About Citrus

Source: Nancy Teton Gordon

Few food items intrigue virtually all of our senses the way citrus fruit can. The vibrant colors and refreshing fragrance and taste are so exquisite that their appeal is almost universal—even the thought of an orange can make us think of sunshine. A bowl of citrus instantly becomes a sunny still life on its own adding welcome respite on a dark winter day, while the simple addition of a curled citrus peel to garnish a plate adds a dash of elegant flair to almost any dish. Citrus fruit is best known as a source of vitamin C, but it also contains vitamin A and potassium, making it a healthy alternative to typical sugary snacks.

Oranges, lemons, and limes are considered to be the “superspecies” of citrus, and these—along with grapefruit—are the most common varieties of citrus but a multitude of hybrids exist, as well (see below).. Seedless citrus varieties are becoming increasingly popular.

Some of the more popular varieties for American consumers include the following:

Oranges—Fresh oranges are generally available all year—however, certain varieties, such as the navel orange, have a more-limited season from November through May. The more piquant or bitter Seville oranges (best known for their use in marmalade) are also popular and delicious. The navel orange is enjoyed not just for its convenience but also for its classic “orange” flavor, while the brilliant red-tinged blood oranges boast an intense, sweet, citrus flavor. Mandarin oranges are usually eaten plain or in fruit salads. Varieties of mandarin orange include the Satsuma, Clementine, and the Tangor.

Hybrids—The citrus “family” has a broad array of hybrids that have become increasingly prevalent and popular, including the following:

Meyer lemons—These distinctive fruit are a cross between a regular lemon and either an orange or a mandarin and are not considered to be true lemons. Available primarily from December to April, they’re sometimes smaller than a regular lemon and rounder in shape, with a thin, soft, smooth rind that ranges from greenish when slightly immature to a rich yellow-orange when fully ripe. The rind lacks the typical lemon peel oil aroma and the pulp is darker yellow and less acidic than a regular lemon. The complex flavor and aroma hints of sweet lime, lemon, and mandarin, make them a favorite for cooking.

Tangelos—Tangelos are hybrids of the mandarin orange and the grapefruit or pomello. This sweet and tangy fruit ranges in size from the size of a standard orange to the size of a grapefruit and usually has a small neck at the base. The peel is fairly loose and easy to remove. Minneola tangelos are perhaps the best known variety. They look like large oranges with a knob-like area at the stem end. Look for this variety at the market labeled as either Tangelo or Minneola.

Tangerines—Usually called mandarins or mandarin oranges outside the United States, this fruit has a deep, reddish-orange color and what many consider to be a compelling advantage—the ease with which they are peeled.

Ugli fruit—The Ugli fruit from Jamaica is a fascinating hybrid derived from a marriage of tangerine and grapefruit that is often categorized as a tangelo. These start to become available each year in December and January, and they come in a wide array of sizes and colors. The taste is sweeter than that of a typical grapefruit and their juice is plentiful—a favorite for making a hot toddy to warm winter’s chill.

Grapefruit—Grapefruit varieties fall into two groups: white and red or pink, and the current varieties are primarily seedless. While some people think that red or pink grapefruit are sweeter, professional testers have claimed that the color has no effect on the taste. Most grapefruit varieties are available throughout the winter months until late spring or early summer, with the Golden, Ruby, Ruby Sweet, and White Seedless being among the most popular varieties. The pomello, a giant grapefruit usually eaten by itself or used in preserves, can be as large as a bowling ball!

Lemons—The familiar yellow lemon is rarely marketed by variety name and is available throughout the year. The fruit are cultivated primarily for their juice, though the pulp and rind (zest) are also used in cooking or for garnish.

Limes—Limes are generally available all year, and the Florida Keys are known for their distinctively flavored Key Limes, which are difficult to find fresh outside of Florida, but are a key ingredient in the famed Key Lime Pie. With only three calories per tablespoon, lime juice is an excellent way to add a guilt-free dash of taste to dressings and marinades.

Citrus fruits are tantalizing whether eaten by themselves or used for cooking. While many of us are accustomed to cooking with oranges and lemons, limes can also be the star of some memorable dishes, and may be substituted for lemons.

Oranges are easiest to eat when cut into eighths and eaten directly from the rind, though some prefer to peel the fruit first—which can be a messy task! A simple way to remove the peel is to make four vertical cuts into the peel from top to bottom, taking care to not cut into the flesh of the fruit itself, and lift off the peel.

Grapefruit are not just for breakfast anymore. They are distinctive and tart enough to contrast with other citrus in salads and are an ideal companion to avocado topped with a vinaigrette dressing. Candied grapefruit peel can top a sorbet or be used on an after-dinner tray of sweets, Try sautéing sea scallops in butter until opaque, season with pepper, and serve garnished with juicy grapefruit sections.

Oranges, lemons, and limes lend themselves beautifully to many recipes and play a key role in heightening their companion flavors. Lime stands up particularly well to exotic flavors. Recipes often call for the zest of the fruit, and it’s well worth the minor effort to use the zest of fresh fruit rather than using their dehydrated counterparts. To zest a lemon, it is best to use a special lemon zester, which will remove just the zest—the colored outside of the peel—leaving behind the more-bitter white pith. You may use a vegetable peeler though taking care to remove the pith that is left behind.

Citrus also help preserve the color and texture of many cut fruit, such as apples, pears, peaches, and bananas, which tend to brown (oxidize) once they are cut as the enzyme polyphenol oxidase (also called tyrosinase) contained in the cells reacts with the oxygen in the air. While commercial ascorbic acid, derived from vitamin C, may be used to prevent this, using the citrus fruit or juice itself is a natural and delicious way to keep even apples from browning in a fruit salad.


Unlike many other fruits, the color of citrus makes much less difference when you are making your selections at the market. As long as you take care to select fruit that is firm and undamaged, the odds are great that your choice will be a rewarding one. Select citrus that feels firm and heavy for its size (other than tangerines, which will have a looser skin) and look for fruit without marks or dents on the peel. Most citrus, especially lemons and limes, are best when rather thin skinned (easier to find with limes than lemons) since those with thicker peels may be less juicy. The peels should be glossy and finely grained. Avoid limes with lots of brown markings. These fruit will not ripen further once off the tree.

Here are some general yield guidelines for citrus to help simplify your shopping:

1 medium grapefruit=2/3 cup juice or 3 to 4 tablespoons of grated peel
1 medium orange=1/3 cup juice or 4 teaspoons of grated peel
1 orange=1 serving of about 10 to 12 sections or 1/2 cup bite-sized pieces
1 grapefruit=2 servings

Citrus tends to keep well and is best consumed at room temperature or at a slightly cool temperature. Citrus should be stored in the refrigerator if it will be kept for longer than 10 days. If refrigerating, keep it is best kept in a plastic bag in the crisper section. The juice and grated peel may be refrigerated or frozen, but it is not recommended that whole citrus fruits be frozen.

Learn about Citrus for Juicing purposes