What Are Dates? Our Guide to the Fresh Fruit

Updated: Jan. 25, 2023

Yes, dates look like raisins—but they're actually a fresh fruit! Learn more about why dates deserve a spot in your pantry, fridge or freezer.

Dates have been a staple ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine for thousands of years, especially during Ramadan. However, they haven’t been as common in American dishes, despite their versatility and health benefits. We’re here to debrief you on what dates are, how they’re grown and harvested, the best ways to eat them and more.

What Are Dates?

Dates look like giant raisins—and some even describe the taste and texture as a chewier, more caramelly raisin. However, contrary to popular belief, they’re not actually dried as raisins are. The plump, poppable fruits are harvested with plenty of wrinkles straight off the palm tree.

Hundreds of varieties of dates are cultivated across the Middle East, Northern Africa, South Asia and North America, in places like Mexico, Arizona and Southern California. Medjool and Deglet Noor are the two most popular types in the U.S.

Medjool Dates vs. Deglet Noor Dates

Medjool dates are large and very wrinkly, with a darker purplish hue. They’re typically softer and sweeter than other varieties, which makes them great for eating whole or blending up into a smoothie or date syrup.

Deglet Noor dates are smaller, drier, and have slightly smoother skin than Medjools. This caramel-colored variety is often chopped up and used in baked goods.

How Medjool Dates Are Harvested

We talked with David Baxter, director of marketing for Natural Delights, one of America’s largest producers of Medjool dates, to learn how the fruit goes from the palm tree to the grocery store.

Dates are grown and harvested on date palms in very warm, dry climates like the desert. While they’re growing, farmers have to check on the fruit anywhere from 12 to 18 times, which is why dates can be more expensive than other fresh fruits.

Once they’re ready for harvest in mid-October every year, workers simply have to shake the branch to prompt the rest of the dates to fall off, since many of them fall off on their own when they’re ripe. Each palm produces anywhere from 200 to 250 pounds of fruit.

After they’re pitted, processed and packed into containers to be sold at your local grocery store, they’ll last at room temperature for up to 6 months, in the fridge for up to a year, and in the freezer for up to 2 years—so you don’t have to worry about them going bad before you have a chance to eat them.

Health Benefits of Eating Dates

The list of health benefits of dates is long—making them a great healthy snack and addition to your diet. Although they have a high-calorie count due to their naturally elevated sugar content, dates also contain lots of essential vitamins and minerals and are very high in antioxidants.

Just a handful of dates contains seven grams of fiber, two grams of protein, potassium, magnesium and other good-for-you nutrients.

The fiber in dates can help with digestion, and the several types of antioxidants they contain may help prevent the development of certain chronic illnesses, such as heart disease.

How to Eat and Cook with Dates

Typically, Deglet Noor dates are best for baking with, while Medjool dates are best for savory dishes, snacking and eating whole. Regardless of the variety, there are a few things you can do to make prepping dates a little bit easier:

If you plan to cut up dates for a recipe like date-filled rugelach, put them in the freezer for 15 minutes first. “Having them a little bit frozen will make them less sticky when you cut them and leave less residue on the knife,” says Baxter.

If you plan to blend them into a date shake or smoothie, soak them in hot water for a few minutes first, which will make them softer and more easily blended.

Some of our favorite recipes include peanut butter stuffed, chocolate-covered dates and bacon-wrapped dates. When asked what his favorite way to eat dates was, Baxter said that he likes them stuffed with cream cheese and some chocolate chips for a nighttime snack. If he’s making an appetizer for a party, he’ll make bacon-wrapped stuffed dates with seasoned goat cheese.

Check out more of our date recipes if you want more ideas for how to eat them!

Our Favorite Date Recipes
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