I find few things more cheering than a bowl of brightly colored citrus set atop my kitchen counter, especially as the grey days of winter set in. Visually, the fruits’ pleasing pastel and jewel-toned hues are instantly uplifting – ditto for their heady floral aromas and sweet-tart flavors. Incorporating citrus into my cooking feels like a welcome ray of sunshine.
For this guide, I reached out to Dr. Tracy L. Kahn, curator and Givaudan Citrus Variety Collection endowed chair at the University of California, Riverside, to get the lowdown on the wonderful world of citrus. Many will be familiar, others possibly less so, but all are sure to get your creative juices flowing.
(If you want to truly be wowed, take a look at the collection's website, where you’ll find well over a thousand kinds!)
When you’re ready to head to the kitchen, I’ve also included tips for selecting perfectly ripe fruit, as well as storage tips, tools to use, and of course plenty of recipe ideas.
So, what are you waiting for? Get squeezing!
There are many different cultivars of oranges. The following handful are some of the most popular.
One of the most well-known, the easy-to-peel Washington Navel was first introduced to California in the late-19th century and helped to launch the state’s citrus industry. Navel oranges get their name from their belly button-like indentation on the skin.
How to use a navel orange: Though ideal for eating out of hand, Dr. Kahn notes that navels aren't good for juicing because they contain a compound (limonin), which can make the juice bitter as it sits. Instead, try tossing orange segments in a salad, like this one with roasted beets or this one with jicama and avocado.
If you want an orange for juicing, look to the sweet Valencia. It has a similar flavor profile as the navel, but its juice doesn’t turn bitter when stored. Smooth, thin-skinned, and full of juice, Valencias are slightly harder to peel than navels.
How to use a Valencia orange: The zest and juice of a Valencia orange would be nice in baked goods, like this sweet Orange Bread.
Cara Cara orange
The pink-fleshed Cara Cara orange is a type of navel orange. These have a sweet, almost berry-like flavor, but like other navel oranges, the juice can turn bitter as it’s stored.
How to use a Cara Cara orange: These colorful oranges would be stunning in this Moroccan Orange Dessert.
The pigment anthocyanin (also found in purple grapes) is what gives blood oranges their blush-red skin and dramatic red flesh. The Moro variety, thought to be of Sicilian ancestry, is the most common blood orange in the United States. Tarocco blood oranges, another popular variety, have less red pigmentation.
How to use a blood orange: The fruits’ raspberry-like flavor is fantastic juiced, or mixed in cocktails, like this Blood Orange French 75.
This is a sour orange with an intensely fragrant peel that’s deep orange in color and pebbled.
How to use a Seville orange: The fruit’s bitterness makes it especially good for making marmalade. Sevilles are also lovely in a refreshing orangeade or mocktail. Other bitter oranges include Bouquet de Fleurs and Bergamot, a key flavoring in Earl Grey tea.
Like oranges, there are also numerous cultivars of mandarins. Considered one of the original citrus fruits from which all others are descended, mandarins are fairly easy to peel, and relatively flat on the top and bottom. As the citrus matures, the core loosens, so it’s also easier to segment.
Mandarins can have a deep orange rind, though when grown in more tropical areas (like Florida) they can take on a greenish tint.
Commercially, groups of mandarins include satsumas and clementines.
How to use mandarins: Since they’re so easy to peel, mandarins and mandarin hybrids are excellent for snacking. When it comes to recipes, try using fresh-squeezed juice in a mimosa, or tossing pieces of fruit into this Winter Chicken Salad. The sweet juice would also be lovely as the base for a sorbet.
Rich in flavor, with a good sugar and acid balance, these are generally speaking the earliest maturing mandarin you’ll find in the market. The Owari satsuma, which has very few seeds, is the most common.
If you’ve ever bought a bag of Cuties, a trademarked brand of mandarin, at the market between November and January, you’ve enjoyed a clementine. (Cuties use a different kind of mandarin, the W. Murcott Afourers, between the months of February and April.)
Another popular trademarked brand, Halos, uses clementines and Murcotts, along with a third mandarin, the Tango, which was bred at U.C. Riverside.
