Dates are available all though the year, but they are freshest in fall and early winter, when they are harvested. You can get them from grocery stores, farmers' markets, health food stores, and online. Fresh dates should be moist and plump with glossy skins. Although dried dates might look wrinkly, they should still be glossy with an even color. They are available whole, pressed into blocks or packaged in long, narrow boxes.
There are 3 date categories - dry, soft and semisoft. Dry ones (also known as bread dates) are those which naturally don't contain much water when ripe. Drying these out further makes them sweeter and harder, and they will last for years. Soft dates are usually enjoyed fresh. They are common in the Middle East and offer a mild taste and lower sugar content. Semidry dates are what we are more familiar with in the West. They are soft, chewy, nicely sweet and aromatic.
Medjool dates are semisoft. They are sweet, meaty and firm-textured. Another semisoft option is the Deglet Noor, which is firm and an amber or light red shade. These account for about 95% of the U.S. date production. Barhi dates are thin-skinned and medium in size, offering soft, tender flesh and a sweet, caramel-like taste.
Halawy and Khadrawy dates are also soft, and they have a yellow or amber skin and a wrinkled outside. Zahidi dates are semisoft, with a crunchy flesh and large seed. They are often used to make date sugar products. Thoory dates are dry with chewy flesh and a firm skin. Although 'Chinese dates' are not a member of the same botanical date family, this fruit which is also known as jujube, looks like a true date and may be used the same.
Choosing the Best Cooking Dates
So now you know some of the most popular date varieties, you might be wondering about cooking dates and which type to choose to yield the best results. Actually it depends what you plan to make. Medjool are the softest, sweetest and largest ones. They are great for shakes, smoothies, stuffing recipes or energy bars. They are harder to cut uniformly because of their high moisture content, so you might want to choose another variety for making breads or scones. Halawi offer a distinctive caramel taste, so they are great in savory dishes and they also go very nicely with cheese.
Deglet Noor are chewy and drier than Medjools. They are also cheaper and keep for longer, making them a great all-purpose date which can be used in baking or other recipes. They are easier to cut in uniform pieces because of their dry texture and they keep their integrity in cakes, cookies and breads. Thoory dates are light brown and not sticky like many other types. They have a nice nutty taste and you can use them in granola, muesli or trail mix, since they don't have enough moisture content to make the oats soggy.
Famous Date Recipes around the Globe
Dates are enjoyed as a snack in the Middle East, where they are also combined with sugar, lemon, water, nuts and cloves to make date jam. They are teamed with almonds, raisins or pistachios in Iran, to make stews and rice dishes. Dried fruits, such as dates, and nuts are served in Israel during Passover. Head over to Morocco and you will find chicken braised with almonds and dates to be a popular local dish.
In Pakistan and India, they are combined with ingredients like chilies, mango, vinegar, ginger and other spices to make pickles and chutneys. Bread baked with chopped dates and hazelnuts is popular in France, while here in the U.S. they are stuffed with olives, cream cheese or almonds and baked, to make a delicious appetizer. Try stuffing them with blue cheese and wrapping them in bacon, then deep frying until crispy. A Californian date shake is another nice option - a combination of dates, ice cream and milk.