Looks like an orange. Tastes like an orange. But it just might be a…tangerine? Or what’s that other one? Many people assume that all of the bright, sun-kissed citrus lining the produce aisles of their grocery store is the same. In reality, though, there is a whole world of orange varieties to explore, each with its own distinct flavor, texture, and color.
This comprehensive guide will help demystify the differences between all of those sunshine-y, tangy citrus fruits, and hopefully help you pick the best variety for your next salad, dessert, or snack!
When you think of an orange, you are likely picturing a navel orange, as this is the most common orange variety carried by grocery stores around the country. This variety gets its name from the small growth or “navel” that protrudes from the base of each orange and is the most widely grown and distributed orange variety in the U.S.
Navel oranges are less juicy and a bit more bitter than some of the other orange varieties, so if you’re hoping to make orange juice, you’re better off going with a tangerine or blood orange. They are perfect, however, for snacking on the go—less juice means less mess and clean up!
Now that you’re an expert on the standard, navel orange, it’s time to tackle another branch of the citrus family tree: mandarins. Mandarins are typically smaller than navels, and in general are easier to peel and segment, thanks to their looser peel. There are many different orange varieties that fall under the mandarin umbrella. For example, tangerines and clementines are both varieties within the mandarin family, each with their own characteristics and flavor profiles.
Where oranges are often larger and more tart in flavor, tangerines tend to be smaller, sweeter, and juicier. Don’t be fooled by tangerines’ softer, more pliant skin—this doesn’t mean they’ve gone bad! This soft, bright orange, loose skin is what makes tangerines easier to peel than their navel orange counterparts. You’ll want to be mindful of the seeds when eating or preparing a tangerine—but luckily the seeds are big, and therefore easy to remove.
Originally grown exported from northern Morocco (specifically in Tangier, hence its name), the tangerine is now grown and distributed around the world, and is very popular in Europe and the U.S.
Clementines are the tiniest, sweetest, easiest-to-peel of all the oranges, and are often branded as “Cuties” in the U.S. Unlike their mandarin counterparts, clementines are seedless, making them perfect for a quick, anytime snack.
Where navel and blood oranges are often round, clementines usually have a flat spot near each apex, giving the fruit more of an oval shape. The clementine’s thin skin often has a tight, shiny appearance, in contrast to the navel orange’s dimpled, rougher appearance.
There’s really only one way to consume clementines—peel, segment, and pop in your mouth—as they don’t hold up well to slicing or supreming.
You can’t have a roundup of sweet citrus varieties without mentioning the blood orange. If you’ve never encountered one before, you might be surprised to learn that peeling the thick orange skin reveals the rich, ruby red fruit and juice within that give this orange its name. The blood orange originated in Sicily and southern Spain, but are now grown around the world—including in California and Texas.
In terms of size, blood oranges tend to fall right in the middle of the spectrum—larger than clementines and tangerines, but not quite as big as a navel orange. They are often considered to be the tartest and most fragrant members of the orange family, and are quite juicy—so be mindful of your clothes when handling these bright red fruits!
While the’re delicious on their own as a snack, these oranges’ vibrant, alluring color also makes them a great addition to a salad or fruit platter, or as a garnish on a cake or tart.
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