Mandarin oranges, sometimes simply called mandarins, are some of the sweetest fruits of the orange family. They're slightly smaller relatives of the standard orange. Native to Asia, China is the world's biggest producer. In the United States, mandarins are mostly grown in California, where citrus trees thrive in the warm sunshine. While mandarins are commonly eaten as snacks because they're easy to peel (some are virtually seedless), they're a popular citrus ingredient for desserts, seafood appetizers, and savory recipes, as well as adult beverages.
What Are Mandarin Oranges?
"Mandarin" orange is a term that applies to an entire group of citrus fruits. This group, botanically classified as Citrus reticulata, includes varieties such as clementine, Dancy, honey, pixie, satsuma, and tangerines in general. Their commonalities include a smaller size, a bright orange, thin, easy-to-peel skin, and a sweet taste.
With so many different varieties of mandarins and growing locations, they can be found in grocery stores year-round and are typically sold in 5-pound wooden crates or 2- to 3-pound mesh bags. They're heavily marketed during the winter months when growers in California are harvesting and shipping their fresh crops, and when many other fruits are no longer in season.
How to Cook With and Use Mandarin Oranges
Mandarin oranges can easily be peeled and separated into segments. Beyond enjoying them as a healthy snack, the segments can also be used on top of salads or as the base for desserts. They're also very juicy. The juice is often used in salad dressings and sauces for vegetable and meat dishes, as well as in desserts.
Mandarins are commonly canned and preserved in a light sugar syrup. This is an easy way to incorporate the sweet taste into food, and many recipes actually call for canned mandarin. Canning mandarins in syrup at home is another option and a great way to preserve the fruit when they go on sale.
What Do Mandarin Oranges Taste Like?
Most mandarins are sweeter and less acidic than their citrus cousins. There are some tart varieties, though even these are not as sour as Seville oranges or kumquats.
Mandarin Orange Recipes
Mandarins are a good choice for any recipe that doesn't specify a type of orange. Keeping their sweetness in mind, you may want to reserve them for foods that are already sweet or those that could use a hint of sweetness. They're perfect for baked goods, desserts, and vinaigrettes.
Where to Buy Mandarin Oranges
Mandarins are considered a winter fruit in the U.S. and easy to find at grocery stores and supermarkets. Each variety has a slightly different season, though the best mandarin selection is typically available from November through April. While you can buy individual fruits, their smaller size means mandarins are often sold by the pound in bulk packaging. Select unblemished fruits that seem heavier than they look.
You'll want to store mandarins like other citrus fruits. Mandarins will keep well for two to four weeks in a bag in a cool dark place like a refrigerator. However, they'll last about a week in a fruit bowl at room temperature.
Nutrition and Benefits
Nutritionally, all varieties of mandarins are similar. A mandarin has about 50 calories, 2 grams of fiber, the equivalent of 2 teaspoons of sugar, and a whole day's worth of vitamin C. Mandarins are valuable sources of flavonoid antioxidants like naringenin, naringin, hesperetin, vitamin A, carotenes, xanthins, and lutein.
Mandarin Orange vs. Tangerine
The terms "mandarin orange" and "tangerine" are often used interchangeably, particularly outside of the United States. This can be confusing because although a tangerine is a mandarin orange, not all mandarin oranges are tangerines. The first mandarin oranges exported to Europe were shipped from the city of Tangiers in Morocco, hence the moniker "tangerines." Tangerines are the most common variety of fresh mandarin orange found in the U.S., and they tend to have darker skin.
The mandarin is an easy citrus to cross with other oranges, and as a result, there are now about 200 mandarin varieties, both seeded and seedless. Botanically speaking, mandarin tree cultivars fall into three classes: mandarin, tangerine, and satsuma.
The most popular and common varieties are tangerines, which have a long season that stretches from November through May. Satsuma (or emerald tangerine) is a seedless Japanese variety of tangerine with very loose and easily bruised skin. The clementine (or Algerian tangerine) is among the smallest mandarins (kishus are smaller). Also called "cuties," clementines are very popular in the U.S. because they're seedless and tiny—perfect for a child's fruit snack.
Other seeded mandarin varieties include the dark orange (almost red) Dancy tangerine, the sweet and juicy (and very seedy) honey tangerine, and the sweet-tart kara. For seedless varieties, you might enjoy the mildly sweet pixie.