How to Can Plums (Without Giving Your Kids Botulism!)

Last week a friend ended up on my doorstep. She has 3 plum trees in Wheatridge, Colorado and she had 5 pounds of plums – for me. For me this was akin to wishing for a pony – and then getting it. It was a lovely gesture and plums are great eats and all, but now I have to do something with plums. Five pounds of them.

I’m a canner, I admit it. A cabinet full of Ball jars full of different foods is my nirvana. My mom chastises me for this, saying that canning is so violent on the food. But I say that anything that is left to stew in its juices for a few months is awesome. I’m kind of a foodie, so just putting plums up in jars was never really an option; I had to step it up a notch.

That’s where the booze comes in.

A couple years back, my wife and I were driving back from Moab, Utah and we stopped by Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, Colorado. I met a couple of their staff earlier in the year and we stopped in to say “hi” and to check the place out. I left there with a bottle of their Peach Brandy – I think they actually won an award for it in 2012. Now, I’m not usually a fruity brandy drinker – but this stuff was good and has served me well sipping it on the rocks on hot summer afternoons.

Anyway, plums, back to plums.

I had a splash of this peach brandy left, so as the plums were cooking down I gave the entire pan a healthy soaking with the remaining contents of the bottle, knowing that the alcohol will cook off – substantially, if not entirely. I went on to add a few healthy dashes of Ceylon cinnamon (or, true cinnamon. Did you know that it’s in the laurel family? You know, the laurel wreathes that the ancient Greeks are known for – but today we know them as bay leaves and we use them in soup – but I digress) and 2 tsp of single strength vanilla extract along with ¾ cup of sugar – or to taste. You’ll probably also want to use Pomona’s Universal Pectin unless you want to add gobs of sugar, otherwise you will not get that “jam” consistency. Follow the directions in the package. Let it cook down about 15 minutes. When you add your jars, throw in about a tablespoon (into a pint jar – you can probably get away with less for smaller jars) of lemon juice to increase the jar’s acidity.

I pressure-can nearly everything because the thought of my 20-month-old getting botulism terrifies me. This is also why I only let the plums cook down for 15 minutes because I know they were going to go into the pressure canner for 25 minutes.

So, why a pressure canner and not a boiling water bath? Think about your Saturday morning eggs. Actually, this analogy works well since the Latin root of botulism, botulus, means sausage – so, your Saturday morning sausage and eggs. You know when you crack that egg into the frying the heat rearranges the protein bonds in the egg making the cells in it non-viable? We call this denaturing. You call it sunny-side up. Well, botulism spores don’t denature in boiling water – boiling water is a lukewarm soak for them. Botulism is the honey badger of the microbe world. Boiling water? Honey badger don’t care. Botulism spores are tough as nails. They thrive in oxygen depleted environments and they require extremely high temperatures to render them harmless. Completely viable spores have been sampled off archaeological material that is thousands of years old. Assuming that you do not have access to your own private Yellowstone Geyser*, your next best bet is a pressure canner.

You need to get the temperature much higher than 212oF – or in the case of Denver where I am, 203oF. We need it to be about 240oF at the core of the contents of the jar for at least 5 minutes. In the case of my plums, it was 20 minutes for my pint jars, plus another 5 minutes added for altitude. After that, your botulism spores are the microbial equipment of a scrambled egg and are non-viable. (For a complete discussion of this and the varying processing times go find yourself a copy of The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest by Carol Costenbader – $13 at Amazon.)

Now, I should say that pressure canning is not necessary for everything. Things that are high in acid – or, perhaps soaked in brandy (like me!) – can be safely canned in just a boiling water bath. I pressure-can because I’m paranoid and I’m usually making preserves or sauces: things that you can’t really overcook, and if you do, it’s no biggie. Excuse me now, my afternoon crumpets with plum preserves are calling and perhaps a wee nip of whiskey.


Want to give Rich’s Plum Preserves a try?


5 pounds of plums (it’s OK to buy them if you don’t have your own Plum Fairy)


Generous splash or splashes (or bottle) of Peach Brandy (some for the cook)

Several healthy dashes of Ceylon Cinnamon

2 tsp of single strength vanilla extract

3/4 cup of sugar (or to taste) Pomona’s Universal Pectin (follow package directions)

Lemon juice



Pit and cook down your plums for approximately 15 minutes adding brandy, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar and pectin In the jars in the pressure canner – add the above mixture plus 1 tbsp of lemon juice per jar.

Raise canner temperature to 240oF at the center of the jars for at least 5 minutes or about 20 minutes total processing time.

*Disclaimer: DO NOT do your canning in a geyser on your next visit to Yellowstone National Park. They’re already trying to figure out how to get a drone out of Grand Prismatic Lake. The last thing they need is to fetch your jars of beets as they bob away into the steam. Oh, and it’s illegal.

* Disclaimer II: Please consult with an area extension office, take a class, or get some experienced guidance before preserving foods with a pressure canner on your own for the first time. Remember all that talk about botulism? Improperly preserved food is dangerous. Please be safe.

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