going to make these today or tomorrow. When do you take the spice sachet out?
Before you can them. A minute detail.
I can’t see info here about how long to cook in the water bath canning process. Am in Wisconsin. Other recipes mention 20 minutes for canning pint jars. Your thoughts? Thank you for the great recipe
I don't process this in a water bath-it's a hot pack. Technically the powers that be would pooh-pooh hot packing but as this recipe includes not only sugar, but vinegar, and beyond that, a multi-step saturation process, it is completely safe to simply put in the jars piping hot, screw on the lids tight, turn upside down, and allow to seal. You can process them for 10-15 minutes if you like though-totally up to you. I've adjusted the recipe copy to reflect it, too. Thanks.
Just gathered several kilos of yellow wild plums, and I want to make something nice out of them, but, how do you remove the pits, or “seed”, without breaking their beautiful form?!
Do you just do halves out of the entire batch? Or cook them with the pits remaining inside? Will the pit somehow become edible if prepared in this manner?
Thanks for writing this well thought-out recipe. 🙇🏼♂️
Kind regards, Mats
You don't remove the seeds. It's like the pit of an olive-they taste better with it in-more meaty and they hold their shape. Also, you need to make sure you know what type of plum you're cooking. I cook exclusively with Prunus americana and they should not be cooked in their yellow stage. They must be very ripe.