We live in the era of the supermarket. We can go to the store anytime of year and always find certain products. Citrus is one of those things. It's not hard to find oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and limes anytime of the year. But really there is only a select time of year when you will find these things at their best - the winter. Colder weather brings us some of the most colorful treats that you will find growing from a tree. Even then you can end up with some rather lackluster fruit. I am not going to promise that you will never have bad citrus again, but if you follow my tips, you will be enjoying better citrus.
Knowing the Varieties
Orange is not just an orange. A lemon is not just a lemon. The world of citrus is full of unique and fun varieties. Everyone has probably had a Naval orange. But what about a Cara Cara or a Heirloom naval? I have found that a good Cara Cara or Heirloom is more flavorful that the best standard Naval. If you see those names, take a chance on them, skip the regular Naval for that week, it will still be there next week.
In recent years, the Clementine mandarin has become extremely popular. Every grocery store is carrying boxes of them now a days. Clementines can be tasty, but I prefer the taste of a Satsuma, Page, Shasta Gold, and Pixie. If you can find a store that carries any of these, give them a try. All of are easy to peel as Clementines and they each possess a unique flavor of their own. It's also important to know that mandarins varieties peak at different times. Clementines and Satsumas are best in December/January, Page is January/February, Shasta Gold in March, and Pixies in April (and even in May some years).
People don't often concern themselves with lemon varieties. Really almost all the lemons you are going to come across are going to be similar. The Libson and Eureka are the top leading varieties and they can't be a challenge for even a grower to tell apart. Now there is a variety that is starting to stand out in the marketplace, the Meyer lemon. This lemon is sweeter than the lemon you are use to. It has a remarkable flavor that you just have to try. These lemons do come with a higher price tag, but it will be worth it.
Look at the Stickers
Don't just look at the sign that tells you that these are blood oranges or naval oranges. Look at the sticker on the fruit. You can even save your stickers on a piece of paper on the fridge with a little ranking next to them. I have learned through trial and error which growers to watch out for. If I see a ripetoyou.com sticker, then I am more likely to buy that piece of fruit, because I know they focus on picking their fruit at it's peak and my taste buds can testify to that. On the other end of the spectrum there is Sunkist. I can't remember ever buying an orange with a Sunkist label and thinking of this is the best orange I ever ate. I find that with produce, a name that is widely recognized doesn't often mean that the said produce is going to be the top of line. These are just my general rules. There is alot of factors at work, when it comes to quality fruit. But if I can't have a free sample, then I just follow my rules.
Avoid Bagged Citrus
Whenever you can, try to buy your citrus by the pound instead of by the bag. In general companies seem to save the best and often biggest stuff for by the pound sales. Also it can be hard to spot everything in a bag, so you might end up with some subpar fruit. Just today I was looking at bags of apples and noticed that there was a bruised apple in almost all the bags (which is not necessarily the growers' fault). That doesn't mean you should avoid bags always. Meyer lemons are almost always found in bags because they are more fragile than the standard lemon. Also last year, my favorite blood oranges I can only find sold in bags. The quality of those oranges did vary quite a bit.
Buy Directly from the Farmer
If you have the means, by all means, buy directly from the farmer. When I was in California in February 2011, I had a wonderful time tasting all sorts of fresh, juicy fruit. There are also a lot of great places to shop online (Ripe to You and the Orange Shop are two great examples).
Hopefully with these tips at your disposal you can enjoy the best citrus season your tongue has ever tasted. Please feel free to share your citrus experiences from this year, I would love to hearing about what you have been eating.