Dried and Fresh Dates: A Comprehensive Guide

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For over 6,000 years, humans have been harvesting dates and enjoying their decadently sweet flavor. Despite our long relationship with this fruit, most of us know very little about how dates are grown, how they mature, and the best ways to put them to use in the kitchen. Most people don’t even know that dates aren’t actually dried fruits.

As it turns out, fresh dates and dried dates are natural stages that occur without human intervention.

We’ll talk about how this works and learn much more about the sweetest fruit in the world in our comprehensive date fruit guide.

What Are Dates?

Dates are the fruit of the flowering palm tree, Phoenix dactylifera. Commonly known as date palms, these bunching trees are native to Egypt and southern regions of the Middle East.

Each summer, date palms produce thousands of flowers that grow from the underside of the ring of palm fronds along the top of the tree. From these flowers develop small round fruits. 

In their immature form, these fruits are known as khalal. 

Khalal dates are yellow or red, round, and about the size of a large grape or small Roma tomato. This stage of the date fruit has the highest water content, but it’s still considerably lower than most fruits. The flesh is crisp and sweet with a flavor comparable to coconut, sugarcane, or an especially sweet apple.

This stage of the date fruit is only harvestable during August. Once picked, they only last a matter of days to weeks, which is why it’s hard to find khalal dates anywhere date palms don’t grow. Fruits that are not harvested at this time are allowed to ripen on the tree, eventually entering the stage known as rutab.

Rutab dates are at the peak of ripeness. They have about 30% less water than khalal dates and are much sweeter tasting. In this stage, the skin of the fruit has turned brown and begun to wrinkle.

The moderate moisture level and concentrated sweetness give rutab dates a melt-in-your-mouth texture and an amazing caramel flavor. But these dates also have a short shelf life and therefore are hard to find in stores. Dates that aren’t harvested in the rutab stage dry naturally on the tree under the sun, eventually entering the tamr stage.

Tamr dates are the ones people in the West are most familiar with. These naturally sun-dried dates have a moisture content of less than 10%. The sugars in them are ultra-concentrated, making them incredibly sweet.

These dark brown, shriveled dates have a long shelf life. They can last up to a year when stored at room temperature. This is why people around the world are most familiar with “dried” tamr dates.

Dates of all stages contain a large inedible pit. Often, when you buy tamr dates at the store, they have been pitted, meaning that this seed has been removed.

Different Types of Dates

All date varieties go through the stages of ripeness discussed above. But each different date palm variety produces dates of different sizes and flavors. Here are some of the most common types of dates:

  • Medjool Dates – These large dates are the most popular variety eaten across the world. They are reddish-brown and contain more moisture than many other dates in the tamr stage.
  • Piarom Dates – These small, very dry dates have a low glycemic index due to a high fructose concentration. This makes them a great sweet snack option for people with diabetes. 
  • Deglet Noor Dates – These medium to large dates are incredibly popular in the United States and are often used in cooking. They have light to dark brown skin and a slight crunchiness.
  • Mazafati Dates – Moist and fleshy, these dates are most often picked in the rutab stage and used as a table snack. They have thick skin and an amazing flavor with notes of chocolate and brown sugar.
  • Rabbi Dates – These medium-sized dates are fleshy with thin skin and a delicate flavor that might be the best among all dates. They are an ancient variety that is used as a table snack and in baking.
  • Dayri Dates – Soft and dense, Dayri dates start red and dry to almost black. They aren’t as sweet as other varieties, making them a wonderful addition to savory recipes.
  • Halawy Dates – These small dates have golden skin and a delicately sweet honey-caramel flavor. They’re incredibly tender and perfect for snacking.

How to Eat Dates

Dates are a very versatile fruit. Not only do they make an excellent sweet treat all on their own, but they can be used in sauces, desserts, savory dishes, and more.

Here’s how to best to utilize your dates depends on whether they’re fresh khalal dates or dried tamr dates.

Fresh Dates

Khalal dates have crisp flesh, a mild sweetness, and a bright flavor. They can be eaten fresh out of hand, just mind the large pit in the middle.

