The Less Needy, All Natural, Still Sweet Way to Make Caramel

September  6, 2016

For years, special diet cooks have triumphed over food limitations with creative wizardry. Thanks to them, we now have zucchini noodles, coconut whipped cream, rice cookies, and so much more in our culinary repertoire. Dates is another ingredient that I’m very happy we’ve really embraced.

I’ll admit, I associated the dried fruit with my grandmother, who soaked them overnight in her oatmeal—the appetizer tray, usually stuffed with goat cheese (or soaked in a yogurt and olive oil bath). But thanks to raw and vegan cooks, I now know about the date’s majorly underutilized powers, especially when it comes to sweet treats and baked goods: Dates are an almost foolproof alternative to caramel!

Dates contain just enough water content to be supple and chewy, but sugar-dense and rich. They work as a natural sugar replacement in simple syrups, baked goods, and smoothies. And because of their sticky factor, they also make an excellent egg-free binder in no-bake pie crusts and bars (of the chocolate and fruit-nut variety). But best of all, dates are pretty “melty.” And with the help of heat or a spin in the food processor, they quickly transform from a dried fruit to a caramel-like paste—no candy thermometer required.

When choosing dates, avoid those that feel too firm. They should be plump and limber, as it makes chopping and blending much easier. If you picked right, you should be able to remove the pit with your fingers. As for variety, Medjools tend to be the sweetest, biggest, and most tender of the date family—perfect for “caramel” making.

When transforming the date into a paste or sauce, you have several choices: (1) blender, (2) heat —a.k.a. hot pan or microwave, and (3) mortar and pestle. The only difference between the three methods (from what I gather) is the equipment you have on hand and time you have to spare. A blender often requires soaking the dates first, while the heat method does not. And obviously, mortar and pestle requires more patience and arm strength than the microwave. Additionally, if you keep to a “raw” diet, skip the stove.

When using the blender: Soak the dates first in warm water for 30 minutes to several hours (depending on the age and stiffness of the date), until softened. But don’t forget to use this step to your advantage and use (or add) other flavor boosting liquids to the mix, like coffee, tea, citrus, vanilla extract, or rum. Once revived, strain the dates from the liquid, chop them, and place in a blender. Add a bit of soaking liquid as well, and puree until smooth, adding more liquid as necessary to get desired texture: doughy (hardened caramels!) versus runny (sundae sauce!).

When using heat: Soaking first is typically not necessary as the heat from the pan or microwave will eventually break down the dried fruit, “melting” it into a caramel like paste. But do add a little liquid (see suggestions above), butter, or coconut oil to the microwave-safe bowl or pan to get a creamy consistency. And if using the microwave, heat and stir in 15 second intervals until mixture is creamy.

When using mortar and pestle: Soak dates first, as with the blender method. Work in small batches and use splashes of soaking liquid as needed. Additionally, a sprinkling of sea salt, coffee grounds, or sesame seeds will help break down the dates by adding friction, giving you a smooth texture and extra flavor. This method is best when you only want a small amount of “date caramel.”

Once the dates take on that whipped texture, the paste or sauce may be used wherever caramel is found: stuffed in pie, swirled in ice cream, or partially hardened and smothered under chocolate (like in this turtle or the recipe below).

For more, smart cooking tips and recipes, Jess's book is Low-So Good.

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In January of 2004, I received a diagnosis that changed my life. I was diagnosed with Lupus, an autoimmune disease that in my case attacked my kidneys and brain. Due to the intensity of the initial “flare up” of the disease, I became renal insufficient and eventually faced kidney failure. Amazingly, through great medicine, wonderful family and friends, and an enormous amount of support, I became stronger and healthier and miraculously, my kidneys partially regenerated. I no longer depend on dialysis and by regulating my diet, I depend on fewer medications. Five years later, I work part time and live a full and utterly enjoyable life. My dietary restrictions have transformed into a real passion for food and I hope to be able to pass along my favorite finds to others facing similar dietary challenges. Be creative, be friendly, and be full!