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Dates are a sweet and healthy snack and can be used as an addition to baked goods. You can recognize these fruits by their brown color, elongated oval shape and very sweet taste. In the United States, they are usually sold in dried form, although you can find fresh dates in some supermarkets.
It’s quite common to find a long-forgotten bag of dates in your pantry when you’re craving a snack, only to discover that the fruit has gone stale. Or you’re making a recipe that calls for fresh dates, but the only ones you have on hand are dried dates. What should you do then?
There are several methods to soften dates and help them retain their moisture. Here are some tips for keeping the bag of dried dates in your kitchen.
What are the dates?
Dates are the fruit of a date palm, a hardy tree native to the Middle East. Dates are a staple of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, where they are valued for their resistance to the sometimes dry climate and their sweet taste.
Dates are sweeter than the average fruit, and this sweetness increases as they dry because the water to sugar ratio in the fruit tends towards sugar. Thanks to their sweetness, dates are a common ingredient in baking recipes ranging from traditional Levant desserts to modern vegan protein bars.
Most dates you can find in a North American supermarket have been dried so they can survive the trip. The dates are heated at low temperature for several hours to remove some of the moisture prevent them from spoiling on the long journey to your kitchen. However, dates are almost never fully dried like raisins, which is why you can soften them with homemade methods.
How do you know if your dates are too dry?
If most of the dates you buy from the supermarket are already dried, how do you know if the dates are too dry? The most reliable method is to taste them. Dried dates taste stale and have a harder texture than ready-to-eat dates.
If you don’t feel like eating old fruit, you can tell if a date is dry by looking at it. There will be sugar crystals on the surface because the more moisture leaves the date, the more sugar rises to the surface. Softening dates also removes sugar crystals.
Why do dates become too dry?
Dates naturally lose moisture over time, so there’s no way to prevent them from losing moisture completely. However, if you leave them exposed for too long, the air will speed up the drying process.
How to sweeten dates
Maybe you don’t want to throw away a bag of perfectly salvageable fruit, or you’re working with a recipe where dried dates are cumbersome rather than useful. Whatever the reason, here are some methods that can help you sweeten the dates.
1 – Use a paper towel
Paper towels are excellent at absorbing water due to the microscopic openings in the cellulose pulp from which these towels are made. The same property that makes paper towels ideal for wiping up spills also retains moisture from leaking dates and other foods that may dry out (another handy use: use paper towels to soften tortillas ).
To soften dates with a paper towel, first wet a piece of paper towel until soaked. Wring out excess water until you have a damp cloth. Then erase each date. You want to get rid of the sugar crystals that form on the outside, otherwise they will try to block moisture reabsorption and make your dates taste too sweet.
Once you’ve wiped off all your dates, wrap them in paper towel and let them sit for a few minutes. While the dates are on your counter, the paper towel will drain the moisture from the dates and they will soften until ready to use.
The paper towel method of softening dates is simple and requires equipment that every kitchen is required to have. However, scanning each date individually can be time consuming. This method can also use a lot of paper towels and increase your carbon footprint.
2 – Steam the dates
Another way to soften dates is to gently steam them. Steaming is a cooking method that relies on moisture to work, so your dates will absorb a lot of liquid. It’s also gentle enough not to overcook your dates if you want them still raw.
You need a steamer basket to steam your dates. If you don’t have one, place a metal colander in a saucepan. Fill the pot with a few inches of water, just below your basket or colander, and bring it to a gentle boil. Once the water is boiling, add the dates to the steamer basket, drizzle with a little water to moisten the top and cover.
Your dates should be soft after about three to five minutes of steaming. You’ll know they’re ready when they’re softer and the sugar crystals on the surface are gone. Be careful not to overcook the dates otherwise they will become mushy.
Steaming your dates is a great way to soften a large number of dates in one go. However, if you don’t have a steamer basket or colander that fits your pan of water, you may not be able to use this method.
3 – Soak the dates
Soaking dates in hot water is one of the quickest and easiest ways to soften them. Date soaking allows you to soften a large amount at once and requires no special equipment.
First put the dates in a heatproof bowl or other container. Then boil the water on the stove or use the kettle. Be sure to boil enough water to completely submerge the dates.
Pour hot boiling water over the dates. Let the dates soak for about 10 minutes, or until they are soft and visibly plump. Filter the excess water and the dates are ready to serve.
This method requires a few steps, but is quite simple and will help you prepare dates for a recipe or even just as a snack. If you want to add more flavor during this step, you can add juice, wine or bourbon to the water while cooking and make a flavored infusion.
4 – In the microwave oven
If you are feeling lazy, you can soften the dates in the microwave. Place in a microwave safe bowl and heat in 10 second intervals until cooked through.
5 – With a vaporizer
The last method to soften dates is to spray them with water using a spray bottle. Place the dates on a tray or counter and spray them liberally with a spray bottle. Be sure to rotate the dates so you spray them from all sides.
Let the dates stand for a few minutes and soften by absorbing the water. If the dates still seem hard after a few minutes, repeat the process.
The advantage of the lost bottle method is that you can adjust the liquid in the bottle. Soften the dates and give them flavor at the same time by sprinkling them with juice, wine or milk.
If you don’t have a spray bottle, you can use a spoon to pour water over the dates. However, using a spoon makes it harder to control the flow of water, making it a messier method that can result in unevenly softened dates.
There is no way to prevent dates from completely drying out, as this fruit loses moisture over time no matter what. However, if you store them properly, you can prolong their life and avoid having to soften them again and again.
Dates should be stored in an airtight container, which is why many dried dates from the supermarket come in a resealable bag. As soon as dates are exposed to air, the dehydration process begins and the moisture they contain begins to evaporate.
Storing them in the fridge or freezer in an airtight container rather than in your pantry will also help them last longer. Dates can be stored for up to six months in the refrigerator without drying out and up to a year in the freezer. This is because higher temperatures continue the dehydration process, while cooler air slows it down.
No matter how careful you are with storage, dates age. You can soften them in different ways and save them for recipes or snacks.
Wrapping the dates in a damp paper towel or sprinkling them with water helps them retain moisture. You can also use heat to your advantage by microwaving, steaming, or dipping dates in boiling water.
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