In the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, "currants" often refer to the Zante currant. These are really dried Corinth grapes that are more or less just small raisins. True currants are small berries that grow on shrubs and are more like gooseberries. Fresh black, red, pink, or white currants, as well as dried black currants, can be enjoyed in various ways. With a sweet and bright acidic berry flavor, currants are delicious when eaten fresh. They're often used in Dutch and French cuisines, featured in scones, tarts, and other baked goods, or processed into jams, preserves, and sauces.
What Are Currants?
Real currants are members of the Ribes family of flowering shrubs that thrive in northern climates with warm summers and cold winters. The tiny berries grow in clusters on stems and are best when allowed to ripen on the plant. Currants have long been cultivated in Europe. They're prevalent in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, and many varieties are native to North America.
Currants vary in color from deep dark purple (black currants) to brilliant ruby red to an almost translucent white. Dried black currants look a lot like Zante currants. They are smaller than the dried grapes and have a deep berry flavor.
Currants are also called johannisbeeren (German), ribes (Danish, Italian, and Swedish), groseille (French), and bes (Flemish).
How to Use Currants
Fresh currants can be used like blueberries, and somewhat like blackberries or raspberries, in tarts and pies, and other desserts, such as sorbets and puddings. Use them fresh in fruit salads, particularly berry mixes, or to garnish desserts with their pretty color.
Black currants are also delicious with game meat, and often cooked into a simple sauce that's paired with duck or venison. White and pink currants are sweeter, more delicate, and most often used fresh.
Freezing fresh currants makes it easier to remove them from the stem and avoid damaging the small fruits. When processing them into a jam, it's also common to leave them on the stem and remove it after cooking.
Currants naturally contain a lot of pectin and acidity. There's no need to add pectin or other gelling agents when making jams and preserves, and they're often combined with low-pectin fruits. Red currant jelly is a common ingredient in sauce recipes. Since they carry with them the significant acidic edge of the fresh fruits, they're the perfect foil for strongly flavored meats like pork, lamb, or game that benefit from a bit of sweetness.
Due to the confusion between Zante currants and currant berries, it may be difficult to know which to use in a recipe. Recipes that mention red or white currants are referring to the berry. Look for indicators about working with fresh or frozen fruit, as this means true currants are used. Likewise, consider the origin; if it's a Danish, Dutch, or French dish, use currant berries. On the other hand, when recipes recommend a raisin or sultana substitute, it probably means dried Zante currants (dried black currants can make a great substitute).
What Does It Taste Like?
Currants have a sweet and sour berry flavor. All varieties have a bright acid kick to balance out their sweetness, and a fair amount of tannins that can make your mouth pucker.
Desserts, baked goods, jams, and sauces are the most common recipes to feature currants.
Where to Buy Currants
Fresh currants are not widely available in the U.S. and they tend to cost a bit more than other berries. Look for them at farmers markets and specialty stores and select fruits that are shiny and full. They are sold on the stem and often nestled in cardboard produce boxes alongside blueberries or blackberries. Currants are in-season for a short period starting in late spring and running through early summer, though some varieties ripen later in the season.
Currant shrubs are also rather easy to grow, and that is one way to get around their limited availability. The plant prefers full sun to partial shade. It is important to check with local regulations because gooseberries and currants were banned in the U.S. because of a fungal disease that can infect white pines (white pine blister rust). Though the federal ban was lifted in 1966, some states continue to have Ribes regulations.
Like all berries, fresh currants have a relatively short lifespan. They are best stored loosely wrapped or covered and chilled. Rinse fresh currants just before using them, and gently pat them thoroughly dry with a clean towel. As with all berries, don't wash them ahead of time—the exposure to the extra moisture will just shorten their lifespan, causing them to mold or rot in the fridge.
For longer storage, currants can be frozen just like other berries: Lay them in a single layer on a baking sheet, freeze until frozen, transfer to sealable plastic bags and keep in the freezer for up to 6 months.
Currants vs. Gooseberries
Currants and gooseberries are closely related members of the Ribes genus of plants (often called the gooseberry family). They're very similar in size, growing habits, and culinary uses. Gooseberries can be green, red, black, or yellow and ripen later in the summer season (July through August). Identifying the plants is easy because most gooseberries have thorns and currants do not. Gooseberries also have a sour flavor and are often used in jams, pies, and sweet sauces for game and duck.
There are many varieties of currants. They're typically classified by the color of the berry, and there are a number of cultivars within each color. Red currants are the most common and best for jams, sauces, and similar culinary applications. White currants are more delicate in flavor, lower in acidity, and often enjoyed fresh. Pink currants are the rarest and fall between the red and white varieties, both in color and taste. Black currants (Ribes nigrum) tend to ripen later in summer. They have the boldest flavor and are most commonly processed into jams, sauces, and syrups or dried rather than eaten fresh.