Related to the gooseberry, currants can be either red, white or black. Black currants are sweetest, then white, and then red, which tend to be tart. Because of their tartness, red currants are consumed in their cooked form more often than fresh, but blackcurrants, also somewhat tart but quite sweeter, are made into liqueurs, cordials, candies, jams, jellies and syrups and are most popular. Both red and black also lend themselves well to savory dishes, as their sweet-tart flavor provides a pleasant contrast. They are in season from June through August, but are available year-round in dried form. However, dried currents are actually not currants at all, but rather the dried zante grape from Greece.
Shiny and bright, red currants can easily pass as pure decoration, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t pop a few in your mouth. Red currants (sometimes spelled redcurrants) are bracingly tart and a bit sweet, like a sugar-kissed cranberry. A hint of astringency makes them a good foil for rich meats and desserts, but they also make a tasty summer treat eaten out of hand or added to salads. Their season is short, though, so get them while you can.
Most red currants sold in the United States are the Ribes rubrum species. They’re closely related to black currants (Ribes nigrum) and white currants (an albino cultivar of Ribes rubrum), but they come from an entirely different family than do the dried Zante currants sold in grocery stores. Zante currants are the dried berries of a small variety of the common grape, Vitis vinifera.
Native to northern Europe, currants grow best in areas with cold winters and warm, humid summers. Colonists brought the berries to New England, but the plant was banned and eradicated in the United States in the early 1900s because it hosted a fungus detrimental to pine trees. Restrictions were gradually lifted starting in the mid-1960s, and many home gardeners began growing currant bushes. But it’s only been in the last decade or so that they’ve become widely available in this country.
Red currants are available at farmers’ and specialty markets as well as some well-stocked grocery stores from June through August. Look for red currants on the stem that are firm, translucent, shiny, and bright red. The berries are likely to break open when removed from their stems, so it’s best to leave them on until you’re ready to eat them.
With their sweet, sour, and slightly woodsy herbal notes, currants taste great on their own or with just a sprinkle of sugar. They also work well in both sweet and savory dishes. Try them crushed in a light vinaigrette or in a more robust sauce, such as Cumberland sauce (a British classic with currants, port wine, orange, ginger, and vinegar), for rich, roasted meats like lamb, venison, and duck. Whole currants can be added to muffins or quick breads, or used in pie filling, ice cream, or sorbet, either on their own or with other fruits and berries. Currants on the stem, either frozen or frosted with egg whites and sugar, are a beautiful garnish. And because of their high pectin content, currants make great jams, jellies, and relishes.
Red currants pair well with strong herbs like mint and rosemary, which bring out the berries’ own herbal flavors. They’re great with other summer berries, like raspberries and strawberries, as well as citrus flavors, which have sweet and tart notes to match the currants’. They also pair well with more assertive flavors like mustard, pepper, and ginger.
Red currants can be refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen for several months. To freeze them, arrange unstemmed currants in a single layer and freeze for about 3 hours. Once they’re frozen, remove them from the stems and put them in freezer bags. Frozen currants are also available year-round at specialty markets.