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Prunes

Why Eat It
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Prunes are a variety of plum, though most people take the word prune to mean a dried fruit. Nonetheless, you can buy fresh prunes (the best fresh-eating types are sold as Italian plums or prune plums).

The vast majority of these plums are sold dried, because they have characteristics that make them better suited to drying than other types of plums. They generally have firmer flesh, more sugar, and a higher acid content--traits that make it possible for the fruits to be dried with their pits intact without fermenting. In addition, prune plums usually are freestone, while many other plum varieties (though not all) are clingstone.

The most common variety of plum used for prunes is California French, also known as d'Agen. The variety is a descendant of the first prune plums brought to the United States from France by Louis Pellier, who started a nursery in California in the 1850s. Today about 70% of the world's prune supply, and almost 100% of domestic prunes, come from California.

The transition from plum to prune is a carefully controlled process. The plums are allowed to mature on the tree until they are fully ripe and have developed their maximum sweetness. Then they are mechanically harvested and dried for 15 to 24 hours under closely monitored conditions of temperature and humidity.

Because the plums lose so much water, about three to four pounds of the fruit are needed to produce a pound of prunes. After drying, the plums are sorted by size and then stored to await packing, at which point they are given a hot-water bath to moisturize them.

As with other dried fruits, the drying process concentrates the nutrients in prunes. First and foremost, they are a high-fiber food: Ounce for ounce, prunes contain more fiber than dried beans and most other fruits and vegetables. Over half of this fiber is of the soluble type that studies have linked to lowered blood-cholesterol levels. Prunes are also rich in beta-carotene and are a good source of B vitamins, nonheme iron, and potassium.

The drying process concentrates the sugar content as well, which makes whole or pitted prunes a good snacking food. (Of course, the calorie count also increases--prunes contain more than four times the calories, by weight, that plums do.) Beware, though, of "health snacks," such as trail mixes and granola bars, that emphasize prunes as an ingredient: Frequently, the prunes are mixed in with high-fat ingredients, such as nuts and coconut chips.

Diced prunes, prune paste, and prune bits are used in prepared foods, particularly baked goods, to enhance taste and texture (though the quantity may not be sufficient to offer much nutritional value).

Shopping

Be sure the package of prunes is tightly sealed to ensure cleanliness and moistness. Some prunes come vacuum-packed in cans, which keep them extra-moist. Buy small or large fruit, as you prefer; size has no relation to flavor or quality. If you don't mind pitting them, whole prunes are less expensive than pitted ones.

Storage

After opening the package, reseal it as tightly as possible or transfer the prunes to an airtight container. Store them in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator for up to six months.

Preparation

You can pit prunes by slitting them open with a knife and pushing out the pits. (If you are cooking the prunes alone, pit them after they have been heated.) Pitted prunes are ready to use directly from the package, but be sure to check for the occasional pit in pitted prunes; the mechanical process is not foolproof.

Cutting, chopping, or dicing prunes can be tedious work because the knife quickly becomes sticky. To make the job easier, use kitchen scissors and dip the blades into warm water between cuts to keep them clean.

Reconstituting prunes: To plump prunes, measure the fruit and combine it with an equal amount of liquid in a small saucepan. Simmer, but don't boil the prunes, or the skins may split. Cooking time: seven to 10 minutes.

To soften prunes in the microwave, sprinkle them with fruit juice, cover, and cook at 100% power. Cooking time: two minutes.

To plump the fruit overnight, place the prunes in a heatproof bowl and add boiling liquid to cover. Cover the bowl and refrigerate until needed.

Nutrition Chart

Prunes/1/4 cup

102
Total fat (g)
0.2
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
3
1
Carbohydrate (g)
27
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
2


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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