December kicks off the season for spectacular citrus.
Orange season hits its stride this month and just in time. Deliciously aromatic and bursting with sweet yet tart juice, this bright citrus fruit is perfect for combating the winter cold. Whether you love exotic blood oranges, Valencias for squeezing juice or big, glowing navel oranges—the perfect Christmas stocking stuffer—it’s easy to see why the orange is the world’s most popular citrus fruit.
Both the bitter orange (mainly used for making marmalade today) and the more common sweet orange originated in southwest China several thousand years ago, appearing in written records by around 500 B.C. Over millennia, oranges took root around the world, traveling along trade routes to flourish in India, Japan and Persia before finding a home in the Mediterranean by the 11th century.
Sweet oranges became a main crop in Portugal after explorer Vasco da Gama carried home a superior variety from an Eastern sea voyage; the country became Europe’s main supplier, and today, the modern Greek word for orange remains portokáli. It was Christopher Columbus himself who planted sweet oranges in the Caribbean. Soon after, Spanish settlers brought them to Florida, where the planting of huge orange groves—and the invention of orange-juice concentrate in the 1940s—eventually created the state’s $9 billion citrus industry.
Florida’s crop of thin-skinned, juicy fruit is distinctive from the thick-skinned, easily segmented oranges grown in California, which emerged as Florida’s citrus rival. Former New Yorker writer John McPhee described the differences in his 1967 book, Oranges, in typical pithy style: “Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange, you have to get in a bathtub first. … [In] Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange and not even wet the pavement.” (If you want to avoid any debate, take home blood oranges instead and prove McPhee wrong: He asserted in his book’s pages that “blood oranges frighten American women.”)
No matter where your oranges come from, however, you can count on their well-known health benefits. One medium orange gives you more than 100 percent of the recommended daily value for vitamin C, an important antioxidant that also supports the immune system and collagen production in the skin.
Oranges, once a luxury only for the very wealthy, are something we can all enjoy today. This month, it’s worth doing just that, as the best crop of the year starts to become available.
The best way to ensure oranges are delicious and juicy is to buy them in the winter at the peak of the season. Look for fruit that is firm and heavy for its size, with bright, colorful skins.
These dramatically beautiful oranges, with a purple-maroon interior and sweet flavor with a hint of raspberry, come into season in a few weeks. Once a specialty ingredient imported from Italy—where the variety is the most popular orange for eating—they are now grown from Florida and Texas to California and are much easier to find.
Their flavor tends to change throughout the growing season, becoming sweeter as winter progresses; if you try some in December that are too tart for your taste, sample them again in February. The season generally ends in late March or early April. Moro is the best-known variety.
These large, brilliantly colored oranges are considered the world’s best for eating. For many of us, they’re a must-have at the bottom of a Christmas stocking.
The small, secondary fruit that grows at the orange’s blossom end—the fruit’s namesake “navel”—is the reason they were known in Portugal and Spain in the 17th century as “pregnant oranges.” They peel and segment easily, and their juicy, seedless fruit is just tart enough.
The juice from navels tastes delicious if you drink it right away; if it sits, a chemical compound in the fruit imbues it with an unpleasant bitter flavor. Washington is the most common variety, but also look for the delicious Cara Cara (in a few weeks); it resembles other navels, but its distinctive deep-pink or red interior has exceptionally complex sweetness. Find them at specialty produce stores, including Whole Foods, starting next month.
Also known as juice oranges, this variety is medium-sized and thin-skinned with occasional seeds inside. They are most the widely grown type of orange and form the bulk of the Florida crop.
Valencias also have an interesting botanical quirk: As the fruit ripens, it turns bright orange like other varieties, but it can “regreen” during warm temperatures as a result of the skin’s reabsorbing chlorophyll as it hangs on the tree. So don’t worry if you see Valencia oranges that look a bit green, since they should still taste juicy and ripe.
If you are zesting an orange, buy organic or wash the fruit thoroughly (the exteriors are polished with heavy wax to prevent moisture loss). To get the most juice out of Valencia oranges, bring them to room temperature and roll them lightly on a cutting board before juicing.
It’s a love or hate thing with how you feel about marmalade. The bracing orange scent; rich, bitter flavor balanced by sweetness; and chewy pieces of orange rind make marmalade unlike any other jelly or jam.
Marmalade’s culinary ancestor, a type of Portuguese quince paste, was known in the 16th century, but the real credit goes to the Scots, who invented it as a breakfast spread about two centuries later.
Among today’s commercially available marmalades, the quality discrepancies are unfortunate, with some of them tasting no more complex than thin orange jelly.
For the real deal, pick up Hero Orange Sweet Marmalade from the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District.