Widely dismissed as a lowly constipation cure, prunes are, in fact, a superior dried fruit
For too long, prunes have been relegated to the health food aisle, paraded out only as a solution to immovable bowels. Even their mere mention is guaranteed to turn up many a wrinkled nose. But I won’t stand for it a moment longer. Because prunes are, without a doubt, actually the best of the dried fruits. Forget dates, or raisins, or dried cranberries: Given the choice, I will always take a prune. They hold so much potential, and we’re squandering it. Prunes, I am here to tell you, deserve a makeover.
Admittedly, when I first introduced prunes into my daily eating habits, I did so because I was taking iron supplements, which have a notorious reputation for causing constipation. But unlike basically every other food I’ve started eating for health reasons, I didn’t stop. Because prunes, it turns out, are incredibly tasty. They have a subtle sweetness tempered by a rich, earthy tang and a gorgeous jammy texture. They’re not too sweet, not too sour, not too sticky, and not too dry. They’re just right. Goldilocks would be thrilled with prunes.
So what’s the issue, then? Why have the likes of kale and cauliflower, lauded for their health benefits, each managed to secure a place of honor in our current food landscape, while the prune — high in fiber, antioxidants, and bone-supportive nutrients like boron, potassium, and vitamin K — lingers humbly under our radar?
I theorized that the prune’s reputation was perhaps being undone by its association with stubborn bowels. But Kiaran Locy, the California Prune Board’s director of brand and industry communications, says that’s not as much of a hurdle as you might imagine. Instead, she explains, “prunes have always had an awareness problem.” Which is to say, people often forget about them altogether.
In 2001, California Prunes rebranded to California Dried Plums in the hopes of reminding consumers of the prune’s origins as the far less maligned plum. Unfortunately, despite nearly two decades of marketing, dried plums never gained traction in the way the board wanted them to, and in 2019 the board reverted back to its original moniker.
As it happens, the plums grown for prunes are not the plums you find on supermarket shelves; they’re a type grown specifically for drying. The varietal grown in California, which produces 40 percent of the global supply of prunes, is descended from the petit d’Agen, a French plum widely regarded as one of the best for making prunes. It was first brought to California during the Gold Rush and grafted onto a wild American variety, giving us the California prune.
While I haven’t been overly adventurous in my own prune consumption, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn about the versatility of prunes as an ingredient. Thanks to their depth of flavor and oh-so-desirable umami quality, they work just as well in savory dishes as they do in sweet ones. The texture of good prunes is almost creamy. They bring moisture to baked goods, where prune puree can be used in place of butter to reduce fat and amplify flavor. They add a hint of sweetness to stews and pork dishes without being overpowering, and pair well with any number of ingredients, including chocolate, beer, port, chicken, and other fruits. Yet even when they’re incorporated into dishes, they maintain an incredible flavor in their own right. That’s why they’ve become a staple snack that I graze on throughout the day, dipping my fingers into a family-sized bag to pluck out the sticky little jewels.
In calling them jewels, I’m borrowing from Kat Turner, chef and partner at Highly Likely, a cafe in Los Angeles’s West Adams neighborhood. Turner is one of the chefs that California Prunes has enlisted to develop prune-centric recipes as part of its efforts to fix the fruit’s awareness problem. Or, as Turner told me, “I’m here to make prunes sexy.” Several times during our conversation, she used the word “sensual” to describe them, along with “unctuous,” “silky,” and “luxurious.” Her recipes for the board include a riff on prunes in Armagnac that uses Earl Grey tea and pink peppercorns; I can confirm that it makes a decadent topping for Greek yogurt. Turner also gives the classic PB&J an upgrade by way of ricotta toast and prune jam topped with roasted peanuts. And while prunes don’t feature heavily on Turner’s regular cafe menu, she often incorporates them when catering for private events, where you’re likely to find a funky prune mostarda starring on her charcuterie boards.
One of the prune’s better-known fans is David Lebovitz. The renowned Paris-based pastry chef has been cooking and baking with them for at least 30 years; when he led culinary tours in France he always made sure people tried the local pruneaux d’Agen, which he describes as “almost chocolatey.” (Even the prune skeptics walked away with a bag of them.) Back when he worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, “prunes played a natural part in our repertoire,” Lebovitz recalls, citing the restaurant’s French influence as the reason. Dried fruits in general, he points out, are not as prominent in North American diets as they are in those of European and Middle Eastern countries, where prunes, raisins, dried apricots, and the like are sold in bulk alongside nuts and olives. So you’re less likely to find prunes married with meat the way you will in dishes like Moroccan lamb tagines and French stuffed duck.
Just as Locy — and the prune board’s market research — had told me, people simply don’t think to use prunes. But I still suspect their stodgy, health-food-aisle reputation isn’t doing them any favors, which makes me wonder why the wellness movement hasn’t tried to capitalize on the prune’s virtuous reputation by anointing it as a superfood. Along with their antioxidants and vitamins, they’re also low on the glycemic index, making them an excellent substitute for sugar in some baked goods. All of this without sacrificing flavor! That’s a lot more than I can say for some other wellness-approved foods out there (looking at you, kale).
Still, I remain cautiously hopeful. I’ve noticed an uptick in gut health awareness lately — I see terms like pre- and probiotic, microbiome, and beneficial bacteria tossed around even outside of wellness circles — so I choose to believe that the time might be ripe, so to speak, for a prune revolution. And while I think nutrition might be one of the least interesting reasons to eat a prune, if it finally allows them a throne in the food kingdom then I will happily welcome our prune overlords.
Genevieve Fullan is a freelance writer living in Toronto, Ontario. She has worn many food industry hats over the years, including waiter, barista, and pastry chef.