Getting to Know: Dried Fruit
Almost any fruit can be dried (the process concentrates flavor and sugar), and these days, most of them are—from blueberries to cranberries to mangos. But should you buy dried fruit sugared or unsweetened? Unsulfured or not? And what the heck is a dried currant, anyway?
Raisins, the granddaddy of dried fruits, start life as green Thompson (or Sultana) grapes. They’ve been eaten for thousands of years: Phoenicians traded them, Roman emperors feasted on them, Hannibal snacked on them. Astoundingly, they are largely still dried the old-fashioned way—in the sun for two to four weeks.
Golden raisins come from the same grape as ordinary black raisins, but are dried mechanically and treated with sulfur dioxide to preserve their color. Curious if anyone could tell them apart, we blind-folded tasters. Some could, describing golden raisins as “tart and lemony.” Some couldn’t. Use the two interchangeably.
Fresh, naturally tart cranberries are infused with sweetened cranberry juice in the process of being dried. Dried cranberries, which are sometimes sold as “Craisins,” have “papery skins.” We like to add them to salads and pilafs.
Dried mangos are most readily available candied (pictured), but unsweetened dried mangos can be found in natural foods stores. We found candied dried mangos too sweet. We enjoy the unsweetened variety eaten out of hand or chopped and added to baked goods.
Name aside, currants are made from black Corinth grapes, not currant berries. Often called Zante currants (after the Greek island where the grape grows), these “intensely flavored” fruits are smaller than raisins. Brits like to bake them into scones and Christmas cakes. We like them in green and grain salads, too.
We’ve always wondered where all the fresh sour cherries go. Now we know. Ninety percent of dried cherries are made from sour cherries, because their tart flavor stands up to the drying process. We use dried cherries in both sweet and savory recipes.
Dried pineapples come as either dehydrated, brown slices or fruit juice–soaked or sugared bright-yellow slices. We didn’t like either. The former were “chalky,” “chewy,” and “burnt,” while the sweet variety “lacked all pineapple tang” and had the taste and texture of “gumdrops.”
These small, dark, “fleshy” berries were a hit with tasters, who loved their “insanely concentrated blueberry flavor.” Use in muffins, scones, or pancakes for intense blueberry flavor without blueberry bleed.
In the U.S., prunes are best known for their, ahem, health benefits (although old cookbooks offer a plethora of prune whips, stewed prunes, and cakes). In recent years, prune promoters have renamed them “dried plums” and infused them with cherry and orange. Eat in sweet or savory dishes or as a snack.
The Calimyrna is the California version of the Turkish Smyrna fig. Tasters described them as “seedy and chewy” with “caramel notes,” like a “fresh Fig Newton.” Add them raw to salads, serve with cheese, or cook in sauces or stuffings for chicken or pork.
Most supermarket apricots are treated with sulfur dioxide to preserve their sunny color and extend shelf life. Eaten out of hand, these plump sulfured apricots have “citrus and honey” flavors. Unsulfured apricots were drier, chewier, and “mud-colored” raw, but revealed “bright, true apricot” flavor when baked.
Mass-market dried apples had “little or no real apple flavor,” tasters said. By contrast, organic varieties were “tart and sweet” with “fresh, just-picked” flavor. Both are “spongelike” and “rubbery,” which is why we like them for baking, not snacking. Add finely chopped dried apples to fruit pies to soak up moisture and keep crusts crisp.