Species Name: Phoenix dactylifera L.; Family: Arecaceae
Date is a brown, oblong to rounded edible fruit of the Date Palm, Phoenix dactylifera, of the family Palmae (Arecaceae). The fruits vary in, size, shape, colour, texture, and flavour depending on the cultivar and the stage at which they’re harvested. The fruit is variously coloured, depending on stage of growth, from red, yellow, to various shades of brown (Amber, golden brown, deep brown, dark brown to almost black) and the skin may be medium to thick.
Dates are harvested at different stages of ripening but majority are harvested at either, “rotab” (half soft-half ripe state) and “Tamar” or “Tamr” (fully ripe and very soft). The best time of harvesting will depend on variety. (Dates: Postharvest Science, Processing Technology and Health Benefits)
Dates grow in heavy clusters of about 200 or more on a single inflorescence stalk. The cluster of dates may weigh up to 12.5kg (25Ib). (wiki)
Dates have the highest sugar content by weight of any fruit. (Up to 70%). Although they have a very high sugar and dietary fibre content, and are a good source of iron, they have almost no vitamin C and have only about 1% fat, 2% proteins. (The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition).
Production of Dates
Dates have been cultivated for over 4,000 years. They are predominantly grown in North Africa and the Middle East, which account for about 90% of the production and provide a source of carbohydrate. (Science Direct)
Currently, about 100 million date trees are cultivated globally out of which ~ 90% are grown in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). The annual global production of dates was recorded as 7.5 million tons in 2008. (Science Direct)
The top five producers are: Egypt, Iran, Algeria, Saudi-Arabia and Iraq. They are also grown in the USA in California and Arizona, where they were introduced in the early 1900s. (wiki)
The date tree is referred to as the sacred tree, the tree of life, and the bread of the desert (Science Direct)
Classification of Fresh Dates
Based on moisture content and softness of the fruit, fresh dates may be categorized into 3 groups:
Soft dates: have the highest moisture content when ripe and are therefore soft. Examples are’ Barhee’, ‘Halawy’, ‘Khadrawy’.
Semi-soft dates: have medium moisture content and a firm flesh.e.g ‘Medjool’ ‘Deglet Noor’
Dry dates: these have the least moisture content and appear semi-dried even when fresh. They are most likely to be found in health stores. (The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition).
Cultivated Varieties of Dates
There are more than 2,000 cultivated varieties of dates. Some of the most common include:
‘Dogleg Noor’ (date of the light) 95% of the USA crop is ‘Deglet Noor’ dates which are also grown in Algeria and Tunisia. They are slightly deep brown in colour, semi-soft with a firm flesh and medium thick skin. The sugar is mostly sucrose.
‘Zahidi’. semi-soft, medium sized, cylindrical in shape, light golden brown, with rather thick skin. has a high sugar content. Grown in Morocco, USA and Iraq.
‘Medjool’. Semi-soft, large, sweet and succulent date variety.
Barhi, ‘Barhee’: very soft date. Sugar is mainly fructose and glucose.
Culinary Use of Dates
Dates are mostly sold fresh or semi-dried. They can be pitted or sold with seeds (pits). They are a staple food in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) where they are also used as an ingredient in many local foods. They are also a popular fast breaking food during the months on Ramadan (Arab News).
Dates are perfect for snacking but can also be added to hot or cold cereal, yoghurt, rice, muffins, cookies.
You can also stuff large dates with several ingredients. Make a slit lengthwise and stuff with whole almonds, cottage cheese, cream cheese, soft cheese, grated cheese etc
Mix chopped soft dates with peanut butter and use as a spread.
Cooking: use in pilafs (pilau), lamb stew, chicken dishes or in salads.
Shopping for dates
Dates are sold fresh, semi-dried or dried and usually have no preservatives. The most common on the market are fresh and sem-dried and can be pitted or not.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) they are sold fresh or semi-dried in market stalls in huge piles or hanging from the inflorescence stalk in market stalls (see picture below)
In North America, they are usually packaged in cellophane or plastic bags or a little box wrapped in cellophane. You can also find them in bulk stores in the food bins.
Fresh dates should be smooth skinned, glossy, plump, or just slightly wrinkled, depending on the variety.
Dates should not be rock hard. Avoid broken, cracked, dry, shrivelled or sour smelling dates.
Avoid those with sugar crystallizing on the surface.
Preparation of Dates
Even though dates in North America are pitted, you may occasionally stumble upon a few with seeds. so be careful. To remove seeds (pit) slit the date lengthwise and remove the pit.
To chop dates use a sharp knife or scissors. If you put the dates in the freezer for about an hour they’ll be much easier to slice or chop. If chopping very soft almost mushy dates, dip the knife in hot water.
Extremely dry dates can be plumped up by soaking them in hot water or juice for about 15 minutes.
Storage of Dates
Deglet Noor and Semi-Soft types are best stored in the fridge in an airtight container or plastic bag, because they readily absorb odours from other foods. They can last up to 8 months.
They can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container in a cool dry place. They can last several weeks.
Dried dates are often pasteurized to inhibit growth of moulds. They can be stored up to one year in the fridge and up to 5 years in the freezer.
Availability of Dates
Dates from the USA are available in late fall and early winter. Since dates store very well, they are available all the year round in stores, mostly in dried form.
Other Uses of Dates
Low grade date fruits are dehydrated, ground, and mixed with grain to form a very nutritious feed for camels and horses in the desert.
Dried date seeds are added to animal feed and used to feed cattle, sheep, camels, and poultry.