Dates are not a new discovery, but at least in the Western world, they’ve been neglected for a long time. Now, both pro and home bakers are experimenting with the fruit to get healthier, but still delicious treats. Archaeologists have found evidence of dates from thousands of years ago. While we don’t know if ancient people were cultivating the date palm, they were definitely eating them, especially in Syria and Egypt. By the time of the Gilgamesh Epic, a text from 2100 BCE, dates were being cultivated. The fruits were so important you can find images of them engraved on seals. Traditional recipes include date-stuffed cookies (known as Ma’amoul or Kleicha, depending on the region) and tagine, a Moroccan stew with meat and dried dates.
Dates came to America in the early 20th century thanks to Walter Swingle, who was sent out by the government to find new and exciting crops. Today, the US mostly grows two kinds of dates: the deglet noor and medjool. The deglet noor is smaller and drier, so it’s good for baked goods, while the medjool is plumper and often stuffed or eaten as is.
Dates contain a lot of sugar, and the sugar content gets more concentrated the dryer the date is. Bakeries make date sugar or date paste for various baked goods. Date sugar is made by grinding up dehydrated dates, making a sugar that has a slightly butterscotchy-flavor. The presence of fiber leaves behind a slight grit that doesn’t dissolve. You use date sugar just like regular sugar. Keep in mind that date sugar is different than date palm sugar, which is made from the sap of the date palm tree. It doesn’t contain any fiber. Date paste is made by soaking dates in water and pureeing everything. It’s a good substitute for other liquid sweeteners like honey and maple syrup.
While dates are not radically different from other sweeteners like honey, they have some health benefits. Dates have a nice amount of fiber, which helps with gut health and that “full” feeling, while they also contain minerals and vitamins like copper and potassium. Switching to dates in whatever form you like (sugar, paste, or as is) won’t significantly lower your sugar content, but if you’re looking for natural sweeteners, it’s a good choice.