Dates are a small, brown fruit with a wrinkled, thin skin and a long pit. They are extremely sweet because up to 75% of their total weight can be sugar. Most are very soft and chewy with a rich, caramel flavor. While most dates are sold as a dried fruit, some are available fresh.
Dates are one of the oldest tree crops from the Middle East, dating back to more than 5000 years ago. Ancient date pits have been found during archeological digs and palm trunks have been used to construct ancient temples. Dates were a popular and important source of food for the Middle Eastern people because they dried and stored well, were light, and were satisfying and delicious. Dates were also highly prized by royalty. The fruit was commonly traded and date palm tree orchards grew throughout the Middle East. Later trading spread the palm trees to Northeast Africa and Eastern Mediterranean regions.
The Moors introduced dates to Spain, who in turn introduced the trees to South America, Mexico and California in the 18th and 19th centuries during missions. Descendants of these trees still grow there today. However, most of the commercially produced dates in California actually came later directly from the Middle East. California is the major producer of dates for the United States.
Roughly 4 million metric tons of dates are grown annually. Today, the Middle East is the largest producer and consumer of dates. The biggest producers of dates are Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
Date Palm Trees
The date palm tree (Phoenix (for the Phoenicians whose deep purple dye was the same color as dates) Dactylifera(the Greek word for finger)) is considered the "Tree of Life" to the Middle Eastern people and is a holy symbol to the Muslim people. Palm trees are also mentioned throughout the Bible and Palm fronds from the tree are also a symbol of Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem. The tree has many uses besides its dates. The wood is used for fuel and to build shelters. The fronds are woven into mats used to make floors and ceilings and for carrying utensils. Palm trees are frequently used as ornamental plants throughout the southwest of the United States.
Palm trees have skinny, long trunks with many huge leaves, called fronds, on top of the tree. Mature trees reach up to a hundred feet tall. The palms are dioecious, meaning male and female parts of the flower grow on separate trees up by the fronds. The pollen from the male flower needs to be mixed with the female flower for proper pollination. After pollination hundreds of dates develop in large clusters high in the trees.
Date palms grow best in regions with high temperatures, low humidity, and lots of water. This makes them somewhat expensive to grow commercially because they require extensive irrigation. Date palms are commercially grown in orchards called "oases." Growers generally keep a 30 female to 1 male ratio for the best date production. Flower buds form in the spring and open for a short time in the early summer. During this time the female flowers are hand-pollinated with the pollen from the male flowers, a process called "Hababauk."
Dates develop over four phases before they are ripe, which takes about 200 days. The phases are:
- "Chimri" ("Kimri"): This is the first 17 weeks after pollination. The dates are green, hard, bitter, and are mostly moisture.
- "Khalal": The next 6 weeks. Here the dates grow until they reach their full size. The dates are still hard but become sweeter and change color to yellow, orange, or red. Some dates may be harvested at this phase
- "Rutab": The next 4 weeks. The dates turn a light brown color and slowly become soft and sweet. Most soft and semi-soft dates are harvested during this phase.
- "Tamar": The last 2 weeks before final harvesting. The dates darken in color and become softer and sweeter. Dry varieties of dates are harvested now.
Date palm trees produce fruit every other year. A mature palm tree can grow up to 20 clusters of dates per pollination. Dates are harvested anywhere from late summer to early winter. Some dates are harvested by hand picking, but most are picked by tall equipment that cuts the entire cluster of dates at once.
Varieties of Dates
There are more than 600 varieties of dates worldwide. They are divided into three categories: soft, semi-soft, and dry. Soft dates are sweet and have lots of moisture and a soft skin and flesh. Semi-soft dates are sweeter, have less moisture, and are firmer. Dry dates are very sweet and have the least moisture and dry and hard flesh.
Popular varieties of dates include:
- Medjool: These are considered the "King of Dates" due to their large size, soft flesh, and extreme sweetness. These date palms were originally imported into the United States in 1920 when the trees in Morocco became diseased. The trees flourished in California and still grow there today in the Bard Valley region.
- Deglet Noor: These caramel-colored dates are a bit drier, firmer, and less sweet. They store well and are often used for cooking. They are the most common date available.
- Barhi: These dates are very round and have a dark amber color. They are soft and have a rich, caramel flavor. Dates are more dark amber in color. Barhi dates need to be refrigerated immediately after harvesting to keep them from spoiling.
- Halawy: These dates were imported into the United States from Iraq and are also known as "Golden Princess" dates. These dates are long, amber, and very chewy with a sweet, caramel flavor.
- Khadrawi: These date were also imported from Iraq. They are amber to reddish in color and have a soft, pudding-like flesh. They tend to ripen earlier than other varieties of dates.
- Thoory: These dates are also known as "Bread Dates." They are the driest variety of dates and are best for cereals and trail mixes.
Selecting and Using Dates
Dates can be purchased fresh, dried, whole, pitted, chopped, and as a paste. Most dates sold in supermarkets are dried and available year-round. However, the best selection of fresh dates can be found during winter. It is somewhat difficult to determine if packaged dates are dried or fresh. Fortunately, this does not matter too much unless the dates are very old so make sure to check the expiration date.
The best place to find dates would be a large supermarket, a health food store with bulk items, or a Middle Eastern market. When buying dates, look for ones that are plump and have a nice sheen. Don't worry about wrinkled skin, but avoid hard or broken dates. Dates may sometimes have a whitish coating around the skin. This is actually crystallized sugar that leaked out from the date. It is harmless, and the dates can be steamed to remove the coating.
One of the benefits of dates is that they have such a long storage life. Dates store the best when they have not been chopped or pitted. They can be kept in the pantry for many months. They can also be kept in the fridge, but they can absorb food odors so wrap them well. Dates also freeze well for longer storage. If the dates become dry and hard, simply steam them for a brief period of time to make them soft again.
Because dates are so high in sugar they are great alone or used in a variety of dishes. They are fabulous in hot or cold cereals, puddings, and yogurt. Peanut butter and date sandwiches are also an interesting combination of flavors. Dates go well with a wide variety of cheeses. They add moisture, flavor, and sweetness to cookies, breads, and cakes. They are a good addition to cold fruit dishes and baked fruit desserts like pies. They are also good in savory dishes such as stews or curries.
Dates are a good source of fiber, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, vitamin A, and niacin. They are fat-free and have no sodium or cholesterol.
The Joy of Cooking, revised edition