Prunes and plums are closely related fruits that both belong to the Prunus genus. However, while fresh plums are juicy and ripen to a variety of colors, prunes are dried plums that have been processed to preserve them. So why are dried plums specifically called prunes, and when did this distinction arise?
The History of Prunes
The word “prune” has its origins in the Latin word “prunum” which means “plum”. The French word “prune” also derives from this root. Prunes have been around for centuries and were prized by many ancient civilizations. In 1st century Rome, prunes were documented by Pliny the Elder as being used for their medicinal properties. They were also popular in ancient China and the dried plums were referred to as “hsien-t‘ao” or “immortal peach” due to their sweet taste and health benefits.
|1st century Rome
|Pliny the Elder documents prunes were used for medicinal purposes
|Dried plums referred to as “hsien-t‘ao” meaning “immortal peach”
The first reference to prunes being made from drying plums specifically comes from 16th century France. In an early French dictionary from 1505, the word “prune” is defined as a dried plum. By the 17th and 18th century, prune production spread to Germany, Eastern Europe, and California as new prune varieties were developed.
|Prune Production Facts
|Earliest known reference to prunes as dried plums in France
|Prune production spreads to Germany, Eastern Europe, and California
Different Plum Varieties Used for Prunes
Today over 100 varieties of plums are dried to make prunes. However, certain types of plums are better suited for drying than others. The main varieties used for prunes include:
- French Prunes – Also called Agen prunes, made from the Petite d’Agen plum variety in southwest France.
- California Prunes – The most common variety, made from drying the Improved French plum type.
- Sutter Prunes – Made from the Sutter plum, similar to the French plum but slightly smaller.
- Italian Prunes – Made from Fellenberg or Italian plum varieties.
Here are some key properties that make certain plum varieties good for drying into prunes:
|Higher sugar content
|More sugar allows plums to be dried and still retain a sweet flavor
|Denser flesh maintains its shape better when dried down
|Small to medium size
|Smaller plums dry faster and more evenly
|Balances sweetness and provides tart flavor
The Drying Process
After being harvested, plums are washed and graded based on ripeness and size uniformity. The plums are then placed on trays and put into large, specialized dehydrators or dryers. The plums circulate in the heated dryers, reaching temperatures between 85-95°F. This slow, even drying process can take 18-24 hours to reduce the plum’s moisture content from around 80% down to 20%.
Once dried, additional steps are taken:
- Prunes are cooled then rehydrated in a steam chamber to restore some moisture.
- They are graded again by size and pitted if desired.
- Some prunes may be treated with glycerin to prevent them from sticking.
- Finally, prunes are packaged while still pliable to prevent bruising.
|Drying Process Step
|Clean and sort plums
|Dry for 18-24 hrs at 85-95°F
|Steam chamber to partially rehydrate
|Glycerin coating to prevent sticking
|Package pliable prunes to avoid bruising
Benefits of Drying Plums into Prunes
Why go through the intensive process of drying plums into prunes? Here are some of the key benefits of prunes versus fresh plums:
- Longer shelf life – The reduced moisture content allows prunes to be stored for much longer than fresh plums.
- Easier transportation – Prunes take up less space and weight, making them more efficient to transport.
- Can be enjoyed year-round – Prunes allow the sweet taste of plums to be enjoyed out of season.
- More fiber and nutrients – The drying process concentrates sugars, fiber and certain nutrients.
- Unique texture and flavor – Prunes have a chewy texture and deep, sweet flavor different than plums.
|Longer shelf life
|Low moisture content prevents spoilage
|Lightweight and compact dried form
|Not limited by plum harvest seasons
|More concentrated nutrition
|Drying concentrates natural sugars and nutrients
|Unique texture and flavor
|Chewy, sweet flavor different than plums
Nutrition Differences Between Plums and Prunes
The drying process affects the nutrition profile of plums, creating some notable differences between fresh plums and prunes:
- More fiber – Prunes contain 3 grams of fiber per serving compared to only 1 gram in plums.
- More sorbitol – Prunes get a lot of their laxative effect from sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that is in higher concentrations in dried fruit.
- More antioxidants – The drying process actually increases levels of certain antioxidants like chlorogenic acid in prunes.
- Higher calorie density – With less water weight, prunes contain more calories per ounce compared to plums.
Common Uses for Prunes
Thanks to their unique taste, texture and nutritional benefits, prunes are a versatile ingredient used in both sweet and savory dishes. Here are some popular ways prunes are used:
- Breakfast foods – Prunes add fiber and sweetness to oatmeal, yogurt, cereal, smoothies.
- Baking – Chopped prunes are added to cookies, breads, muffins, cakes.
- Snacks – On their own, in trail mixes, in granola bars.
- Meat dishes – Slow cooked stews and braises use prunes for depth.
- Sides – Prunes pair well with brussels sprouts, butternut squash, wild rice.
|Oatmeal, yogurt, cereal, smoothies
|Cookies, breads, muffins, cakes
|On their own, trail mixes, granola bars
|Stews, braises, tagines
|Brussels sprouts, squash, wild rice
In summary, prunes get their name from being a specific variety of dried plums that have been prepared through an intensive drying and conditioning process. While fresh plums have their place, the drying process transforms them into prunes that have a much longer shelf life, a more concentrated sweet taste and texture, and higher levels of certain nutrients and fiber. These attributes have made prunes a valued food product for thousands of years. Whether enjoyed on their own or used to enhance both sweet and savory dishes, prunes are a unique and versatile fruit that will continue to be popular for generations to come.