Did you know that oranges aren't named for their color? "Orange" actually comes from the Sanskrit "naranga," or "fragrant."
Orange trees can be found as far north as Iceland, but the sweetest fruit is grown closest to the equator. Brazil is the world leader in orange (and total citrus) production, followed by the United States, Mexico, India, China, Spain, Italy, Iran, Egypt and Pakistan. Florida is second only to Brazil in orange production, growing three times more oranges than California. Texas and Arizona are other U.S. orange-producing states.
The orange is a type of berry (hesperidia), an ancient hybrid, possibly between the pomelo and the tangerine. It grows on an evergreen with fragrant white flowers. While one evergreen can produce as many as 60,000 flowers, only one percent of them will turn into fruit.
Oranges originated in ancient Asia, and from there they spread to India. The Moors, Italian traders and explorers, and the Portuguese introduced sweet oranges into Europe around the 15th century, while orange trees were grown in the Caribbean after Columbus brought seeds there. Spanish explorers brought oranges to Florida in the 16th century, and Spanish missionaries delivered them to California in the 18th century.
Oranges are renowned for their vitamin C content. In fact, just one orange supplies more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin C requirement. Oranges are also a very good source of vitamin A, folate, potassium and manganese and a good source of dietary fiber, thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, iron, phosphorus and copper. They also contain phytonutrients and flavanones.
There are more than 600 varieties of oranges, falling into two main types: one sweet, the other bitter. Predictably, the sweet is more popular. Sweet and bitter oranges come from two different species.
Sweet varieties include the Valencia, navel and blood orange. Thin-skinned and seedless, Valencia oranges are the world's most important commercial variety. Navel oranges are seedless and oval, with thick, easy-to-remove peels and segments that separate easily. The name comes from the second fruit at the end of the orange; it looks like a belly button. Washingtons are the most prominent navel variety. Cara cara oranges are a honey sweet navel with rosy colored flesh.
The mandarin—a small orange with loose skin—is also considered a sweet orange. Clementines are a seedless mandarin.
Bitter orange varieties include the Seville, often used for marmalade, and the bergamot orange. Grown mostly for its essential oil, bergamot is used in cosmetics, toiletries and as a tea flavoring. There are also some oriental citrus, such as Naruto, Kitchli and Nanshodaidai, that are considered bitter oranges.
Arguably, there may be no better way to eat an orange than out of hand, but there is no shortage of possibilities. When it comes to juicing, don't stop at plain OJ, great as fresh-squeezed is. This Pumpkin Orange Smoothie, for example, blends navel oranges with pumpkin puree for a beautiful, cinnamony treat. (About 85 percent of all oranges produced are made into juice, by the way.)
Oranges add color and sweetness to jams, marmalades and salads. This stunning Cara Cara and Blood Orange Salad features colorful oranges drizzled with a flavorful dressing. And this Quinoa Salad with Oranges, Beets & Pomegranate partners the tang of oranges with roasted vegetables, sweet fruit and red quinoa. Another dazzling dish!
To add flavorful interest to your next Cranberry Relish—and why wait for Thanksgiving?—include mandarin oranges, crushed pineapple and Granny Smith apples. Orange marmalade or relish provides a sweet topping for a savory dish, too, as in this Marmalade Chicken, which can be served as is or used for stir-fries, chicken satay or "chicken fingers."
In addition to including orange segments and orange juice in recipes, the zest is used in liqueurs such as Grand Marnier and Cointreau. To sweeten your next glass of grapefruit juice, try squeezing a little clementine juice into it.
The peak seasons for oranges in the U.S. depend on the variety, but you'll generally find a good selection from November through April or May.
Choose oranges that are firm and heavy for their size. These will have higher juice content than lighter, spongy oranges. Avoid soft spots and traces of mold. Keep in mind that oranges don't have to be bright orange to be good. Smaller oranges are usually juicier than larger ones, and those with thinner skins are usually juicier than thick-skinned.
Select navel oranges with small-sized navels; larger navels indicate the orange was overripe when harvested. When choosing Valencia oranges, keep in mind that the green tinge near the stem doesn't mean the fruit is immature. Valencias turn a yellow-orange and then regain a touch of green from the chlorophyll returning to the peel.
If you're going to eat your oranges in a day or two, you can store them at room temperature. Otherwise, they'll keep in the refrigerator for a week or two. Don't store them in plastic bags, which may encourage moisture and mold; just let them gently roll around the crisper drawer.