Raisins are simply dried grapes. These shriveled, bite-sized morsels of sweetness offer a healthy snack and burst of energy. Turkey produces the most raisins, followed by California. It is the top dried fruit eaten in the U.S., and they're popular globally as well. Raisins are a delicious ingredient used in a variety of foods, from sweet bread and desserts to savory dishes found in cuisines throughout the world. While you might need to plump raisins up before adding them to a dish, they're one of the easiest dried fruits to prepare.
What Are Raisins?
Sweet grapes that are allowed to dry and shrivel up are called raisins. Until medieval times, raisins were second behind honey as a top choice for sweeteners. Today, the majority of the world's supply of raisins comes from California and are either dried Thompson Seedless, muscadine, or Black Corinth (Zante) grapes. In 1873, California suffered a devastating drought that literally dried the grapes on the vine. Looking to recoup some of the grape crops, an enterprising marketer in San Francisco sold the dried and shriveled grapes as "Peruvian Delicacies," and the California raisin industry was off and running.
Raisins are either brown or golden. Brown raisins are sun-dried, typically by laying them out in the vineyards for two to four weeks, after which the raisins are graded, cleaned, and packed. Golden raisins (with the exception of sultanas) are typically oven-dried and often treated with sulfur dioxide to preserve their color. Most often, brown raisins are used in baked goods, while golden raisins are preferred for savory dishes. Generally, all raisins are inexpensive, which adds to their appeal.
How to Cook With Raisins
Cooking with raisins is generally very straightforward: Add raisins straight from the package to the recipe. However, there are times when you'll want to chop, soften, or soak raisins before using.
To plump up raisins, simply soak them in hot water or a liquid used in the recipe for about 15 minutes. They can also be microwaved in water for 10 seconds or so. You can break up a clump of raisins by rinsing them with hot water in a colander while separating them with your fingers. Another popular way to prevent raisins from hardening is to store them in a jar filled with liquor—brandy and rum are favorites.
When adding raisins to baked goods, they often sink to the bottom because of their weight. You can prevent this by tossing the raisins with a little of the recipe's flour. And if you need chopped raisins, heat your knife up so it cuts through the dried fruit more easily.
What Do They Taste Like?
It's interesting that raisins do not taste like fresh grapes. This is because the drying process concentrates the fruit's sugars. Brown raisins are sweet and fruity—some people even say a little gritty. Golden raisins are even sweeter and fruitier, with just a hint of tartness.
Raisins may be best known as a snack that you can eat out of hand, but they're also found in a variety of recipes. From savory salads and entrées to bread, muffins, and desserts, there are a number of ways to integrate raisins into delicious foods.
Where to Buy Raisins
Raisins are readily available at a variety of stores, including nearly any grocery store. They're sold in cans, bags, and snack-sized packaging, and are generally inexpensive. If you have grapes growing in your backyard, consider making oven-dried raisins. They're plumper and juicier than commercial varieties and make good use of a grape harvest.
While the freshness of raisins is hard to distinguish in the package, it's important to test them anyway because raisins harden as they age. When squeezed, the contents of the package should feel soft, not hard. Also, you can shake the box and listen for any rattling, which can also indicate hard raisins.
Store raisins in an airtight container and place it in a cool, dark place to slow down the drying process. If they need to be stored for longer than a month, you can keep raisins in the refrigerator for six months to a year.
Nutrition and Benefits
Raisins are just as nutritious as grapes and a surprisingly good source of iron (comparable to ground beef) as well as potassium. Like all dried fruits, they do have more sugar than grapes, though raisins do have a little more fiber as well. Raisins are low in fat and cholesterol.
Raisins vs. Currants
Currants are small berries—either red or black—that grow on a bush; they're available fresh or dried. This fruit tends to be very tart, which is a significant contrast to sweet raisins. Black currants are often the variety that's dried, and they're smaller than raisins. Zante currants—which are more common in the U.S. than elsewhere—are not true currants, but instead are dried Black Corinth (Zante) grapes that have a tart, tangy flavor and very dark color.
Though you may be most familiar with shriveled, dark brown raisins, there are some other varieties. The majority of "natural" raisins are sun-dried seedless Thompson grapes. These are primarily the brown California raisins. Golden seedless raisins come from the same Thompson grapes but are oven-dried.
Sultanas (also called golden raisins) have a gold color, a semitart taste, and are dried sultana grapes, which start out with a yellow-green color. Muscat (dark red to black) and Monukka (golden brown) raisins come from grapes sharing the respective names. Both varieties are large, sweeter, and generally found in health food and specialty stores.