Dried fruit is fruit from which the majority of the original water content has been removed either naturally, through sun drying, or through the use of specialized dryers or dehydrators. Dried fruit has a long tradition of use dating back to the fourth millennium BC in Mesopotamia, and is prized because of its sweet taste, nutritive value, and long shelf life.
Today, dried fruit consumption is widespread. Nearly half of the dried fruits sold are raisins, followed by dates, prunes, figs, apricots, peaches, apples and pears. These are referred to as “conventional” or “traditional” dried fruits: fruits that have been dried in the sun or in heated wind tunnel dryers. Many fruits such as cranberries, blueberries, cherries, strawberries and mango are infused with a sweetener (e.g. sucrose syrup) prior to drying. Some products sold as dried fruit, like papaya, kiwi fruit and pineapple are most often candied fruit.
Dried fruits retain most of the nutritional value of fresh fruits.The specific nutrient content of the different dried fruits reflects their fresh counterpart and the processing method.
Traditional dried fruit such as raisins, figs, dates, apricots and apples have been a staple of Mediterranean diets for millennia. This is due partly to their early cultivation in the Middle Eastern region known as the Fertile Crescent, made up by parts of modern Iran, Iraq, southwest Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and northern Egypt. Drying or dehydration also happened to be the earliest form of food preservation: grapes, dates and figs that fell from the tree or vine would dry in the hot sun. Early hunter-gatherers observed that these fallen fruit took on an edible form, and valued them for their stability as well as their concentrated sweetness.
Nineveh: Procession through groves of date palms, one of the world’s first cultivated trees
The earliest recorded mention of dried fruits can be found in Mesopotamian tablets dating to about 1500 BC, which contain what are probably the oldest known written recipes. These clay slabs, written in Akkadian, the daily language of Babylonia, were inscribed in cuneiform and tell of diets based on grains (barley, millet, wheat), vegetables and fruits such as dates, figs, apples, pomegranates, and grapes. These early civilizations used dates, date juice evaporated into syrup and raisins as sweeteners. They included dried fruits in their breads for which they had more than 300 recipes, from simple barley bread for the workers to very elaborate, spiced cakes with honey for the palaces and temples. Because cuneiform was very complex and only scribes who had studied for years could read it, it is unlikely that the tablets were meant for everyday cooks or chefs. Instead they were written to document the culinary art of the times. Many recipes are quite elaborate and have rare ingredients so we may assume that they represent “Mediterranean haute cuisine”.
The date palm was one of the first cultivated trees. It was domesticated in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago. It grew abundantly in the Fertile Crescent and it was so productive (an average date palm produces 50 kg (100 lbs) of fruit a year for 60 years or more) that dates were the cheapest of staple foods. Because they were so valuable they were well recorded in Assyrian and Babylonian monuments and temples. The villagers in Mesopotamia dried them and ate them as sweets. Whether fresh, soft-dried or hard-dried, they helped to give character to meat dishes and grain pies. They were valued by travelers for their energy and were recommended as stimulants against fatigue.
Temple of Nahkt, Egypt. Harvesting grapes, many of which would be dried into raisins.
Figs were also prized in early Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt where their daily use was probably greater than or equal to that of dates. As well as appearing in wall paintings, many specimens have been found in Egyptian tombs as funerary offerings. In Greece and Crete, figs grew very readily and they were the staple of poor and rich alike, particularly in their dried form.
Grape cultivation first began in Armenia and the eastern regions of the Mediterranean in the 4th century BC. Here, raisins were manufactured by burying grapes in the desert sun. Very quickly, viticulture and raisin production spread across northern Africa including Morocco and Tunisia. The Phoenicians and the Egyptians popularized the production of raisins, probably due to the perfect environment for sun drying. They put them in jars for storage and allotted them to the different temples by the thousands. They also included them in their breads and their various pastries, some made with honey, some with milk and eggs.
From the Middle East, these fruits spread through Greece to Italy where they became a major part of the diet. Ancient Romans ate raisins in spectacular quantities and all levels of society, including them as a key part of their common meals, along with olives and fruits.
Raisined breads were common for breakfast and were consumed with their grains, beans and cultured milks. Raisins were so valued that they transcended the food realm and became rewards for successful athletes as well as premium barter currency.
Figs in basket, Pompeii: Dried figs were very popular in ancient Rome.
Having dried fruits was a must in ancient Rome as these instructions for housekeepers around 100 BC tell: “She must keep a supply of cooked food on hand for you and the servants. She must keep many hens and have plenty of eggs. 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, as well as fresh Praenestine nuts kept in the same way, and Scantian quinces in jars, and other fruits that are usually preserved, as well as wild fruits. All these she must store away diligently every year.”
Figs again were extremely popular in Rome. Dried figs were equated with bread and formed a major part of the winter food of country people. They were rub
Today, dried fruit is produced in most regions of the world, and consumption occurs in all cultures and demographic segments. In the United States, Americans consumed an average of 2.18 lb (1 kg) (processed weight) of dried fruit in 2006.
Raisins accounted for about two thirds of this. California produces the largest percentage of the US and the world’s dried fruit crop. It accounts for over 99% of the US crop of raisins and dried plums, 98% of dried figs, 96% of dried peaches, 92% of apricots and over 90% of dates. Most of California dried fruit production is centered in the San Joaquin Valley where the soil and climate, especially the hot, dry summers, provide ideal growing conditions.
While these fruits were commonly dried in the sun in the past, now only raisins are almost entirely naturally sun-dried.
Fruits can be dried whole (e.g., grapes, berries, apricot, plum), in halves, or as slices, (e.g., mango, papaya, kiwi). Alternatively they can be chopped after drying (e.g., dates), made into pastes, or concentrated juices.
