Dates are a staple in Middle Eastern kitchens with it even being widely believed that pregnant women should eat the fruit during childbirth because of its nutritional properties. In recent years it has become a trend to use the healthy fruit as a substitute for refined sugars.
Not only are they a great, quick, sweet fix, but dates are also loaded with nutrients and essential minerals, like magnesium, iron, calcium and potassium. Compared with bananas, dates are higher in potassium per gram and can compete with antioxidant-rich apples and grapes as a superfood. If you are worried about their sugar content as a diabetic, studies have shown they cause no significant glucose spikes in the blood – though always consult your doctor first.
Know your dates
There are many kinds of dates, from meatier and tougher ones to softer and juicier ones, making some more suitable as substitutes for sugar in recipes.
Medjool dates are probably the most common and consumed type of dates in the world. They are on the softer side compared with others, such as thoory dates – making Medjools easier to turn into a paste that can be used in cakes, cookies and the like.
Due to their larger size in comparison with other dates and inherent moistness, they are less likely to require liquid additions for easy processing.
Deglet Noor dates, for example, are a bit on the dry side and less sweet. They make great snacks as they are less messy than the softer varieties, but due to the dryness of their skins, you might want to let these rest in a bit of water before processing them into a paste.
When it comes to dates, these are the two main varieties that come to mind, but of course, there are many more. It can prove difficult to differentiate between the types. Labels can also be misleading, but a rule of thumb is to stick with the softer kind because the drier the date, the harder it will be to blend in.
Making sweet date paste
The easiest way to make a paste is to run the dates through a food processor or blender after you have pitted them. If you notice your blender having a hard time making the chunks smaller and smooth, add a couple of tablespoons of water into the mix. Scrape down the sides and push down bigger chunks regularly to ensure it is smooth throughout. You can make the mixture ahead of time. If stored in an airtight container, the paste can last up to two weeks.
Date sugar and syrup
Using dates as a substitute for processed sugar has been a trend for a few years now, and naturally, people have come up with other ways to use dates.
In some shops, you can find date sugar, made by grinding dried dates, which carries the flavor well and can be used in baking but is not recommended to accompany your tea or coffee.
Making a syrup out of dates is another way to extract the sugars which is done by boiling the dates in water until they reach a honey-like consistency.
What ratio to use for recipes?
It will all depend on the recipe. Any sweet creations that are usually lighter colored will turn a darker shade when you swap refined sugar for dates. Depending on the dates you use, the sweetness may vary, and you may need less date paste then you would need sugar. A good rule of thumb is to add half the weight of dates compared with the amount of sugar listed in the recipe. If needed, you can always add more.
Recipe: Healthy date energy balls
As much as I like eating dates as they are, I do enjoy making them into healthy and mess-free snacks more. This one here is a favorite of mine and so easy to make. Plus it is gluten-free and can be made dairy-free.
Put your nuts into a food processor and grind them as finely as possible. If you already have them in meal form, you can skip this step.
Blend the dates, after pitting them, until relatively smooth. While in the blender, add the nuts and continue to blend them together for a bit.
To make the balls a bit smoother and richer in flavor, you can add butter at room temperature or coconut oil to make them vegan. Cinnamon or cacao (or a mix of both if you are into that) can be added as well. I personally prefer a tablespoon of cinnamon in this recipe, but you may want less. Knead the mass with your hands to get the ingredients well incorporated.
Roll the dough into walnut-sized balls and bake them at 160 degrees Celsius (320 degrees Fahrenheit) for a minimum of 15 minutes. The longer the balls bake, the tougher they will be. Technically, you don’t even need to bake them, but the heat will help hold their shape for longer.
You don't have to add raw nuts; you can use the slightly pre-roasted variety, but that means you'll have to watch over them when baking.
You can dip these balls into chocolate to make them extra delicious, but that may detract from the "healthiness" for some. You can also cover them in shredded coconut or oats; go crazy with it.