Sweet, sticky, splendid dates grow in heavy profusion on towering date palm trees that flourish in the desert climates of North Africa and the Middle East. They are also grown domestically, mainly in California's arid Coachella Valley. Nearly all dates are sold fresh, although because of dates' naturally tacky consistency, many date lovers believe they are eating dried fruit. Another reason for this misconception is the dates' high sugar content and concentrated flavors, which, in terms of taste, make them more akin to dried fruits. Dates are also available dried.
Dates are classified as being soft, semidry or dry. Soft dates have a high moisture content and soft texture. They must be harvested by hand because of their fragility and then refrigerated to prevent deterioration. Medjool, Khadrawy and Halawy are common varieties of soft dates. Semidry dates have a lower moisture content and firmer texture. They can be mechanically harvested and are packed in moisture-proof packages that are stocked on shelves rather than refrigerated. Deglet Noor (the most popular date sold in the United States) and Zahidy are the best-known semidry dates. Dry dates, also known as bread dates, have an extremely high sugar content and low moisture content. Thoory is the most common variety.
Home cooks frequently pit dates, stuff the cavities with savory or sweet fillings, and serve them as hors d'oeuvres or after-dinner sweets. Dates are also tossed into stuffings for pork and duck and baked into cookies, breads and cakes.
Dates are available year-round, although their peak season is from October through January, making them favorite holiday treats. Look for dates in the produce section of markets, usually in moisture-proof packages. Choose plump, shiny dates, and avoid any that are excessively sticky or covered with crystallized sugar. The exception is Medjool, which may have a dusting of natural sugar. Some dates are sold pitted.
Wrap soft and semidry dates tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks. Dry dates, well packaged, will keep for 10 to 12 months refrigerated.
All dates have pits, which must be removed before using the fruits in cooking or eating out of hand. To prevent dates for baked goods from sticking to the knife as you chop them, dust the knife blade with flour.
Adapted fromWilliams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)