Dates are the fruit of the date palm tree, grown in many tropical regions of the world. Dates though intensely sweet, do not have much flavour of their own. They have become quite popular in recent years. Most dates sold near us are dried. Fresh dates are available for a short time during the year and are eaten mostly as a fruit. Dates are nutritious and potent in some important vitamins and minerals. They have high fibre content and are rich in antioxidants.
Different dates have different textures; some are smooth others chewy or dry-ish. They also vary in size, type of variety and colour. For baking, soft Medjool or Kimia dates are preferred by me. Dates are very sweet, as they are a source of fructose (which is a natural type of sugar found in fruit). They have a delicious caramel-like taste. In the consumption of dates by healthy or diabetic individuals, a study concludes, it does not result in blood sugar spikes. Eating dates and using them as a refined sugar substitute may help those with a sweet tooth to avoid high glycemic yielding foods.
Dates make a great substitute for refined sugar in recipes due to their nutritional benefits. Date paste can be used in place of refined sugar to sweeten a baked product, naturally. A rule of thumb is to replace sugar with date paste at a 1:1 ratio. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, you’ll replace it with 1 cup of date paste. Date paste can also be used to sweeten your beverages and works well with versions of hot coffee. 100 gm dates yields approximately 300 calories.
How to make date paste
Soak 200 gm seedless dark Kimia or Medjool dates in 200 ml hot water, with a small pinch of baking soda. Baking soda helps soften the dates and cuts out the tannins in them, which reduces the astringency. Make sure you do not use too dry or old dates, the softer variety of dates will give you a smooth and indulgent sweetener. Keep the dates to soften for about 15 minutes. Add 1/8 tsp of vanilla extract; blend the soaked dates to form a smooth and fairly thick paste. The vanilla gives a nice after taste to your coffee/beverage or baked product.
Kharek (sukha khajoor ,peela chhuara) is a variety of dried yellow dates that are popular in India. They are a relatively inexpensive variety of dates and easily accessible within our country. Dried date powder from kharek has benefits similar to dates and is low in fat, cholesterol-free, low in sodium and high in potassium content. Kharek or dried date powder can be used as a replacer for sugar in moist, coarse-textured cakes, pancakes and muffins. Though naturally sweet, kharek powder can be gritty and not dissolve in liquids. Hence it is not advised for use as a direct sweetener for beverages. It can work well in recipes for baby food, laddoos, kheer, oatmeal, smoothies and some types of sweetmeats.
Date sugar is made with dehydrated dates (not kharek) that are ground to resemble granulated sugar with no added colour, flavour and preservatives. It has a sweet, butterscotch like taste that is much subtle than brown sugar. (Do note it does not melt like regular sugar).Though expensive, it is an explorable alternative to refined sugar and will enrich certain kinds of cake and cookie recipes. However the presence of fibre in date sugar does leave some tiny grit that won’t dissolve in beverages and baked goods.
Check out my recipe for a vegan cacao spread using dates as a sweetener here!