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Raisins bring delectably sweet flavor and moist texture to so many dishes: desserts, breads and even as a secret ingredient in some savory dishes. But what about those other dried fruits on the store shelves: sultanas, golden raisins and currants? We often see them in simlar recipes (and they’re often substituted for one another), but we’re wondering exactly what the differences are. Let’s break them down.
At their simplest, raisins are grapes that have been dried. The drying process gives this dried fruit the distinct color and creates a chewy, moist texture and intense sweetness. Classic raisins, golden raisins and sultanas are all made from the exact same grape plant: Thompson seedless. However, it’s the way these grapes are dried that makes the difference.
The raisins we are most familiar with are made by allowing fully ripened grapes to dry naturally in open air and sunshine—a process that takes several weeks. The result is a dark brown, dried fruit that is moist and has a strong flavor. You can add them to homemade granola for natural sweetness and chewy texture, to breads for extra moisture and flavor or to a number of desserts such as a slow cooker cinnamon roll pudding. And you can’t make a classic oatmeal raisin cookie without them!
To get that golden hue, grapes are treated with sulfur dioxide, the same chemical compound used in wine-making to prevent oxidation. This treatment preserves the light color of the grapes. Golden raisins are also dried using artificial heat (rather than drying on the vine like their traditional counterpart). This heat speeds up the drying process and leaves the raisins plumper, with more moisture and with a slightly more tangy flavor. They can be used in the same ways as brown raisins, but are gorgeous in dishes where the bright color can really stand out. Try using them in a fresh broccoli raisin salad or in this elegant fruit compote with brie.
Though once made from a different variety of grape, sultanas today are made from the Thompson grape. In most cases they’re made in the same way as golden raisins: treated with sulfur dioxide and heat dried. Some sultana manufacturers also coat the grapes in vegetable oil before drying them. In England recipes calling for raisins will usually list sultanas instead. If you are making a British recipe or any dish that calls for sultanas, you can use brown or golden raisins in their place.
And What About Currants?
Well, fresh currants are small white, black or red berries about the size of peas. Surprisingly the dried fruits labeled as currants are not actually currants—they’re made from grapes! The tiny grapes are named Black Corinth or Champagne, and you will see packages labeled as black currants or Zante currants (named for the Greek island where they were first cultivated). Currants are naturally dried like raisins, which gives them their dark color. In addition to being smaller than raisins, currants have a subtler and slightly more tart flavor. Currants are often used in freshly-baked scones, sprinkled over salads or stirred into a traditional hot cross bun recipe.
Now that you know the difference you can choose the best type of raisin for the dish you are creating, and enjoy the sweetness that gave raisins the nickname of “nature’s candy!”