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The professional chef discovers raisins

When you think about cooking with raisins, what dishes come to mind first? Danish pastry? Oatmeal cookies? Bran muffins? Raisins are essential to the baker’s pantry, of course, but that’s just for starters.

Around the world, they have a long history in the savory kitchen, too. Think of raisins in chutneys, in stuffings, in Turkish pilaf and Moroccan lamb stew.Wherever grapevines thrive, the local cooking incorporates raisins—with good reason. From earliest times, people realized that grapes dried in the sun became sweeter, more concentrated and longer lasting. The season for fresh grapes was brief, but raisins lasted for months, ideal for sweetening foods in a world before sugar was widely available.

Today, raisins are still sun-dried and still embellishing a wide range of baked goods such as breads, cookies and pastries. But even more fascinating are the many ways that raisins enhance savory dishes, created over time by inventive chefs from around the world.

Raisins are one of the world’s most nutritious dried fruits. They are cholesterol-free, low in sodium and virtually fat-free. They are a concentrated source of many necessary vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, iron and potassium. They’re also high in dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. What’s more, they’re 70 percent pure fructose, a natural form of sugar that’s easily digested for quick energy.

According to health experts, eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day can help reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes and birth defects. One-quarter cup of raisins provides one serving of fruit. Raisins also contain phenolics, a class of antioxidants. Scientists believe that antioxidants help delay the aging process and fight age-related diseases.

Raisin varieties

The four most common raisin varieties are:

  1. Sun Dried Natural Seedless: Made from Thompson Seedless grapes, these dark brown raisins make up 93% of the raisin crop and are available year-round. They are appropriate in any recipe that calls for raisins.
  2. California Golden Raisins, Golden Seedless or Goldens: Also made from Thompson Seedless grapes that have been lightly treated with sulfur dioxide to preserve their golden color, this variety is preferred in some recipes. Pastries often incorporate both light and dark raisins for eye appeal. When British recipes specify sultanas (a tarter, light-skinned, sometimes seedless variety in limited supply), you can substitute Goldens.
  3. Seeded or “Puffed” Muscat: Available in fall and winter, muscats are prized for their sweetness and fruity flavor. They are particularly sought after for fruitcake.
  4. Zante Currants: These tart and tangy tiny raisins come from Zante grapes and are often used in desserts, sweet buns and scones. The original Zante currants came from Corinth in ancient Greece. The word “currant” derives from the English translation of the French “raisins du Corinthe.”

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