Dates at an open market

When you are food-minded, thinking about dates makes your heart flutter for a very different reason. Luckily, the dates we have in mind are a bit less awkward and nerve-wracking than the romantic kind.

Dates, which are the fruit of the date palm, are one of nature’s sweetest creations. You may think of them as a dried fruit, which makes sense, because they’re wrinkly, chewy, and very sweet—like other dried fruits. But many dates are actually sold fresh, and others are only partially dried.

Fresh dates, especially Medjool dates, which are the cream of the date crop, are unlike any other food. They are truly candy-like, with a delicate skin that shatters when you bite it, thanks to the crystallized sugar hiding within. You can eat them as dessert all on their own, but they are also an amazing ingredient in both sweet and savory applications.

You might see dates popping up on healthy-cooking blogs and plant-forward recipes, used as a sweetener in place of granulated sugar. This makes sense, since dates are super, super sweet, but are also relatively low on the glycemic index, meaning they won’t spike your blood sugar the way other sweeteners can.

To use dates, you’ll first need to remove the oblong pit. Slice the date down the side with a sharp knife, and use the knife or your fingers to pry the pit from the sticky flesh. You can buy dates pitted, which is infinitely easier, but the plumpest, freshest dates will usually be sold whole, with the pits intact.

Once you have your dates pitted, you can dice them to add to curries or stews, blend them into a vinaigrette, or toss them in a salad for a sweet bite, just like you would use a grape or a dried cranberry. Stuff them with savory, pungent cheeses or nuts for an appetizer. Dates are a flavorful sweet additions to stuffings and gravies for poultry, and they can balance the strong flavors of game meats, like quail and beer.

For sweet applications, you can use them just like raisins (dice them first) or other dried fruit. Or you can blend them with liquid ingredients to naturally sweeten ice cream, puddings, or glazes for cakes and cookies. They are also a great addition to your morning smoothie, packing plenty of sweetness and flavor without the sugar high. You probably only need 1/2 a date to taste the impact, so start slow.

Because they are so sticky, dates are also a great binder for desserts or snacks, like granola bars, protein balls, or vegan cookies. Pulse dates in the food processor with nuts, coconut, and a little peanut butter for an easy sweet treat!

Dates are not just sweet, but they are naturally caramel-flavored, with a deep richness that offers more than just sugary sweetness. Dates can be soaked in water and blended to make a vegan caramel to top oat-milk ice cream or to sandwich between shortbread cookies.

When selecting dates, look for a plump fruit with a wrinkled, but not dry skin. Though there are hundreds of varieties of dates, you’re most likely to find soft varieties like Medjool, Khadrawy, and Barhi or semi-dry Zahidi. Medjools are often the most plump, tender, and caramel-flavored, making them the go-to for recipe writers.

Because of their high-sugar and relatively low moisture content, dates keep well for a long time. Store them in the refrigerator for a few months.

Cover image: Dates // Sirah Quyyom // License

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