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How to Pick a Ripe, Juicy Plum

Fine Cooking Issue 22
Photos: Kathryn Kleinman
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The sweetest, the wildest of all summer fruit, plums grow everywhere. Planted by birds and pit-spitting children, plum trees sprout beside fields and beaches and come in colors as varied as rosebuds— pinks and purples, golds and scarlets.

A plum for everyone.

Two hundred to three hundred varieties of plums are grown in the United States today. An enormous number of these have appeared, disappeared, then reappeared “improved” or crossbred. One suspects it’s a little like dog breeding. The growers aren’t always looking for qualities that you and I covet. Good pollination and heavy yields, understandably top priorities for growers, might not be what the rest of us like best about a plum. How about flavor, for instance? But in the mêlée, some delicious varieties have emerged, and more are appearing or reappearing all the time.

My favorite plum is the Santa Rosa. Friends swear by Elephant Heart. The green, teardrop-shaped Wickson has gorgeous golden flesh. But don’t overlook an old backyard plum tree or a farmstand near your home that has delicious plums simply named Burt’s Best or Aunt Mae’s.

Plums ripen from June through August. Most commercially grown plums are from California, but Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, South Carolina, and states in the Northwest also ship plums across the country.

Mariposa plum.
Elephant Heart plum. Both Mariposa and Elephant Heart are red-skinned plums with watermelon-red flesh that’s beautiful in tarts and compotes. Their sour skin adds zing.

Choose a plumb that’s heavy and not too soft

To find a ripe plum, hold one in the palm of your hand. It should feel heavy. There should be some give, particularly at the blossom end (opposite the stem end). If the plum is too soft, it’s probably overripe.

Hard plums will soften a little in a brown paper bag at room temperature within two days. But plums won’t sweeten appreciably after they’re picked: the sugars must develop on the tree. When the fruit is severed from the branch, a chemical reaction is triggered that breaks down the fruit’s acids and changes the acid-sugar balance of the fruit. The plum seems to taste sweeter because of the reduced acid.

Ripe plums will probably cost more than plums picked too green. Pay the price, and then eat your fill before the short season is over. Plum seasons are ephemeral, three to four weeks at most. You find one variety you like, and then all too soon it’s gone and the next variety arrives. (By the way, don’t accept “I don’t know” or “Just plums, lady” as a varietal name. By law, the names of both the variety and the packer must be plainly printed on the box in which the fruit is shipped.)

I go to our best produce store, buy one of each kind of plum, taste them all, and then buy a few pounds of the ones I like best. Ten days later, there’s a new array to try. Farmers’ markets sometimes offer a taste. My produce man will often cut a plum for me to try.

Cooking with plums

Plum ice cream and sherbets, whether made from yellow or rosy plums, are among the prettiest of frozen desserts. Plum puddings rarely call for plums at all (they’re made from dried fruits, spices, and sometimes suet), but Damson plum preserves and Satsuma plum jam are justly famous. Poached plums look stunning in a compote. And Santa Rosa plums, with their rose-pink flesh and wine-red skins, make the loveliest of all fruit tarts.

Shiro—The skin of this yellow plum is thin, almost translucent, allowing the golden flesh to shine through. Lower in acid, Shiro is delicious in compotes and sorbets.

If you’re using plum slices or halves in a tart or pie, leave the skins on for the color they bring. But if you’re going to purée your plums, skin them first, even if they’re to be strained (the skins can make a purée unpleasantly acidic). If the plums are ripe, the skins should easily pull away. If they’re firm, slice a small X in the skin and pour boiling water over them. Drain them after just a minute or two, and the skins will be loosened enough to peel right off.

Cooking with plums is a seat-of-the-pants operation. Tart varieties usually need more sugar—often more than the recipe calls for. The sweeter varieties may want a little lemon juice or orange juice to give them some zing.

Black Amber plum.
Laroda plum. Black Amber and Laroda are “black” plums with a scarlet cast. Their flavor is relatively mild, but their dark skin adds depth of color to a compote.

Frontier—Another “black” plum with sweet pink flesh, Frontier can be very sweet when picked ripe and is good for eating out of hand.
Ebony—A “black” plum with yellow flesh. Slices tossed with sugar are delicious with homemade biscuits and softly whipped cream.

Wickson is a green plum with lovely yellow flesh and an elegant teardrop shape.
Greengage plum. An old, flavorful plum, called Reine Claude in France, it’s similar to Wickson.


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