The residual moisture content can vary from small (3 – 8%) to substantial (16 – 18%), depending on the type of fruit. Fruits can also be dried in puree form, as leather, or as a powder, by spray or drum drying. They can be freeze dried. Fresh fruit is frozen and placed in a drying chamber under vacuum. Heat is applied and water evaporates from the fruit while still frozen”.The fruit becomes very light and crispy and retains much of its original flavor. Dried fruit is widely used by the confectionery, baking, and sweets industries. Food manufacturing plants use dried fruits in various sauces, soups, marinades, garnishes, puddings, and food for infants and children.
As ingredients in prepared food, dried fruit juices, purées, and pastes impart sensory and functional characteristics to recipes:
Dozens of types of dried fruit and fruit leather at a market in Yerevan
The high fiber content provides water-absorbing and water-binding capabilities, tenderization, and nutritional enhancement.
Organic acids such as sorbitol act as humectants, provide dough and batter stability, and control water activity.
Fruit sugars add sweetness, humectancy, and surface browning, and control water activity.
Fruit acids, such as malic acid and tartaric acid, contribute to flavor enhancement and act as anti-microbial agents (suppress mold and bacterial growth).
Vitamins and minerals increase nutritional value and label appeal.
Phenolic compounds slow down lipid oxidation in meats. They add a natural caramel color.
Drying Figs in the Sun
Rinse fully ripe figs. The best indication that a fig is fully ripe is when it falls to the ground. Rinse the figs with cool water to remove dirt and other debris, then pat them dry with a dishcloth or paper towel.
Cut the figs in half. Use a paring knife to cut the figs in half from stem to tip on a cutting board. Cutting the figs in half will help them dry more quickly.
Lay them on a wire or wooden rack covered with cheesecloth. Put a layer of cheesecloth on top of any wooden or wire rack, such as those intended for cooling or dehydrating. In order to dry properly, the figs need airflow from above and below, so don’t use a solid surface like a baking sheet. Place the figs cut-side up on the cheesecloth
- Alternatively, you could put whole figs on wooden skewers and hang them in the sun, using clothespins to attach the skewers to branches or to a clothesline
Cover the figs with cheesecloth. This will protect them from insects as they dry. Tuck the cheesecloth tightly around the drying rack, securing it with tape if necessary, to make sure it won’t come loose.
- If you hung up your figs instead, you won’t be able to protect them with the cheesecloth.
Place the rack in full sunlight during the day. This method works best when it is very dry and hot outside. Don’t place the figs in the shade, or they won’t dry as quickly and may spoil before they’re properly preserved. You’ll need to bring them in each evening so they don’t get spoiled by dew.
Return the figs to the sun for 2 to 3 days. Each morning, turn the figs over so they dry evenly on all sides and then place them back outside in the sunlight. The figs are ready when the outside feels leathery and no juice can be seen on the inside when squeezed.
- If the figs remain a little sticky, you can finish them in the oven.
Store the dried figs in airtight containers in the fridge or freezer. Tupperware or Ziploc bags are both options for storing your dried figs. They’ll last several months in the fridge, or up to 3 years in the freezer.
Using the Oven
Preheat your oven to 140° F (60° C). This should be the lowest setting your oven has, which is necessary to dry the figs at a low, even temperature. Drying them at a higher temperature would result in cooked figs.
- If your oven doesn’t heat to such a low temperature, set it at the lowest possible temperature and keep the oven door partially open.
Rinse the figs thoroughly with water. Carefully trim away the stems as well as any damaged parts and pat them dry with a paper towel or dishcloth.
Cut the figs in half. Use a paring knife to slice the figs from stem to tip, lengthwise, on a cutting board. If they are particularly large, cut them in quarters.
Lay them cut-side-up on an oven-safe rack. Be sure to use a rack with ventilation holes, so that the figs dry from below and above. Using a regular baking pan will result in figs that don’t dry evenly.
Put the figs in the oven for up to 36 hours. Prop the oven door open slightly to allow the moisture to escape and prevent the figs from getting too hot and cooking instead of drying. If you don’t want to leave the oven on continuously, you can turn it off halfway through, then turn it back on if necessary. Be sure to turn the figs occasionally during the drying process
Allow the figs to cool completely before storing them. The figs are done drying when the outsides are leathery and no juice can be seen on the inside when you split one open. Remove them from the oven and let them cool completely before placing them in airtight containers, like Ziploc bags.
Put airtight containers full of dried figs in the fridge or freezer. You can freeze figs for up to 3 years. Or, you can keep them in the fridge for several months.
Turn the dehydrator to the fruit setting. If your dehydrator doesn’t have a fruit setting, turn it 135° F (57° C).
Rinse the figs and cut them in quarters. Rinse the figs in cool water, then dry them with a dishcloth. Use a paring knife to remove the stems and cut the figs in quarters on a cutting board.
Place them skin-side-down on the dehydrator trays. Make sure to leave some room in between the fig pieces so air can circulate around them
Dehydrate them for 6-8 hours. The amount of time will depend on the climate in your area as well as the size of the figs. Check them after 8 hours to see if they are dry to the touch, but still pliable and chewy. If so, they’re done.
Remove the trays and allow the figs to cool. Once the figs are done, carefully remove the trays from the dehydrator and place them on a heat-resistant surface. Let them cool completely before storing them
Store the dried figs in the fridge or freezer in airtight containers. Put the dried figs in Tupperware containers or Ziploc bags. They’ll keep in the freezer for up to 3 years or in the fridge for several months