Where I grew up in northern California, it seemed that every suburban yard had at least one orange tree; in our own yard there were several. One had small, tart oranges that were difficult to peel. We’d dig at the skin but end up just sucking out the sweet juice. Another tree was full of small, sweet, loose-skinned fruits that practically slipped right from their skins. On the east side of the house there was a tree whose fruit we only picked once. Those oranges were so mouth-puckeringly bitter that we spat out the pulp and never tried them again. But the oranges that we loved best grew on a tree in our neighbor’s yard. My brother and I would climb the fence and steal those fruits, which were big, very sweet, and a cinch to peel.
Though I didn’t realize it, I was actually learning a lot about fruit varieties back then. The oranges that we loved so much from our neighbor’s tree were navels, the perfect snacking orange. Those small, hard-to-peel fruits were what are known as common oranges. They’re prized for their juice and not meant for eating out of hand. The oranges that were too bitter to eat were Sevilles. They make wonderful marmalade, but as we learned early on, they’re not for snacking. And those sweet, snap-to-peel fruits were tangerines—a name that’s used interchangeably with mandarins.
Oranges and tangerines in the kitchen
Oranges and tangerines are perhaps best loved as snacks. They’re great fruit for just eating, but they also make delicious juice, marmalades, and candies, too. Crimson slices of blood oranges look spectacular on top of a tart, and their juice can be used to flavor custards, ice creams, and sherbets. Oranges and tangerines play a role in savory dishes as well. In Sicily, a much-loved salad combines orange slices with red onion and arugula. Duck à l’orange is an old-fashioned French classic, and in Provence, cooks often add a strip of orange peel to brighten the flavor of the earthy stews called daubes.
Winter is the heart of citrus season
Selecting a bright, shiny fruit won’t guarantee that you’ve chosen a flavorful orange. The color of a citrus peel is determined by light, climate, and (in some cases) additives, and doesn’t necessarily indicate the quality of the fruit inside. Nor does size promise a juicy, sweet fruit. Larger oranges that are lightweight may have a thick rind and dry, flavorless flesh.
A heavy fruit is a juicy fruit. A ripe orange with a high juice content will be heavy and firm, not light and spongy. Bruises can signal that the fruit has begun to ferment. A loose peel on an orange can mean dry fruit, but it’s normal on a tangerine. Look out, though, for tangerines with extremely loose, puffy peels: the fruit has likely passed its prime.
Oranges and tangerines will be fine if stored at room temperature for a few days, but they’ll last longer and taste better if refrigerated.