They can also be sliced and added to fruit salads to bring some extra sweetness. The texture of their flesh is hard like an apple, making them a great substitute for this more common fruit in pies, tarts, cobblers, and more.

Dried Dates

Dried dates are even more versatile than fresh ones. 

Rutab dates have the perfect texture and flavor for enjoying alone. The extra sweetness of tamr dates makes them a good candidate for pairing with other intense flavors. These dates are often stuffed with cheeses, nuts, herbs, or salty meat.

Dates wrapped in bacon or other deliciously salty fare are a popular appetizer.

These sweet dried fruits can also be used in baked goods. They add a natural, vegan-friendly sweetness to quick breads, cakes, and muffins. Chopped dates make a decadent topping for ice cream and other desserts.

Dates can also be used in savory recipes. Their intense sweetness pairs well with salty sauces and hearty stews. Date syrup works well as a healthier sweetener option for barbecue sauces, marinades, and dressings.

Because of their high fiber content and blood-sugar-friendly characteristics, dates are often used to sweeten protein bars, smoothies, and health-conscious desserts.  

Date Nutritional Content

Like many fruits, dates are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients. They’re an excellent or good source of:

  • Copper
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Vitamin B6
  • Iron

They’re also loaded with macronutrients. They’re high in fiber and aid in better digestion while supporting the gut biome. They also have a decent amount of protein to help keep you going. 

Additionally, dates are loaded with antioxidants, including flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acid. These powerful compounds help fight inflammation and free radicals. 

As you can imagine, dates also have a high sugar content. However, this sugar is predominantly made up of fructose, which takes longer to break down in the body. This means that dates have a lower glycemic index, meaning they don’t cause blood sugar spikes the way refined sugar and other sweeteners do.

Storage and Shelf Life

One thing that easily sets dates apart from other fruits is how long they last. But this long shelf life is only true of tamr dates.

Khalal dates, which are plump and yellow or red, only last a few days at room temperature. By storing them in the fridge, you can extend their life up to a few weeks before they start to go bad.

Rutab dates are partially dehydrated by the sun and therefore last a little longer than fresh dates. On the counter, these dates will last only a few weeks. In the fridge, they’ll last up to 8 months. And in the freezer, they’ll stay good for about one year.

Tamr dates can last months at room temperature, but they’re best stored in an air-tight container in the fridge. Here, they can stay good for upwards of a year. Or you can freeze them and expect them to stay good for up to 5 years.

Our Favorite Date Recipes

Here at Clean Green Simple, we’re all about finding healthy vegan options to make life more enjoyable. Dates, with their natural sweetness and heaping of fiber and nutrients, check all of those boxes. For that reason, you’ll find dates or date syrup used in many of our favorite desserts.

Here are just a few of the date-containing recipes we love:

  • Raw Vegan Brownies – These raw brownies use only 5 ingredients, with whole dates bringing the sweetness and the chewy, satisfying texture.
  • Instant Oatmeal Mix – This super simple oatmeal uses chopped dates for some added sweetness that won’t leave you crashing before lunch.
  • Peanut Butter Chocolate Micro Tarts – Big and chewy Medjool dates, shredded coconut, and a touch of salt bring rich, complex flavors to these delicious little tarts.
  • Adzuki Vegan Chocolate Bites – Beans and dates add plenty of fiber and protein to these homemade energy balls, while cocoa, pecans, and agave bring the flavor.
  • Raw Strawberry Tart – This raw-some tart features a nutritious crust made of dates, walnuts, and shredded coconut, and a delectable filling of avocado chocolate and fresh fruit.
  • Frozen Banana Cream Pie – This vegan, gluten-free dessert uses a similar date and nut crust as our strawberry tart while featuring an amazingly creamy filling of bananas, coconut milk, and maple bourbon.
  • Homemade Samoas Girl Scout Cookies – This gluten-free, vegan take on an old classic uses dates, coconut milk, and cashews to recreate that decadent caramel topping.
Sara Seitz