I recently received a package of dried fruits from Natural Selection and it got me thinking about how this wonderful stuff is made. I love dried fruit and have an ample supply at home – mainly because I’ve always been told they are healthy and contain lots of vitamins. I wanted to find out more so I investigated and here are my key findings.
The concept is ancient
Dried fruit can be traced back to Mesopotamia where dates were prized for their sweetness and long shelf life. Dates, date juice evaporated into syrup and raisins were used as sweeteners. They included these dried fruits in their breads – simple barley bread to elaborate cakes for the richer families.
The Romans ate raisins as part of their everyday meals but they were also used as ‘rewards’ for athletes as well as a currency for bartering. Dried figs were a staple for the poor in the winter months and were sometimes eaten rubbed with spices such as cumin, anise and fennel seeds, or toasted sesame, wrapped in fig leaves and stored in jars.
Instructions for housekeepers which were found around 100 BC state: “…She must have a large store of dried pears, sorbs, figs, raisins, sorbs in must, preserved pears and grapes and quinces. She must also keep preserved grapes in grape-pulp and in pots buried in the ground….All these she must store away diligently every year.” Amazing!
Another reason for their popularity was that they were less likely to carry diseases because of the lack of water content. So logically simple.
Dried fruits keep most of the nutritional value from their fresh counterparts. Like fresh fruits there are no or few traces of fats or cholesterol. They are also low in salt unless this is added in the manufacturing process. Because they’ve had all the water squeezed out of them, they suck it back up well in the digestive process and so are excellent sources of fibre. They are also (depending on the fruit) rich in Vitamin A (apricots and peaches), Calcium (figs), Vitamin K (dried plums) and Iron (apricots). Traditionally dried fruits have no added sugar. They drying process removes water and so the natural sugars are concentrated. I thought the chart below was rather fascinating.
Fruit can be dried in lots of different ways
Commercially fruit is dried in the heat of the sun or using industrial scale dehydrators. The fruits are washed and then laid out to dry. I learned that they are then sometimes coated with sulphur to help retain the fruit colouring. That’s not particularly healthy.
It seems drying fruit at home isn’t very complicated. You can simply cut them into thin slices or small cubes and then oven dry them overnight at 120C. No additives and they keep for a few weeks in an airtight container. Alternatively you could buy a dehydrator. Prices seem to range from £30 and I found this excellent article on The Fresh Network that is a must read if you are thinking about buying one!
I feel even better about being a bit of a dried fruit addict now! It’s a great snack but also useful for lots of baking. My favourite staple though is in a simple Bircher Muesli. It literally takes 5 minutes to make and you can personalise it with fresh fruit, nuts, seeds – whatever if in your cupboard!
What’s your favourite dish using dried fruits?