A Complete Guide to Citrus Fruits

Add Some Zest to Your Next Meal

Variety of citrus fruits on marble surface
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Citrus fruits are a culinary contradiction. From the moment you slice one open, you take care to dodge its sour juices (which always seem directly aimed at your eyeballs) and yet, ironically, its acidity is exactly what you seek. While grown in the spring and summer, these brilliant and fragrant fruits are harvested during the winter, when the produce landscape appears drab and dormant. And when you peel its skin, its perfectly plump segments belie the punch and complexity it adds to your dishes. Citrus fruits do some heavy hauling for three of the five main flavors: bitter, sweet, and sour. This article will help you make the most out of this citrus fruit season, from introducing you to both common and rare varieties, to helping you pluck the best ones from the pile at your market, to providing you with classic and creative recipes.

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A ripe grapefruit is a true delight, imparting a sweet, sour, and bitter flavor all at once—it certainly takes this fennel and arugula salad to the next level, if you ask us. When at the market, choose fruit that is round, save for their ends, which should be slightly blunted. When you pick one up, it should feel smooth and heavy, which indicates how juicy it is (you’ll want all that you can get for this reinvented whiskey sour).  

Fingered Citron
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Buddha’s Hand 

The Buddha’s hand, or the fingered citron, is a quirky citrus fruit indeed, but every family needs its black sheep, doesn’t it? As it ripens, its fingers open. But unlike other citrus fruits, it’s all zest and no flesh, so use it in place of lemon or orange zest in recipes for both fragrance and flavor. 

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Kumquats wear their flavor inside out, sporting sweet skin and tart flesh. Because their peel is edible, you’ll want to select those that are firm, shiny, and smooth. Kumquats aren’t always easily found in stores, so your best bet may be to peruse an Asian market or a specialty store during their season, from November to March. When you do successfully nab some, make preserved kumquats and add them to just about everything. 

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Lemons are seriously sour, so they’re excellent for intensifying the flavor in recipes, whether it’s for an aviation cocktail or lemon beurre blanc sauce. The best lemons are those that feel heavy in your hands and don a smooth, bright peel. Lemons are commonly found, but that doesn’t make them humdrum! Be sure to explore how different cuisines use them, from the preserved lemons in this Moroccan beef tagine to the fresh lemon juice in this Italian veal scallopini

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Limes stand out for their simultaneously acidic and bitter flavor, so they are perfect when brightening the coconut cream in this laksa noodle soup and balancing the salty kick on this Mexican street corn. Limes are naturally more fibrous than many citrus fruits, so get their juices flowing by rolling them on your cutting board before you cut them.

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With their hulking size (over two pounds on average, to be exact) and their thick pith, pomelos may seem like some new hybrid fruit, but they’re actually one of the oldest citrus species. Their flavor is likened to a mellow grapefruit, and their flesh can range from pale yellow to coral red. The color of their skin isn’t always indicative of their ripeness, so rely on your nose to sniff out those that are the most fragrant, instead. Preparing a pomelo can be an undertaking, so brush up on the process before using it in a Vietnamese pomelo and shrimp salad or folding it into an acai breakfast bowl

Fresh squeeze orange juice
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The oranges we see in the supermarket are typically either navel or Valencia varieties, known for their juicy-sweetness. Valencias have a thin skin and are the go-to orange for juicing and using in cocktails and sauces. Navel oranges are wrapped in thicker skin, but one that is surprisingly easy to peel so they’re great for snacking on or for turning into a marmalade

Blood orange
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Blood Orange

Their name suggests squeamish things, but their appearance implies lusciously glazed cakes and carmine-colored sangria. The blood orange is a mild and sweet citrus, renowned for its beautiful red flesh. They get their signature hue from anthocyanins, the same polyphenol pigments that lend beets and blueberries their hue. Blood oranges aren’t always available, but keep your eyes peeled at your farmers market or specialty store from November to April for your best chances. 

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This funky looking fruit is characterized by a nub on its top. They're a hybrid between a grapefruit and a tangerine, and when you take a bite, you'll experience an immediate burst of sweetness, followed by tartness. Tangelos are seedless and their skins are easily peeled, making them great substitutes for oranges or tangerines when you're short on time.

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The calamansi is often used in Filipino and Malaysian cuisine, imparting a flavor that's a touch sweeter than a lime. The dazzling contrast between its peel and flesh makes it a lovely garnish, but it's of course equally dazzling as a substitute for lime in this Malaysian grilled fish.

Meyer Lemon
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Meyer Lemon

Meyer lemons are distinct from the more commonly found Eureka or Lisbon lemons for several reasons. They're smaller and smoother than their cousins, which made them a choice ornamental tree in its native China. They're also typically juicier and less sour, so they won't overpower the other flavors in your dish. Try them in this Greek olive oil and lemon sauce or make this Meyer lemon cake, where their thin, delicate rind is perfect for serving as an edible garnish.

Key Lime
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Key Lime

Key limes are small but mighty, packing a more sour and bitter punch than Persian limes. They also contain more seeds, but any extra effort spent removing them will be well worth it. Try them in key lime bars, which calls for sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks to mellow their flavor for a sweet and fragrant treat.