Cooking with Dates

Dates grow in large bunches weighing some 20 pounds (10 kg) and yielding as many as a thousand fruits. Average trees produce 100 pounds (50 kg) per season, with vigorous trees yielding three times as much. Most fruits are around 2 inches (5 cm) long.

Types, Varieties and Ripeness of Dates

Three main types of dates are grown:

Soft dates are mostly eaten fresh, are mild in flavor, with lower sugar content. They’re more common in the Middle East, though other world areas import them during Ramadan.

Hard dates are dry and fibrous even when fresh, hence the nicknames of “camel” dates or “bread” dates. Drying intensifies their hard consistency and also their sweetness, and they’ll last for years. Nomads relied on these dates as staples, often grinding them into flour. Today, trekkers pack these firm dates as survival snacks.

Semi-dry dates are what most Westerners enjoy. They’re aromatic, softer and chewier, with a pleasant level of sweetness.

Date Ripeness: Dates are also classified by their degree of ripeness. Using the Arabic names for each stage, from fresh to dried, dates progress along these stages:

  • Khalal: full size fresh fruits, but still green and not edible
  • Bisr: colors start changing and sugars start developing
  • Rutab: softening and darkening
  • Tamr: ready for packing

Date Varieties: More than a thousand date varieties exist (Basra alone boasts more than 350 types), but these are the ones most commonly sold in the Western world:

Barhi—Like candy; among the softest and sweetest of all dates, with caramel tones. Some people enjoy them chilled.

Deglet Noor—Semi-dry, nutty, medium sweet; the most widely grown variety in the world. Name means “Date of Light” and the amber color is translucent when held to a light. Supermarkets sell these packaged in the dried fruit aisle.

Halawi—Sweet and sticky (halawi means “sweet” in Arabic); semi-soft, moist, and higher on the sweetness scale than many other dates, with a caramel color and undertone.

Honey dates—Soft, creamy with a rich honey and caramel-like flavor. A buttery, melt-in-your mouth treat (and my personal favorite). A cousin of the deglet noor.

Khadrawi—This type contains less invert sugar, and is better for those with sugar sensitivities

Medjool—Large, soft, and sweet. One of the favorite date varieties, with thick flesh and rich flavor.

Thoory—These “bread” dates are drier, thicker, and chewier. Good to pack for hikes and outdoor snacks.

Zahidi—Semi dry and less intense than some varieties, but still on the sweet side.

Buying, Storing, and Measuring Dates

Buying: Look for plump, soft dates; avoid any that are shriveled, show signs of mold or crystals on their skin.

Storing: Dried dates are actually not fully dried; they’re sold slightly moist and are meant to be eaten that way. Store them air-tight in a cool, dry place for 6 to 8 months; over time, they’ll lose their moistness and become drier. Refrigerated dates will last up to a year.

Fresh dates: If you are lucky enough to find fresh dates, refrigerate them in a plastic bag; they’ll last 2 weeks.

Whole: 1 pound = 2-1/2 cups pitted and chopped
Pitted: 8-ounce package = 1-1/4 cups chopped

Tip: To Chop Dates—Dates are sticky, especially when cut up. Snipping the dates with scissors works better than chopping with a knife; to further prevent sticking, dip the blades into warm water or flour periodically. To chop in a food processor, add a bit of oatmeal to the bowl, process into a powder; then, add the dates and process until chopped. If desired, pour the dates into a colander and shake away excess oatmeal flour.

Tip: Separating Dates—To “unglue” a mass of dates that have stuck together, microwave them in short bursts at medium power until pliable, about 30-60 seconds total. Or heat in a medium (350 degree F.) oven 5 minutes, covered.

Date Nutrition

Because of their concentrated natural sugar content, dates are a source of instant energy. But dates are also nutritious and rich in potassium, a mineral particularly important for active athletes to balance the body’s fluids. In fact, while bananas surpass dates in vitamins C and A, dates have about twice as much potassium, three times as much iron, twice as much protein, and six times as much calcium as bananas. One pitted date has about 66 calories and virtually no fat.

For a complete breakdown of date nutritional content, visit:

Guide to Date Cooking Products: Pieces, Vinegars, Powder and Pastes

Besides whole and pitted dates, other date products include:

Chopped dates, date pieces—dried, chopped dates with a light oat flour coating to keep them from sticking together. Handy for baking or adding to granolas.

Date syrup or “date honey”—a syrup made from cooked dates; use as a liquid sweetener, as you would molasses, maple syrup or honey. Drizzle on a roast as a glaze, or over fresh goat cheese.

Date vinegar—vinegar fermented from dates. Dark and fruity, a good substitute for balsamic vinegar.

Date sugar, date powder; date crystals—dehydrated ground dates; date crystals are sold as flakes; use in baking to replace brown sugar

Date paste—dried dates softened in water for several hours, then mashed and blended into a smooth, spreadable paste; popular in raw food diets. Sold in jars or easily made at home.

“Sparkling date juice” is sold in Islamic markets as a non-alcoholic alternative to champagne, especially at Ramadan.

In the Sahara, date pits are roasted, ground, and made into a hot beverage known as “date coffee.”

Cooking with Dates Around the World

Today, most countries around the world that cook with dates use them in sweets and confections, but they’re also added as a flavor contrast to non-sweet dishes. For instance:

Middle East—Among the region’s many date recipes, date jam is made by simmering dates, sugar, lemon juice, cloves, and water together, and mixing in almonds and walnuts.

Iran—Persians of the past and present-day Iranians cooked liberally with dates, often with almonds, pistachios, or raisins, in rice dishes and stews as well as desserts, like Persian Date Cake (Ranginak).

Israel—Haroset, a traditional holiday dish of the Jewish Passover, combines dried fruit and nuts. Some versions include apples or raisins, but in other recipes dates are included.

Spain—Dates are wrapped in bacon and broiled, and served as “tapas” or snacks.

India—Pickled dishes, like chutneys, are served as condiments. One such type of pickle combines dates, mango, chiles, ginger, vinegar, and spices. In some regions, dates are tossed into shrimp or chicken curries.

Pakistan—Dates are chopped and made into chutney.

Morocco—Chicken is braised with dates and almonds.

France—Loaves of bread are baked with hazelnuts and chopped dates.

United States—Dates are often served as appetizers, stuffed with cream cheese, green olives, or almonds and baked. In California, a date shake is made in a blender with ice cream, dates, and milk.

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