My first introduction to dates was in my childhood kitchen, where my mom used them to sweeten traditional Indian dishes with their deep caramelly flavor. Little did I know then that they would become a massive part of my life. Then, when I was in medical residency at UCSF, I noticed how much my patients struggled with their sugar intake and, even more so, how dismal the sugar alternatives available to them were! That’s when I started to look into dates and their nutritional makeup and application in cooking and baking.
I was familiar with dates since childhood, but I have also learned a lot about dates as I went on this journey. Since dates aren’t a common fruit in the west, as are apples or oranges, you may be a date newbie! I love sharing what I’ve learned so let’s start from the beginning.
What is a date?
Broadly speaking, dates are stone fruits that grow on date palms – they are sweet, sticky, luscious, taste like caramel, and are also rich in vitamins, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants. Dates were originally cultivated in the Middle East for thousands of years and brought to California’s Coachella Valley and Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. There are many amazing date cultivars, all a little bit different – Medjools, Deglet, Noor, Malawi, Barhi. For example, Medjools are soft, juicy, fresh, and break down easily. Deglets stay firmer and will keep their shape better than Medjools. You can eat dates fresh and the Barhi variety are the best for this. In this state, they are crisp and crunchy like apples but can also be cured and will be really soft and honey-like.
Why would someone cook/bake with dates?
Dates are incredibly versatile in cooking and baking. Initially, I was captivated by dates because they bring a rich sweetness without adding refined sugar, allowing cooks to enjoy that sweet flavor profile without sacrificing health. They have a naturally low glycemic index, meaning that although they are delightfully sweet, they don’t spike your blood sugar to the same levels as refined sugar. Dates also have a rich umami base flavor that deepens the taste of anything it’s added to without overpowering it.
How do you cook with dates?
I love using whole dates, chopped or blended. When chopped, I love the tiny pops of juicy caramel flavor they bring to any dish. I love chopped dates tossed with roasted vegetables (especially brussels sprouts), in any salad, with pomegranate, persimmon, and citrus, and most of all, I love tossing them with contrasting flavors like salty and umami. In a salad, I love pairing it with something crunchy, like crisped quinoa, to contrast that melty sweetness. One of my favorite things to make is a chopped date, Castelvetrano olive, and crispy shallot condiment to put on everything from salmon to roasted broccoli. It hits all those tastebud flavor points.
Dates can also be turned into date syrup and date sugar, which is what we do at Just Date. Date syrup can be used anywhere you’d regularly use sugar, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, or agave, except it's better for you. Dates have less impact on your blood sugar and provide a nutrient boost.
Date syrup is amazing in beverages – my favorites are hot or iced coffee, hot chocolate, chai, cocktails, and smoothies, but its usefulness extends beyond that. Date syrup can be used in so many different types of cuisine. I love the depth and caramel-like sweetness that it adds, so it pairs amazingly with Asian flavors – you can make simple but delicious sauces with soy and mirin or a peanut, tahini, or almond butter-based sauce for noodles. My go-to weeknight dish is a plate of sesame noodles made with tahini, date syrup, soy, mirin, sesame oil, and rice vinegar. Recently, I made a version of Romesco with just a touch of sweetness by adding date syrup.
Our granulated date sugar is amazing nutritionally because it retains all the fiber from dates, slowing blood sugar elevation even further. Granulated date sugar, also known as date powder, is simply dried and finely ground dates – that’s it! This is because it has such minimal processing. We use a specific varietal called the Kentichi date, which packs a ton of fiber – our date sugar has 48 grams of fiber per cup! So when you swap it for a cup of sugar (which has zero grams of fiber), you’re making a significant nutritional difference in that baked good. It’s off-white in color, making it a nice choice for baking over coconut sugar, which darkens the color of the baked good. It works wonderfully in cakes, brownies, cookies, energy bites, or truffles. Because of all the fiber, date sugar soaks up a lot of moisture. So we recommend reducing the flour in the recipe by about a quarter and possibly adding another egg or egg equivalent to the recipe.
Dates are a versatile and delicious fruit that can add a touch of sweetness and depth of flavor to any dish. Not only do they bring a natural sweetness without the negative health effects of refined sugar, but they also offer a range of nutritional benefits, including vitamins, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants. Whether you're looking to sweeten your morning coffee, whip up a batch of brownies, or add some life to your salad, date syrup and date sugar are an excellent ingredient to have on hand. Give them a try and see how they can transform your cooking and baking game! Want to learn more about how you can transform your cooking and baking for your health? Check our favorite low-sugar ingredients!