Umeboshi (梅干) is salted Japanese pickled plums. They take a good level of effort to make properly, but well worth it. Packed with umami, saltiness, and subtle floral aromas, a little goes a long way. Ume are traditionally cured at the beginning of the dry season (mid-July) in Japan. Fortunately, farmers in the U.S. are growing this specific breed of plum, Prunus mume, (more like an apricot) which lends itself to this fermentation. You can find fresh ume seasonally, starting in late spring or early summer.
You can find umeboshi in Japanese markets, but beware! Most are fast-processed, and contain preservatives and artificial colors. The ingredients should just be plum, salt, and maybe sesame or perilla (aka shiso) leaves. Out of 10 or so brands I perused recently at a Japanese market, just one was the real deal (and they were a bit pricier than the processed ones).
While we haven’t gotten past eating them from the jar and daring our friends who’ve never tried one to see the look on their faces when they bite one, they’re really good on top of plain old rice. We incorporated some into some hummus.
And we have tinkered with a cultured ice cream recipe using these tasty little gems.
- 700g (about 1½ lbs.) unripe ume, Japanese plums
- 2 cups vodka, shoju or other neutrally flavored cheap distilled spirit (at least 80 proof/40% abv)
- 100g (1/4 lb.) sea salt
- 100g (1/4 lb.) red shiso (aka perilla) leaves
- Use a toothpick to carefully remove any trace of stems from the plums, being careful not to puncture the skin.
- Soak the plums in cool water for a few hours or overnight. Drain well.
- Fill a wide shallow bowl with vodka or spirits.
- Add 30 ml (2 tablespoons) vodka to a quart-sized mason jar, close lid, and slosh around all the insides to sanitize it. Dump out vodka and set jar aside to air dry.
- Measure salt, using 10% of the weight of the plums.
- Rinse shiso leaves under cool water to remove dirt. Trim leaves, removing and composting the woody stems. Sprinkle salt on the leaves, so they wilt slightly.
- One small batch at a time, add plums to the bowl of spirits, rolling them around to sanitize them.
- Build layers up in the jar. First, add salt (estimating the amount to add based on total batch size. Then add a layer of sanitized plums (letting them drip dry of spirits for a moment first). Then add a layer of now-wilted shiso leaves.
- Repeat layering- salt, ume, shiso, until all ingredients are added to the jar.
- Add weights (sanitize them first) to top of jar to encourage brine to form.
- Cover tightly with lid.
- The brine should form in the next few days so that the contents are completely submerged.
- After 1 to 4 weeks of being submerged in the brine, find a time window of 3 days in which the forecast will be sunny and dry. (This is typically mid to late summer).
- Strain the jar contents over a bowl, capturing the brine (now known as umeshu-- plum vinegar). Pour into a jar and save for later.
- Separate the shiso leaves from the ume. Spread both out onto a single layer in a colander (you may need more than one), and place that over some newspaper sheets (so they don’t stain the table).
- Shake the plums around once a day during the three day drying period.
- After three days, the skins of the ume will be dry and fuzzy.
- Sanitize a few jars with vodka (one or two pint-sized jars should suffice). Let jars air dry.
- Either dry pack the ume into the jars, or pack, then add some of the reserved umeshu. Typically, I will make half of a batch dry and the other half “wet”.
- Pack the plums as tightly as possible. Cover tightly and label jars.
- Let ferment/cure for one, two or more years! They don’t need to be refrigerated, so you can simply use them directly from the jar stored at room temperature.
Are you looking for something creative to incorporate umeboshi? How about umeboshi kefir ice cream?