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Dried dates are dates that have been lightly heated for many hours to remove their moisture and prevent spoilage. The fruits may be sun-dried or dried in a dehydrator or oven. They are very sweet when fresh and even sweeter when dried. The drying process condenses the flesh and sugars in the fruit, giving them a very intense sweetness. Dried dates are often used in place of sugar in vegan, vegetarian, and raw food recipes.
Before they’re dried, dates are typically plump, shiny, ovoid fruits that grow in bunches from date trees. They can be either dark purple or bright red and contain a large central pit with pointed ends. This is usually removed before the fruit is dried, serving two purposes. The first is to make the fruit easier to eat and cook with once dried. The second reason is to create a small tunnel in the center of the date through which air can flow. This helps the dates to dry out evenly.
Home cooks interested in drying their own date crop, or preserving fresh dates from the grocery store, may do it in one of two ways. Both methods require the cook to pit the dates first, which may be done by pushing a knife through the center of each date or pitting them with a cherry pitter. Some may prefer to slice the dates in half and remove the pit that way.
The first method, sun-drying, may only be done in the summer. Cooks making sun-dried dates need a solar dehydrator. These usually consist of a box with a glass top and screened sides and bottom. A reflective plate a few inches below the screened bottom of the box reflects heat onto the dates. Solar drying requires several days in a row of bright sun and very warm weather.
The second method requires little more than an electric dehydrator or an oven. The dates are typically spread out onto trays and warmed at about 180°F (about 82°C) for up to 24 hours. Unlike other dried fruits, dried dates are so full of sugars that they won’t shrink much or get crispy. When fully dried, they’ll be wrinkly, brown, and very dense. Biting into a fully dried date should typically feel like biting into a ripe banana or a very dense cookie.
Many recipes exist for cooking with dried dates. Some of the simplest include injecting them with sweetened or herbed goat cheese and wrapping them in prosciutto. Others call for the dates to be chopped an added to cookie, cake, brownie, and even pancake batters. Gourmet ice creams, chutneys, and Mediterranean stews can also benefit from chopped, dried dates.