Learn how to make Umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum), a century-old superfood known for its intensely sour and salty taste! You’ll need just salt, ripen ume plums, and red shiso leaves.
What is Umeboshi
Umeboshi (梅干, pronounced [ɯmeboɕi], literally ‘dried ume’) is a type of pickled plum, known for its extremely sour and salty taste. The acidity is so intense that it makes your face pucker and lips crumple.
For most people, the initial taste can be overwhelming. It may also remain an acquired taste to some, but umeboshi has a respective place as an ingredient and food in the Japanese cuisine.
We often serve umeboshi with steamed rice, ochazuke, okayu (rice porridge), sometimes as a filling inside onigiri (rice ball), or even in Japanese-style pasta!
Is Umeboshi Healthy?
It has long been said that you do not need a doctor if you eat one umeboshi a day. The effects of citric acid (クエン酸) on plums are said to be good for restoring energy, preventing heat stroke, and keeping obesity at bay.
Since you can store umeboshi at room temperature, it is considered as emergency food. However, it’s also recommended not to take too many, as umeboshi is quite salty. Everything in moderation.
Umeboshi Process & Timeline
You can make umeboshi at home with fresh ume. The process is roughly a month long, but it is not difficult at all. I’ll go over each step quickly here.
In mid-June when ripen yellow ume start to appear in stores, it’s time to begin umeboshi making. First, add ume plums and salt to a crock and let pickled for 7 days. Then around late June when red shiso leaves are available, add them in the crock for natural red coloring.
It’s the rainy season in Japan around this time, so you will need to wait until the season is over. When the forecast shows strong sunlight for 3 straight days, get ready for the final step and dry the pickled ume under the sun. This is a crucial step for umeboshi, as you can tell from its name – ‘ume’ (= plum) ‘boshi’ (= dry).
Japan Umeboshi Timeline
|Month||Ingredient in Season||Umeboshi Process|
|Early-June||Green ume||(Make plum wine and syrup!)|
|Mid-June||Yellow ume||Pickle yellow ume with salt|
|Late-June||Red shiso leaves||Add red shiso to the pickled ume|
|Late-July||Dry ume in sun for 3 days|
California Umeboshi Timeline
|Month||Ingredient in Season||Umeboshi Process|
|Early to Mid-May||Green ume||(Make plum wine and syrup!)|
|Late-May||Yellow ume||Pickle yellow ume with salt|
|Early to Mid-June||Red Shiso leaves||Add red shiso to the pickled ume|
|Mid-July||Dry ume in sun for 3 days|
The Ume Plum
Native to China, ume (梅, うめ) or Japanese plums grow on large broad-leaved trees with a very short growing season.
Although generally referred to as a plum in English, they are more closely related to the apricot.
In Japan, Nanko Ume (南高梅) is a very popular variety, and it is mainly used for making Umeboshi.
Young, Green Ume
The young bright green fruits are commonly used to make umeshu (plum wine) and ume plum syrup.
Ripen, Yellow, Blushed Ume
These ripen ume are called Kanjuku Ume (完熟梅) and they are the best to make umeboshi. If your ume are still green-ish, you can leave them out at room temperature and wait for them to fully ripen.
Where to Get Ume
Around early to mid-May, Japanese grocery stores (like Nijiya) start to carry ume plums (roughly 2 lb package). You need to be alert and look for them as they are in the store for a short period, probably 2 weeks or so.
You can get ume plums ($10 per pound) from Nicholas Family Firm. Please text or call Penny at 559-393-3009. Make sure to mention JOC22 for 10% off!
How to Make Umeboshi
All You Need is 3 Ingredients
1. Ume Plums
To make umeboshi, you will need ripen, yellow, and blushed ume plums called Kanjuku Ume (完熟梅).
You can make umeboshi with the green ones, but they have too much astringency, so you will need to soak the ume in water for 6 hours before you process. You will also need to use heavier weights to properly pickle.
2. Sea salt (Arajio 粗塩)
I use Japanese type called Arajio, but it’s basically coarse sea salt. Do not use table salt for pickling.
3. Red shiso (Akajiso 赤紫蘇)
Be patient and wait until red shiso leaves are in season, usually mid to late-June. Or grow your own! You can leave your ume in the crock as long as they are soaked in the pickling solution (ume plum vinegar).
If you see red shiso in the store before your ume plums reach 7 days, go ahead and purchase them while supplies last. When you get home, wrap the stems with damp paper towels, and store the shiso in the refrigerator.
