Clementines are small oranges that are seedless, easy to peel, and—when well grown and ripe—perfectly sweet to eat, too. They are grown on a hybrid variety of mandarin citrus trees that originated in either China or Algeria. Most clementines are grown in China, though Spain, Morocco, and California are famous for growing them as well. They're a favorite citrus snack for winter, and most often eaten raw as is or on top of salads and desserts. Well known by the kid-friendly names "Cuties" and "Sweeties," not only are clementines easy to eat, but they are also fundamentally cheery little fruits.
What Are Clementines?
Clementines are a type of mandarin orange. They're a hybrid of mandarin and sweet orange and very similar to other mandarins like tangerines, satsumas, and Ojai Pixies. Clementines are among the smallest orange varieties, almost perfectly round, and typically seedless. Add to that their honey-sweet taste and a thin skin that makes them easy to peel and separate into segments, and you have the perfect snack for children. It's no wonder that they're most often marketed in the U.S. as "Cuties" or "Sweeties" ("Halo" and "Darling" are other commercial names). Clementines are typically inexpensive.
Clementines have long been enjoyed in Europe, too. Their winter arrival at markets—most often from Spain or Morocco—is heralded with high spirits and good cheer. It's a tradition to buy and eat these bright, sunny fruits and let their sweet, floral aroma fill the house. They're also a common edible Christmas gift or centerpiece. Though Spain and Morocco still grow scads of clementines, most are now grown in China. There are substantial groves in California and Texas as well.
How to Use Clementines
The peel of a clementine almost slips right off. Very little, if any, of the pith clings to the fruit, and the membrane surrounding each section is delicate enough to be almost unnoticeable. Seeds are few and far between—many are even completely seedless.
You'll find these fruits to be fabulously portable and a sweet, refreshing snack in the middle of the day. Pack them in lunches or stick one in your purse or jacket pocket before heading out, and it will be ready whenever you need a quick bite. The segmented fruit can also be added to salads and desserts, sliced up and spritzed with lemon juice and sprinkled with mint, or used in the many ways you might use larger oranges. The fruit adds brightness to cakes, sweet bread, and other desserts as well as poultry marinades and glazes. Clementines are not particularly juicy—it would take a lot of them to yield a significant amount of juice—so they are best used as whole segments.
What Do They Taste Like?
Clementines are noticeably sweeter than most other varieties of oranges. There's almost no bitterness or sour flavor, which adds to their appeal.
If you tire of just peeling and eating clementines out of hand, there are many great uses for them in the kitchen. Use them as a substitute for other oranges or add clementine sections to tossed or fruit salads. They're even a delicious treat when dipped into yogurt or melted chocolate.
Where to Buy Clementines
It's easy to find clementines in most markets; just look for the small, almost perfectly round oranges. They're not expensive and are sold in small crates, boxes, or bags, especially around Christmastime. The citrus fruit's association with the holiday season is a reasonable one as they are in season from late November through January. Though clementines are generally a winter fruit, their popularity has led them to be available year-round. You might notice them labeled as "Summer Cuties" during the warmer months, which indicates that the fruit was grown in the Southern Hemisphere. Clementines can be grown at home—planted outside in warm climates (zones 9 to 11) or in indoor containers in cold regions—and it's easy to start the plant from seeds. The fruit yield will be minimal for potted trees, and you may need to hand-pollinate the flowers.
Select clementines with a shiny, uniformly colored skin that is bright orange and blemish free. The fruit should be soft and bounce back when gently squeezed, and the skin should be fragrant. Avoid any that are too firm or seem too lightweight for their size.
Store clementines in a cool place but don't refrigerate them. As with all citrus, don't store clementines in plastic, either. It will make them sweat and spoil much quicker than they would when just left out to breathe in a bowl on the table. Clementines last for several weeks after they're picked as long as they are kept relatively cool and out of too much direct sunlight.
Clementines vs. Satsumas
Clementines and satsumas are two very closely related orange varieties. The clementines are more popular in the U.S. and the satsumas in the U.K. Not quite as sweet or fragrant, satsumas have slightly thicker skin, are not as round, and are available a little earlier in the year. Quite often, you'll find satsumas with a couple of leaves attached.