The tangerine’s history is rather tangled. Tangerine is a nickname for a type of mandarin (Dancy), that is believed to have originated in the Moroccan port city of Tangiers in the mid-19th century. Today, notes Dr. Kahn, the word tangerine is often used interchangeably to refer to any mandarin.
This mandarin-grapefruit (or pomelo) hybrid can grow to about the size of an orange, sometimes even a grapefruit. The Minneola tangelo, one of the better-known varieties, is juicy, and has a rich, tart flavor. Its peel is also quite stubby at one end.
Here are a few of the most common (and one less common!) lemon and lime varieties.
Eureka and Lisbon lemons
Both of these lemon varieties have roughly the same appearance (bright yellow skin and light, yellow flesh, with tapered ends), as well as a highly acidic flavor. Lisbon lemons have overtaken Eurekas as the most commonly grown.
Variegated pink Eureka lemon
With its green and cream strips and pink flesh (caused by lycopene, also found in grapefruit), the variegated pink Eureka lemon has a bit more visual flare, though the flavor is roughly the same.
How to use Eureka and Lisbon lemons: Use the juice for making lemonade. Both juice and zest can flavor sweets and pastries, such as lemon curd and this lemon tart. The zest can also be used to infuse spirits, like in this limoncello.
A darling of the culinary world, Meyer lemons are a lemon-orange hybrid. Rounder than Lisbons or Eurekas, they also have a smoother and thinner rind, and a creamier yellow complexion. The flavor is sweeter and boasts a distinct floral fragrance.
How to use Meyer lemons: Try using them in this Meyer Lemon Marmalade or this preserved lemon recipe. The zest and juice also give a lively lift to savory dishes like pasta and risotto, as well as sweet.
There are two major groups of limes, small-fruited and large fruited. Aside from size differences, small-fruited limes are more intensely flavored and have seeds, whereas large-fruited are seedless and yield more juice.
Dr. Kahn points out that when limes are fully mature, they’re actually yellow in color, though they’re typically marketed and sold green to distinguish them from lemons.
These larger fruited Persian limes, shown above, are widely commercially available.
How to use Persian limes: Since they’re large and juicy, Persian limes are excellent for making limeade. For something harder, there’s the lime-forward gimlet cocktail, and of course, the margarita. They’re also aces in savory Mexican and Latin American-inspired dishes, like this Cilantro-Lime Shrimp or this watermelon and jicama salad. Same goes for using them in Southeast Asian dishes, such as pad thai and pho.
These small-fruited limes, about the size of a golf ball, are tart and fragrant with a thinner rind and seeds. Key limes can be hard to find in stores, though I’ve occasionally spotted them at my local farmers’ market. You can also order fresh fruit and bottled key lime juice online.
How to use Key limes: The zest and juice can be used in a variety of dishes, but perhaps the best known is the classic key lime pie.
As for this pucker-powered citrus group, pink and red grapefruits, which get their deep, rosy hue from lycopene (the same thing makes tomatoes red) are grown more than white varieties.
Most white grapefruits that are grown aren’t actually widely commercially available.
How to use grapefruit: Go retro with classic recipes like Broiled Grapefruit or Grapefruit Avocado Salad. For a cocktail, try a Salty Dog. Grapefruit’s bitter rind is also great for making homemade Campari.
Some of the more common cultivars are the Star Ruby (smooth yellow rind and deep rosy flesh; sweet-tart flavor) and Rio Red (pink blush to the rind, pink flesh that’s juicy and sweet).
What most people think of as a white grapefruit is actually a grapefruit-pomelo hybrid known as Oro Blanco, which was developed at UCR. It’s seedless with a greenish-yellow skin and thick rind. The flesh is pale yellow and has a mild flavor that’s mellow and sweet.
Speaking of pomelos, like the mandarin, this is another original citrus. It’s also huge, growing as large (and sometimes larger) than a person’s head. It has a thick rind that’s yellow with a greenish tinge. The flesh, which can be pink or white, is meaty. Both the rind and flesh are quite bitter.
How to use a pomelo: Use as you would any other citrus – juiced, toss the fruit in salads, candy the peels, and so on.