Red shiso contains astringency (‘aku‘ in Japanese), so we must knead and massage the leaves with salt first before use. Do not skip this step.
5 Helpful Tools You’ll Need
1. 2-Gallon Crock
The #2 crock from Ohio Stoneware is sturdy and durable and it’s perfect for preserving and storing vegetables. It can contain 2 gallons, and the width is 9.75 inches, the height is 9 inches, and the depth is 9.75 inches. The 2-gallon crock starter kit comes with the crock, the lid, and 3.85 lb weights.
You can also use: Any wide-mouth glass or ceramic container.
Tips: Start looking for a crock as early as you can! I had a very difficult time finding a crock in my area. I’ve tried ordering a 2-gallon crock on Amazon 3 times, but each time the crock arrived cracked. I had to call hardware stores outside of my city and finally found two that I needed.
2. A large bamboo strainer (Bonzaru)
The Japanese uses a large bamboo strainer called bonzaru (盆ざる) to put the ume for sun drying. I have two large bonzaru from MTC Kitchen.
The strainer is good for air circulation and helps to keep the bottoms of the ume dry. If you use a plate, the bottoms don’t get dry. So use some kind of wooden rack. Do not use a metal rack.
What else can we use a Bonzaru for? How about using it as a serving tray for Onigiri (rice balls), Daifuku Mochi, or Taiyaki for parties?
Tips: Initially I debated if I should just use this mesh hanging dry net, but I bought one anyway. In the end, I ended up using the hanging net for drying red shiso (akajiso) to make Yukari (more about it in my recipe).
3. Mesh Food Cover Tent
To avoid fruit flies, bugs, or bird droppings, it’s best to protect these precious babies with mesh food cover tents.
You can also use: Two of these mesh hanging dry nets instead of purchasing large strainers and food cover tents.
Tips: If you live in a windy neighborhood like ours, you may need to tape it down so the food cove tents won’t fly away!
4. Homemade Plastic Drop Lid
To evenly distribute the weights over the ume, you’ll need a drop lid. My ume supplier friend, John recommended making a DIY drop lid with a cheap plastic cutting board, and it worked perfectly (Thank you John!).
You can also use: A plate. Do not use a metal drop lid.
Tip: Cut the plastic cutting board slightly smaller than the crock opening. I made it a bit too tight that I can only lift the drop lid with a (food styling) tweezer (haha!). Don’t follow my mistake.
5. Mason Jars to Store Umeboshi and Ume Plum Vinegar
You will need some sterilized mason jars to store the completed umeboshi and ume plum vinegar.
You can also use: Any airtight containers.
- Early-June: In a crock, layer the salt and the ume alternately. Store in a dark, cool place for 7 days (or more till red shiso is in season)
- Mid-June: Remove astringency from red shiso leaves with salt and add to the crock. Store in a dark, cool place for a month.
- Mid-July: Sun dry the ume and red shiso for 3 days and pack in jars.
Tips on Umeboshi Making
The number one enemy when it comes to umeboshi making is mold growth. Luckily, I live in a very dry and cool climate even during the summer, so I don’t have to worry too much. But if you live in a hot and humid climate, please follow the instructions carefully.
1. Salt must be 18% of the weight of the ume plums.
Traditionally it is 20%, but these days many people make umeboshi with 18%. The higher content of salt is to preserve the ume, keeping it safe from mold growth. Do not lower the amount.
2. Sterilize equipment with alcohol.
You must clean all the equipment with alcohol. You can use any alcohol that is higher than 35% ABV, like shuchu and vodka.
3. Use the right amount of weights.
The weights help pressing down the ume plums, drawing the moisture out of the fruits and creating brine for umeboshi. This brine, ume plum vinegar, keeps the umeboshi from mold growth.
To speed up the process of brine making, use heavy, double weights of the ume. You can remove the weights after the ume are completely covered by the brine.
When the weights are too heavy, they may smash the ume and tear the skin. So be careful.
4. Use good ume and discard damaged ones.
Don’t try to save the damaged plums. It’s not worth throwing the entire batch away just because you tried to save one that has a damaged spot.
5. Dry the ume for 3 days in bright sunlight.
The ume are dried in the sun for about three days after being pickled in salt and red shiso leaves. This process not only helps with the shelf life of umeboshi, but also improves the meaty texture from moisture evaporation, giving you the characteristic wrinkly look.
