A lot of people understand that fresh oranges are best in the winter, but not many people understand that different varieties have particular seasons. You’ll have better luck coming home with good oranges if you learn which varieties are in season when—and keep a simple guideline in mind when you’re selecting them at the market. Oranges and all citrus fruit should be heavy in the hand for its size. This simple test is your most reliable guide for citrus fruit.
California navel oranges are considered by many to be the best oranges in the world for eating out of hand. They have a meaty flesh, their thick rinds are easy to peel, the segments separate easily, and they don’t have any seeds. All navel oranges have a navel at the blossom end—an opening with a convoluted interior that looks like a “belly button.” Some have a very small navel; others have a larger one. If you’re in doubt, inspect several in the bin. A quick poll will identify the variety. Originally planted in the 1930s on Sky Valley Ranch, Heirloom Navel Oranges gave California its reputation for having the best tasting citrus in the world. This rare variety gets its unique flavor from the perfect combination of climate, soil, sunshine, and special root stock. A true heirloom fruit, they taste like no other oranges on the market.
California navel oranges usually arrive around the second week of November and go through late spring. The earliest ones have less orange color and less sweetness. In February, March, and April, the peak months, California navels become very sweet. As summer approaches, look to other fruit varieties for the best quality.
Florida vs. California: What’s the difference?
While more commonly known, it’s not always safe to assume that a Florida orange is a Valencia juice orange and a California orange is a navel. Florida also grows navel oranges, which are on the market between late fall and the end of January. The Florida navel doesn’t have as much color as the California variety. They come in all sizes – from tennis-ball to softball size. The rind will be bronze to light orange, with a richer orange color later in the season. Florida navels are, of course, seedless, but they have a higher juice content and a thinner rind that’s not as easy to peel as that of the California navel.
Whatever the variety, look for oranges that are shiny and heavy in the hand. It’s a primary rule for a number of fruits, but it’s especially important for oranges. Check the scent – the orange should smell good. Except for Robinson tangerines, the rind should never feel puffy—that is, it shouldn’t feel like there’s any space between it and the flesh. There should be no spotting, no signs of shriveling, no white patches on the rind, and no fermented smell.
Tangerines are the most perishable of the oranges. They will keep a day or two at room temperature and up to a week in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Other oranges can be kept out at room temperature for three or four days with little problem. Refrigerate them in a plastic bag or in the crisper drawer, and they’ll keep well for one to two weeks.
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