During a trip to a modern food store, one that features organic or natural fruits, vegetables and nuts, you will often find aisles that are bursting with tubs of unusual ingredients. Raisins and currants are among them, but without knowing the difference between currants and sultanas and raisins and what they are used for, it can be difficult to tell one from the other.
Raisins are a product of grapes. Currants are also a product of grapes, but this is not true for all currants because some are the product of a berry that is grown on a bush. If the label calls the currant "Zante," then they are grape-produced and are sweet like a raisin. If not, their berry origin gives them a tart taste. Purists claim that Zante currants aren't really currants at all.
We Are Raisin' Raisins
Although raisins are dark in color, they are actually a product of the green grape. Like sweet wine made from grapes that have overmatured on the vine, raisins get their sweetness from a similar process. The Thompson seedless grape is used for making raisins. The sugar content is high, making the grape sweeter, and the taste of the grape is more mild than that of a wine grape.
Two different processes are used when raisin grapes are ready for harvest from August through September. Once the grapes are tested for optimum sweetness, some growers leave them on the vine but cut them off from water. This starts the drying process.
Other growers drop the grapes onto paper that runs through the row of grapes. The newly picked grapes are left on the paper for up to three weeks to dry under the sun. As they dry, the grapes' skins turn dark. The paper is then rolled up and transported to the processing facility.
No Sweetness Is Added
No sweeteners are added to the raisins. What you get is a dried fruit that is pure and natural. California produces almost 100 percent of the raisins sold in America, and they export a large quantity to countries around the world. Since the fruit is dried, it doesn't spoil unless the storage conditions are violated, and dampness and mold invade the containers.
The Delicate Taste of Golden Sultanas
As we dive deeper into the differences between raisins, sultanas and golden seedless raisins, we find that goldens and true sultanas are not from the same grape. Thompsons are used in the production of golden seedless raisins, and sultanas originate from the large sultana grape.
That distinction is not one that is often argued in the United States, as golden raisins, sultanas and golden seedless raisins look and taste the same, and all are known as golden raisins. However, when reading a recipe written by a British chef, the ingredient list may contain sultanas. In that case, you can just think "golden raisins" instead.
Creating Golden Seedless Raisins
Golden seedless raisins are not dried in the sun like the black raisins but are instead dried in an oven to hasten the drying process. The raisins are first soaked in a vegetable oil solution which contributes to the lighter color for the naturally plump and juicy raisins. To further prevent them from turning a dark color, they are treated with sulfur dioxide. A high sugar content and a sweet taste distinguish them from sultanas plucked from the sultana vine.
Sultanas vs. Currants
The disconnect between sultanas and golden raisins is becoming greater as the world becomes smaller. In the U.K. and the continent, goldens are referred to as sultanas. In America, sultanas are referred to as goldens.
The truth is that a true sultana is not a golden raisin, but it does originate from the specific sultana grape. The sultana grape isn't the best for drying and eating. The seeds are hard, and the grape itself is high in tannins, giving them a lip-smacking, tart aftertaste. There is also less meat inside the grape. For the sweet and tart taste of a plump raisin, stick with goldens.
Those Little Guys – Zante Currants
Next to the barrels of raisins, you may find little raisins. Whether they are raisins or currants depends on the name on the sign above them. This is another conundrum swirling around the raisin, sultana and currant debate.
If the sign above the barrel reads "Zante currants," you will know that the little guys originated from grapes, specifically Corinth grapes. You've probably seen them in the produce aisles of upscale grocery stores. They are the little round grapes often called "champagne grapes" due to the fact that they look like champagne bubbles. Freeze them and serve them alongside a flute of champagne and a cheese board, and all is right with the world.
Zante currants are seedless, and like raisins, they have a sweet taste. They were introduced to California in the mid 1800s, and they currently account for 1 percent of the grape harvest in that state, while Greece produces 80 percent of the worldwide harvest. Production of the dried version is similar to that of raisins. Natural sun, whether on or off the vine, seals in the sweetness.
Varied Berry Currants
True currants originate on a berry bush and are either red, pink, black or white. Unlike raisins, currants taste tart. Mouths have been known to pucker while tasting a currant. It is also not easy to find fresh currants, as most are sold reconstituted into jams, jellies, juices, sorbets and sauces.
If your recipe for scones, hot cross buns or Irish soda bread calls for currants, think of Zante currants. However, if you are making a sauce for roast duck or lamb, go for red currant jelly. When you reach for that bottle of Cassis to make a Kir Royale, know that what you are adding is a sweet-tart liquor made from macerated black currants.
Raisins, Sultanas and Currants = Healthy Eating
Raisins, sultanas and both types of currants are loaded with anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals. As they dry, their water content is reduced from 80 percent to 15 percent, thus concentrating the nutrients.
If you think you are eating healthy when you pop a grape into your mouth, you are. However, you are eating more healthy with a raisin that contains four times the fiber, vitamins and minerals than that grape. If your diet calls for potassium, tuck a box of raisins into your pocket for that mid-day snack.
Just be aware that the sugar content in all raisins, currants and sultanas is greater than the fresh fruit. Eating raisins (sultanas and currants haven't been studied to a great extent) can help lower blood pressure, improve blood sugar control and give you a sense of fullness, meaning you will eat less of other foods. A word of caution: Due to their high sugar and calorie content, dried fruits should be eaten in moderation and along with other nutritious foods.
My seventh grade English teacher didn't realize what she was unleashing when she called me her "writer," but the word crept into my brain. I DID become a writer. Of advertising copy, dialogue and long-term story for several network soap operas, magazine articles and high-calorie contents for the cookbook: Cooking: It AIn't Rocket Science, a bestseller on Amazon! When I'm not writing, I'm cooking!