Dates are a sweet, 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 format, although you can find fresh dates in some supermarkets.
It’s pretty common to find a long-forgotten bag of dates in your pantry when you’re craving a snack, only to find that the fruit has gone stale. Or, you are making a recipe that calls for fresh dates but the only ones you have on hand are dried dates. What are you supposed to do then?
There are several methods for softening dates and helping them retain their moisture. Here are a few tips to salvage the bag of dry dates in your kitchen.
What Are 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 thanks to their hardiness in the sometimes-arid climate and sweet taste.
Dates are sweeter than the average fruit, and that sweetness increases as they dry out because the ratio of water to sugar in the fruit tips toward the sugar. Thanks to their sweetness, dates are a common ingredient in baking recipes ranging from traditional Levantine desserts to modern vegan protein bars.
Most dates that you can find in a North American supermarket are dehydrated so they can survive the journey. Dates are heated at a low temperature for many hours to leach some of the moisture content and prevent them from spoiling on the long journey to your kitchen. However, dates are almost never fully dehydrated the way that raisins are, which is why you can soften them with at-home methods.
How Can You Tell If Your Dates Are Too Dry?
If most dates that you buy at the supermarket are already dehydrated, then how can you tell if the dates are too dry? The most reliable method is by tasting them. Dry dates will taste stale and have a tougher texture than ones that are ready to eat.
If you don’t fancy the thought of eating some stale fruit, you can tell if a date has dried out by looking at it. It will have sugar crystals on the surface because as more moisture leaves the date, the sugar comes to the surface. Softening the dates will also get rid of the sugar crystals.
Why Do Dates Get Too Dry?
Dates naturally lose moisture with time, so there is no way to prevent them from losing moisture completely. However, if you leave them exposed for too long, then the air will speed up the drying process.
How to Soften Dates
Maybe you don’t want to throw away a bag of fruit that is perfectly salvageable, or you are working with a recipe where dry dates are cumbersome instead of helpful. Whatever the reason, here are a few methods that can help you soften dates.
1 – Using a Paper Towel
Paper towels are excellent at absorbing water thanks to the microscopic gaps in the cellulose pulp that makes up these towels. The same property that makes paper towels great at wiping up spills also traps moisture from escaping dates and other food that is threatening to dry out (another useful application: use paper towels to soften tortillas).
To soften dates with a paper towel, first wet a paper towel until soaking. Squeeze the excess water out until you are left with a damp rag. Then, wipe down each date. You want to get rid of the sugar crystals that form on the outside because otherwise, they will try to block the reabsorption of moisture and make your dates taste too sweet.
Once you’ve wiped all your dates, wrap them in the paper towel and let them sit for a few minutes. As the dates rest on your countertop, the paper towel will wick the moisture into the dates, and they will soften until ready to use.
The paper towel method for softening dates is easy and requires equipment every kitchen is bound to have. However, wiping down each date individually can be time-consuming. This method may also use up a lot of paper towels and increase your carbon footprint.
2 – Steaming the Dates
Another way to soften dates is to gently steam them. Steaming is a cooking method that relies on moisture to function, so your dates will absorb plenty of liquid. It is also gentle enough that it will not cook your dates through when you want them to still be raw.
To steam your dates, you will need a steamer basket. If you don’t have one, fit a wire colander into a pot. 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, sprinkle with some water to moisten the tops, and cover.
Your dates should be softened after about three to five minutes of steaming. You’ll know that they are ready when they are softer to the touch and when the sugar crystals on the surface are gone. Be careful not to steam the dates for too long, otherwise they will become mushy.
Steaming your dates is a great way to soften a big batch of dates at once. However, if you don’t have a steamer basket or a colander that will fit into your pot of water, then you may not be able to conduct this method.
3 – Soak the Dates
Soaking dates in hot water is one of the fastest and easiest ways to soften them. Soaking dates allows you to soften a large amount at the same time and doesn’t require any specialized equipment.
First, put the dates in a heatproof bowl or other container. Then, boil the water on the stovetop or using the kettle. Make sure that you are boiling enough water to completely submerge the dates.
Pour the hot, boiling water over the dates. Let the dates soak for about 10 minutes, or until they are soft to the touch and visibly plump up. Strain the excess water, and then the dates are ready to serve.
This method requires a few steps, but it is easy enough and helps you get dates ready for a recipe or even just for snacking. If you want to add extra flavor during this step, you can add juice, wine, or bourbon to the water as it boils and create a flavored infusion.
4 – In a Microwave
If you’re feeling lazy, you can soften dates in the microwave. Put them in a microwave-safe bowl and heat in 10-second intervals until they are tender.
5 – With a Spray Bottle
The final method for softening dates is to use a spray bottle to spritz them with water. Lay the dates out on a tray or countertop and spray them generously with a spray bottle. Be sure to rotate the dates so that you are spraying them on all sides.
Let the dates sit for a few minutes and soften as they absorb the water. If the dates are still tough to the touch after a few minutes, repeat the process.
The advantage of the stray bottle method is that you can customize the liquid in the bottle. Soften the dates and infuse them with flavor at the same time by spritzing them with juice, wine, or even milk.
If you don’t have a spray bottle, then you can use a spoon to pour water over the dates. However, using a spoon makes it more difficult to control the flow of the water, making this a messier method and one that could lead to unevenly softened dates.
How to Store Dates
There is no way to avoid drying out dates completely because this fruit will lose moisture with time, no matter what. However, if you store them properly, you can increase their longevity and save yourself from 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. Once dates are exposed to the air, that kickstarts the dehydration process and the moisture within them starts to evaporate.
Storing them in the fridge or freezer in an airtight container as opposed to your pantry will also increase their longevity. Dates can last in the fridge for as long as six months without drying out, and up to a year in the freezer. That is because hotter temperatures continue the dehydration process, while cooler air slows it down.
No matter how careful you are when it comes to storage, dates will get stale. You can soften them and salvage them for recipes or snacking using a few different methods.
Wrapping the dates in a moist paper towel or sprinkling with water helps them retain moisture. You can also use heat to your advantage by microwaving, steaming, or soaking the dates in boiling water.