What to Do with Red Shiso and Ume Plum Vinegar
When I dry my umeboshi, I also leave the red shiso under sunshine until they are completely dried, about 2 days or so. Then I run them in the food processor to make homemade yukari (ゆかり), Japanese rice seasoning.
The leftover red-color ume plum vinegar (umezu) can be used for beni shoga (pickled ginger), salad dressing, or for coloring ingredients.
Despite its name, ume plum “vinegar” is not a true vinegar. The sourness comes from the natural sour and tangy ume and saltiness from umeboshi’s salt-pickling process. This by-product is unique and the fruit of your hard work, so don’t throw it away.
Your homemade red plum vinegar tastes better than a bottled ume plum vinegar that is available for purchase at a Japanese grocery store or Amazon.
Other Ume Plums recipes
If you are looking for more ume recipes to try, here are some of my favorites. Enjoy!
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Umeboshi (Japanese Sour Salted Plums)
- 3 kg ume plum (to make umeboshi, we use fully-ripen, golden yellow ume with blushes of peachy-pink; if yours are slightly green, you can wait till they ripen at room temperature)
- 540 g coarse sea salt (18% of the weight of the ume; 1 kg ume = 180 g salt)
- 120 ml shochu (for sterilizing; use alcohol higher than 35% ABV like vodka)
For Red Coloring (Optional)
- 600 g red shiso leaves (perilla) (20% of the weight of the ume; each Nijiya packet ($5.99) has roughly 100 g leaves)
- 108 g coarse sea salt (18% of the weight of the shiso)
Before Ume Season
- Prepare equipment ahead of time as you may need to order online. Besides the ume and salt (and red shiso leaves that are required later), you will need a large bowl, a 2-gallon crock, weights (should be double the weight of the ume; the crock comes with 3.85-lb weights, so I use a bag of salt as an addition), a drop lid (John recommended me to get a plastic cutting board on Amazon and cut it slightly smaller than the crock’s opening), a large Japanese bamboo strainer called bonzaru, a mesh hanging dry net.
Day 0 (June 4/Previous Day)
- Many recipes mention soaking the ume overnight to remove astringency (“aku” in Japanese). If you are using green ume, you may want to soak for 6 hours. If you ripen the green ume, soak for 2-3 hours. If your ume are yellow and blushed like mine, skip this step as most of them have less astringency, and you are more likely to damage the ume by soaking (discoloration, dent, mold, etc). If your ume got damaged, you can make ume jam after removing the seeds and damaged parts.
Day 1 (June 5)
- Rinse the ume under cold running water. If you see blemishes or damages on ume, don’t use it because they can start growing mold from there.
- Using a bamboo skewer, remove the woody bits where the fruits are attached to their stems. It’s a tedious work, but please do not skip. Gently dry the ume completely with a clean kitchen towel.
- Pour Shochu on a clean kitchen towel and clean the inside of the crock with the alcohol. Make sure your hands are clean.
- Sprinkle salt to cover the bottom of the crock. Then add 2 layers of ume.
- Sprinkle salt on top followed by 2 layers of ume.
- Then continue salt and ume alternatively.
- If you use the same size crock, the ume should fill around 2/3 of the way up to the top.
- Finally sprinkle the salt. Sterilize the plastic drop lid with shochu where it touches the fruits and place on top of the ume.
- Place the weights on top of the drop lid. Cover with the crock’s lid. We use double the weight of the ume. [Optional] If you live in a place with high humidity, you may want to wrap the top tightly with plastic and cover the crock with paper to prevent umeboshi from getting mold. Write down today’s date on the crock. Leave the crock in a dark, cool place.
Day 2-3 (June 6-7)
- After a few days, the ume will start releasing moisture and you should see a layer of ume plum vinegar (梅酢, umezu) on top. If the ume plum vinegar does not come up easily, increase the weight so that the ume will sink in the vinegar quickly (this will protect from going bad/growing mold). The picture below shows Day 1 and Day 2.
Day 7 (June 11)
- Opening the crock lid for the first time! Use clean hands and equipment to check.
- If the ume plum vinegar is 1 inch (2.6 cm) above the plums, decrease the amount of the weight (roughly equal weight as the plums). If the plums are smashed/torn, also decrease the amount of the weight. Store in a cool and dark place for at least 1 month, making sure the ume are soaked in plum vinegar.