Yet another original species, the kumquat has a peel that’s sweet, not the flesh. The most common kumquat is called Nagami and has an elongated shape and seeds. There’s also a seedless variety called Nordmann Seedless. Kumquats symbolize prosperity in Chinese culture, and small kumquat trees are often displayed during Lunar New Year celebrations.
Other Types of Citrus
The following wonderful citrus fruits may not be as easily accessible at your local grocery store, depending on where you live, but they are certainly worth seeking out if you have the opportunity!
This fantastical looking fruit looks like a many-fingered lemon, but it’s actually a type of citron that can often be found at farmers’ markets and Asian groceries. In Chinese culture, it symbolizes happiness and long life.
How to use a Buddha's hand: Next time you make creme brulee, try adding some of the zest to the cream along with the vanilla bean!
This microcitrus is native to Australia, but over the past few years has been popping up in farmers’ markets and specialty stores here in the U.S. Roughly the shape and length of a finger (about 3 inches or so), the skin comes in a variety of colors, ranging from light green to dark, blackish purple. As for the interior flesh, it’s composed of tiny, crunchy, bubbles that look like caviar.
How to use finger limes: The bubbles are incredibly tart when they burst in your mouth. Squeeze out the bubbles as you would a tube of toothpaste, and use them as a garnish for cocktails, appetizers, and sushi. I’ve even folded the bubble-like flesh into homemade aioli for a tart and unexpected twist.
This highly aromatic Southeast Asian lime is quite wrinkled-looking. The skin of the highly acidic fruit turns from green to yellow, but it's mainly the leaves that are used in culinary applications.
Thought to be a hybrid of a satsuma mandarin and pepeda (a group of citrus native to tropical Asia), yuzu is popular in Japanese and Asian cooking. Fresh yuzu, which has a rough, pitted rind, can sometimes be found at farmers’ markets, as well as online.
How to use yuzu: With its unique floral aroma and tart flavor, yuzu is a key ingredient in ponzu sauce. It can also be used to make candies and medicinal teas. If you can’t get your hands on the actual fruit, Japanese grocers sell the juice by the bottle.
Also known as calamandon, this is an ancient kumquat-mandarin hybrid. The fruit is small, about the size of a golf ball-size. When grown in the Philippines, it has a green tinge to the peel; here in the U.S., it will be bright orange when fully mature.
How to use calamansi: Calamansi has a very acidic, mandarin-like flavor, and is used in Filipino dishes, like adobo. Calamansi juice also makes for a refreshing limeade-like cooler.
How to Shop for Citrus
Whether you're shopping at the farmers’ market or browsing your grocer’s produce section, look for citrus where the rind looks fresh and fairly smooth. While small wrinkles may be a natural part of a certain citrus variety’s appearance (like Makrut limes), Dr. Kahn says that big wrinkles can be a sign of over-maturity or dryness, especially around the stem area.
The best way to ensure you’re getting your hands on fresh, just-picked citrus? Buy from your local farmers’ market. You’re also more likely to happen across more interesting and uncommon varieties.
Citrus Prep Tools
- A microplane makes handy work of zesting
- A channel knife and/or paring knife are great for making cocktail garnishes
- A well-sharpened chef’s knife make peeling and segmenting citrus flesh a breeze
- A hand juicer, like this one from Chef’n or a bar-style citrus press, will build up your muscles
How to Store Citrus
I go through citrus fairly quickly, so I like to store it in a wide, fairly flat bowl or platter on my counter. (If I have a ton of fruit, I’ll bust out a rimmed baking sheet.) You want the citrus to be spread out so there’s good airflow. I’ve learned from experience that a tightly-packed bowl of citrus is likely to develop mold more quickly.
If the citrus is hanging around for more than a few days, toss them in the crisper drawer of your fridge. For longer storage, both citrus juice and zest can be frozen. (Freeze the juice in smaller amounts using ice cube trays, similar to this method for freezing chicken broth, so you can add the juice in small amounts to your favorite dishes.)
The main thing is to not let the fruit sit around and languish. A squeeze of juice here, a sprinkle of zest there – the most important thing to do with your citrus is use them up!