Oranges 101: Learn to cook this bright fruit prized by the ancient nobility

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Did you know oranges peak in the winter season? The cold months are the best time to enjoy a glass of orange juice and prepare a citrus salad to bring a burst of sunshine to your rainy—or in the case of Boulder—snowy day. 

Different types of oranges cut open on a blue backgroundPin

Oranges come from the region surrounding Southern China, Northeast India, and Myanmar. Since the first mention of sweet oranges in Chinese literature in the 4th century, oranges have been a massive hit. 

French King Louis XIV built the famous Versailles Orangerie to display vibrant orange trees year round with the scent of orange blossoms gracing his court. 

The symbol of oranges and mandarins represent gold and good fortune in Chinese culture (they’re gifted during Chinese New Year). They’re prized by the nobility and the rich throughout European history (Alex’s Czech grandpa received an orange for Christmas every year).

These days, orange trees are the most commonly grown commercial fruit tree. Oranges are abundant and easy to find. There’s dozens of ways to drink the juice and cook the fruit. Let’s find out how in this article. 

What are oranges?

Oranges are a hybrid between the pomelo and mandarin. The main kinds of oranges are the common/round oranges, blood/pigmented oranges, navel oranges, acidless oranges, and hybrids.

Round oranges are the best type of oranges for juicing. They’re plumper, juicier, and pulpier than navel oranges. The latter are better suited to eating fresh.

Different types of oranges

Shopping at my local grocery store, these are the different kinds of oranges I found: 

  • Navel: Navel oranges have a little secondary orange growing at the apex, which looks like a belly button. They’re ideal for eating fresh and adding to fruit salads or desserts as a topping.
  • Cara cara navel: This variation on the traditional navel orange has a pinkish red-orange flesh. Its sweeter flavor profile makes it a great addition to green salads and oatmeal. 
  • Blood: This orange has a deep burgundy hue with a distinct flavor. Because of its dark red color, it’s often used in desserts and drinks, like sorbets, cocktails, and lemonade. I find it can taste bitter so I like to mix in sweeter fruits to accompany it.
  • Tangelo: A citrus hybrid, the tangelo is usually a mix of a mandarin orange or tangerine with pomelo or grapefruit (tangerine + pomelo = tangelo). I like them because they’re juicy, easier to peel than an orange, and bigger than a mandarin if I’m looking for a larger snack. 
  • Mandarin orange: Mandarins are one of the original citrus species that are mixed with other fruits like the citron and pomelo to make new fruits, such as the sweet orange, grapefruits, and lemons. Mandarins tend to be smaller and squatter than the spherical oranges with easy-to-peel skin. They’re a great snack when enjoyed fresh or can be added to salads and desserts. Mandarins are often cut and preserved in syrup.
  • Suma: This Japanese variety of mandarins is sweet and seedless with knobby loose skin that’s easy to peel. Like tangelos, it can have a “nipple” at the stem.
7 different varieties of oranges compared side-by-sidePin

TIP: Check out this long list of different varieties of sweet oranges.

How to prep oranges

Wash the oranges in clean, running water, making sure to rub them to remove dirt and debris, according to the FDA. It’s important to wash oranges even if you’re peeling them to make sure you don’t introduce germs from the outer skin into the clean flesh. 

How to cut oranges

Here are the most common ways I cut oranges to prepare them for cooking or juicing. 

Different cuts for oranges compared side-by-sidePin
  • Wedges: Great size for eating raw oranges as a snack. Peeled wedges of oranges are great to serve with roasted chicken or duck.
  • Diced: Diced orange flesh is an ideal size for adding to fruit salads and green salads. Diced oranges can also be used to make jams and marmalades.
  • Sliced: Sliced oranges can be used for grilling, roasting, or stewing meat. You can add sliced oranges to desserts and baked goods like upside-down orange cake, leafy salads, or cook them lightly to make a citrus salad. 
  • Twisted slices: An ideal garnish for fruity drinks and cocktails. 
  • Sliced rind: Add julienned orange rind to your baked desserts, oatmeal, or smoothie. The oils in the peel add a zesty and deep flavor to dairy, such as yogurt, ricotta, and crème fraîche. Thickly sliced orange rind is the starting point for candied orange peel. 
  • Grated zest: Grated zest is a great addition to fruit cake, crêpes (think Crêpes Suzettes). You can also add it as an aromatic to savory dishes, including in pork chops, marinades for beef, chicken, and lamb, or include it in your fruit preserves.
  • Juiced: Orange juice has endless uses for drinks, marinades, sauces, salad dressing, and stews. 

NOTE: Check out this list of different ways to cut lemons for more inspiration on how to cut up oranges. 

How to enjoy oranges raw

The most common way I use oranges is to eat the flesh raw. It’s a great snack, dessert, and topping for other sweets and salads. When eating alone, I slice my oranges into wedges. Alex enjoys his oranges peeled. 

How to cook with oranges

There are numerous ways to cook oranges, including:

  • Baked in desserts: Olive oil orange cake, holiday fruit cake, cranberry orange muffins, orange yogurt cake, Sicilian orange cake, etc. 
  • Sauces: Orange sauce (for the infamous orange chicken), orange butter sauce for desserts, orange-balsamic vinaigrette, orange cranberry sauce (for turkey). 
  • Roasted in savory dishes: Duck à l’orange (canard à l’orange in French), zesty orange carrots, orange glazed chicken wings, charred chicken roasted with orange, roasted ham with a honey-orange glaze. 
  • Jams and preserves: Marmalade, candied orange peel, citrus relish, dark chocolate truffles with orange zest, and more.