Wait Until Red Shiso is Available
- Patiently wait until red shiso is in season, usually mid to late June. You can leave your ume in the crock as long as they are soaked in the pickling solution (ume plum vinegar). Get red shiso when you see them in the Japanese grocery store. If your ume haven't reached 7 days at that time, wrap the shiso stems with a damp paper towel and store them in the refrigerator. If you can't get red shiso, you can skip and go straight to the sun drying step.
Day 14 (June 18)
- Pick shiso leaves from the stems and put them in a large bowl.
- Using plenty of water, rinse them and drain well.
- Sprinkle half of the salt and knead the shiso really well. The salt slowly starts to draw the moisture of the leaves as you knead. Please note that red shiso is a powerful dye and your hands will get slightly red for a day or two. You can wear disposable food prep gloves.
- This dark, frothy, purple liquid contains astringency (“aku” in Japanese). Squeeze the shiso tightly and discard the dirty water.
- Then add the remaining salt on squeezed shiso and loosen them up. Kneading and rubbing until you get more juice. If you don’t get rid of astringency at this stage, your umeboshi will be darker. So do not skip this step.
- You will see more liquid coming out, but this time, it’s slightly prettier color than the first time. Squeeze the shiso and discard the dirty water again.
- Open up the pickling crock. Take out 1 cup of clear ume plum vinegar (umezu) from the crock. And add to the squeezed shiso in the bowl.
- Loosen up the red shiso, and the ume plum vinegar will soon turn bright purple/red color.
- Transfer the red shiso leaves and remaining shiso liquid over the ume.
- Evenly distribute the shiso leaves to cover the ume and place the plastic drop lid on top.
- Put the equal amount of weights as the ume (6.6 lb or 3 kg). Cover the crock with the top lid and put it back to the dark, cool place. Over the next month, the red color from the shiso leaves will permeate the ume plum vinegar and the ume. When the ume plum vinegar exceeds 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the shiso leaves, you can reduce the weight so the ume will not tear.
A Month After Adding Shiso (July 17-19)
- Check the forecast and plan on 3-day ume drying on sunny days. On these 3 days, put the ume under the sunshine for all day. Exposing the ume to the strong summer sun prevents mold growth. The moisture also evaporates, which yields more concentrated flavors and meaty texture.
- Open the crock lid and remove the weights and the drop lid. The ume plum vinegar now has a beautiful deep red color.
- Scoop away or remove the layer of red shiso so you can see the ume. I just moved them aside so I can pick up the plums. The skin is very fragile so handle it with care.
- Pick up all the ume from the crock and drain the liquid over the sieve placed over a large bowl (I use a 4–cup measuring cup here).
- The ume closer to the layer of shiso has a darker red color. Transfer the ume to a flat bamboo strainer, keeping them apart from each other. You probably need 2 large strainers.
- Take out the shiso leaves and drain over a strainer that is set above a bowl/measuring cup. Squeeze the liquid out.
- Place them over a tray lined with foil or parchment paper. Then transfer the shiso to the hanging dry net and place outside for 2-3 days until they dry out completely (in the mid-afternoon, take them inside the house with umeboshi).
- Transfer the ume plum vinegar (umezu) from the crock to sterilized mason jars. Keep it in the refrigerator.
- Place the ume under the sunshine all day, from morning to mid-afternoon before the air gets cool and the moisture starts to build up.
- You may want to put these food cover tents to protect the ume from bugs. When I bring the ume to indoor in the mid-afternoon, I keep them on the strainers. Some people put the ume back in the ume plum vinegar so they can absorb more of the juice and color after being dried all day. It's up to you. The next morning before you take out the strainers again, flip them. I learned that the ume skin does not stick to the strainer after overnight, so it's easier to turn them over in the morning. Repeat this drying process for another 2 days. By the 3rd day, the umeboshi is plump but slightly wrinkled. Some ume may have white salt visible on the surface.
- After 3 days of sun drying, they are ready to be packed away. You have 2 ways to do it. 1) putting back to the ume plum vinegar to preserve, 2) keep the umeboshi in the sterlized air-tight mason jar as it is. The first method will yield bright red, juicy, more sour umeboshi. The second method will yield less red, stickier, and less sour umeboshi. I use #2 method.
- It’s best to rest umeboshi for at least 3 months so the flavors will mature (I wait for 6-12 months). Even if you can eat the umeboshi immediately, they are just too salty and are not very delicious. If they are stored for 3 months or more, they will mature and mellow out the salty, sour flavors slightly. You can keep the umeboshi in a dark, cool place for 2-3 years.
How to Use Umeboshi
- Check my umreboshi recipes on the blog.