Raisins: A guide to the varieties

An indispensable part of countless festive recipes and baked goods, dried grapes come in several types. You can find the following kinds at supermarkets and gourmet stores.

  • Production: Grapes can be dried while still in bunches, still hanging from the vine or laid flat, or after being picked and spread out on trays. They can be dried in open sun, shade or darkness, with or without applied hot air or mechanical ventilation.

In antiquity, grapes were dipped in a mix of alkaline wood-ash solution and oil before being dried to promote faster, more even dehydration. Variations of this technique are still used in modern raisin production. Raisins are often spray-coated with tasteless oil to prevent clumping during packaging.

  • Black raisins: The most common type. They can be made from grapes of any skin colour, their final brown to black hue reached as they dry. The higher the temperature and the more direct the sunlight, the darker the raisin and the more caramelised its flavour. Shown here, from left to right, are: a jumbo black raisin, 2.5cm long, fleshy and chewy; a Monukka raisin, named for its grape variety, slightly larger and sweeter than regular black raisins; and a regular black raisin, about 1.5cm long.

  • Sultanas: Originally the name of raisins made from a Turkish green grape, from which descends the cultivar now most commonly used to produce raisins around the world, Thompson Seedless. Nowadays, "sultana" refers in the United Kingdom and Australia to dark brown or reddish-amber raisins made from Thompson Seedless grapes. The same product is simply labelled "raisins" in the United States. Equal in size or slightly bigger than black raisins and usually a bit more tangy.

  • Golden raisins: Although some natural drying techniques produce golden-amber raisins, most "golden raisins" sold labelled as such have been treated with sulphur dioxide gas to prevent darkening during the drying process. Fruity and tangy, with fewer caramel or toffee nuances than black raisins. Shown here is a jumbo golden raisin, almost 3cm long.

  • Currants: Dark raisins whose sharp, full flavour belies their small size, under 1cm across. Made from an ancient grape variety originally traded out of the Corinth port in Greece, from which they get their name. Alternatively known as Zante currants. Often combined with raisins and candied peel in mixed dried fruit products. Sometimes confusingly labelled as "black currants", they are unrelated to black currants, red currants or white currants, which are berry species that have quite different, much more tart flavour profiles.

  • Green raisins: Slim, from 2 to 2.5cm long. Most of those sold here are from China, though they are also produced across Central Asia and the Middle East. Slightly chewy and dense, with a mild tartness reminiscent of green table grapes. Traditionally dried in well ventilated but dark indoor conditions, which preserves their pale jade hue, nowadays sometimes enhanced by sulphur dioxide. Jumbo versions can sometimes be found.

  • Red raisins: Made from red-skinned grapes, although not much different in final colour or size from black raisins. Shown here are red flame grape raisins, around 1.5cm long, plump and round, tasting sweet-tart.

  • Speciality raisins: Some premium varieties are dried and sold on their stalks, for enjoying plain rather than for cooking. Shown here are a dense cluster of muscat grape raisins (above left), very sweet and headily perfumed, with large seeds; and seedless Australian Menindee grape raisins (above right), whose softly sweet, jelly-like flesh has a floral aroma with hints of roses.
  • Storing: Stored in airtight packages or containers away from light, warmth and humidity, raisins will last almost indefinitely if handled with sterile or spotless equipment. Over time, their natural sugars may crystallise into crunchy deposits; these can be redissolved by soaking the raisins in warm water before use.

Text and photos: Chris Tan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'Raisins'. Print Edition | Subscribe