Oranges work well with…

  • Fruits: Berries, apples, avocado, citrus (lemons, limes, grapefruit, pomelos), pomegranates, cranberries, olives (and olive oil) 
  • Leafy greens: Butter lettuce, romaine lettuce, kale, cabbage, arugula/rocket, spinach, radicchio, endive, sprouts
  • Root vegetables: Carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets, radishes
  • Spices/aromatics: Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, star anise, ginger, fennel, vanilla, peppercorns, chili peppers, mustard
  • Herbs: Rosemary, tarragon, mint, thyme, sage 
  • Cream and dairy: Cream, crème fraîche, ricotta, mascarpone, cream cheese, mozzarella, burrata (with salad), feta, goat cheese
  • Protein/Meat: Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, goose), pork, beef, lamb, venison
  • Fish: Salmon, cod, turbot, shrimp (citrus ceviche?) 
  • Nuts & seeds: Orange-glazed pecans, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, toasted pumpkin seeds
  • Chocolate!
  • Soy sauce: Marinades, glazes, stir-fry sauces
  • Wine: Mulled wine, sangria, red wine sauces

Recipes with oranges

Holiday fruitcake
My holiday fruitcake recipe that doesn’t suck! It contains a mix of dried fruits and nuts with aromatic lemon and orange zest.
Get the Recipe
Holiday fruitcake with sliced fruitcake on a white plate with a red ribbon
Holiday fruitcake
My holiday fruitcake recipe that doesn’t suck! It contains a mix of dried fruits and nuts with aromatic lemon and orange zest.
Get the Recipe
Holiday fruitcake with sliced fruitcake on a white plate with a red ribbon

How to substitute oranges

Other citrus fruits are the best substitute for oranges. You can use lemons, limes, grapefruit (especially to substitute blood orange), and pomelos that call for citrus flavor or orange zest.

Use other fruits to substitute oranges if the orange flavor is not important. You can try apples, strawberries, peaches, and melons to substitute oranges in a fruit salad or as a topping. 

If you need the acid from oranges, substitute with a fruity vinegar or wine.

Where to buy oranges

You can buy oranges at the grocery store and at farmers markets. Orange juice is usually readily available at most restaurants, hotels, theme parks, and other travel/hospitality locations. 

Are oranges seasonal?

Winter is the peak season for citrus. Oranges will taste best (and be cheapest) during the months of November to March.

According to this academic article, oranges harvested later in the season may taste better. 

Because of the importance of the commercial orange industry, growers in Florida, California, and Texas (these 3 states that grow the majority of U.S. oranges) stagger their growing and use different varieties of oranges to supply foodies with fresh oranges all-year round. 

How to pick oranges

Choose firm oranges that feel heavy for their size (they contain more juice). Choose oranges with thin, low-texture, unblemished skins.

If there are scars or scabs, that’s OK. The skin should be a bright, saturated orange with a satiny feel (the color is named after the fruit!). 

Avoid oranges with soft or brown spots or dried and shriveled skin. Unless it’s a mandarin, the peel should not feel loose.

Different types of orange slices cut open layered on top of each otherPin

How to store oranges

For the longest storage, pop the oranges in the crisper drawer of your fridge or store them in an open plastic bag in the fridge. They can last about 1 month in the fridge whereas they might last 1-2 weeks at room temperature on the counter.

NOTE: Oranges release the most juice and taste best at room temperature. Move them from the fridge at least 6 hours before you plan to eat the orange to bring it to room temperature

Similar to lemons, you can store extra orange juice in ice cube trays and orange wedges and zest in freezer-friendly containers to freeze for later use. Add orange juice to other fruit juices with the pulp to make orange popsicles. 

TIP: The volatile chemicals in the orange peel lose potency when frozen. For maximize the aromatic flavors, it’s best to grate or zest the orange peel just before cooking rather than freezing it. 

Fun things to do with oranges

You can dry sliced oranges to transform them into beautiful decorations, Christmas ornaments, and pendants for necklaces. Check out this article for ideas on how to decorate your home with orange slices.

FAQ about oranges

What’s the difference between mandarins, tangerines, clementines? 

Mandarins are one of the original citrus species and has been mixed with pomelos to create the sweet oranges we know and love today. Shorter, stouter, and flatter on the stem and bottom sides, mandarins can be sold under trademarked names, including Cuties and Halos, which are varieties of easy-to-peel mandarins.  

Tangerines are a mix between a mandarin and pomelo to create a citrus fruit that is slightly smaller than the common orange. Tangerines tend to be sweeter and easier to peel than oranges. I find it hard to distinguish between mandarins and tangerines.

Clementines are a more recent citrus fruit that is a hybrid between a mandarin and a sweet orange. They’re sweeter than oranges, typically larger than mandarins, and are also easy to peel. 

What can you make with a lot of oranges?

Here are ideas for using up a lot of oranges: 

  • Drinks: Orange juice, mimosa, sangria, mulled wine, fruit punch, orange lemonade, smoothies, and cocktails.
  • Desserts: Orange sorbet, orange ice cream, caramel sauce over sliced oranges, citrus salad, fruit salad, orange juice popsicles, orange cakes!
  • Cut them up and eat them straight! 
Holiday fruitcake with sliced fruitcake on a white plate with a red ribbonPin

READ NEXT: The Magic Bullet to Making Your Food Instantly Taste Better

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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