How To Pick Citrus: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Jan 25, 2024

citrus buying guide, how to buy citrus

Winter is the peak season for citrus, making it the ideal time to explore the rich variety these fruits offer. From vibrant oranges to zesty lemons, these fruits not only provide a splash of color against the winter gray, but also deliver a much-needed dose of vitamin C—giving us a metaphorical burst of sunshine in the coldest months.

But the appeal of citrus fruits extends beyond just the chilliest time of the year.

Whether you need a fresh orange to juice for a summer brunch, a lemon to add zest to springtime baking or different varieties to spice up autumn recipes, citrus fruits are always a great choice. In this guide, you’ll learn about the different types, their flavor profiles and how to pick the freshest and juiciest fruits from the store, along with handy tips for substitutions when your favorites aren’t available.


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how to buy citrus, citrus buying guide

What are citrus fruits?

Before diving into the specifics of selection and usage, it’s essential to understand what citrus fruits are.

Citrus fruits belong to the genus Citrus and are known for their juicy segments, vibrant colors and a balance of sweetness and acidity. They are primarily grown in tropical and subtropical regions and are rich in vitamin C and flavonoids—offering a range of health benefits.

The family of citrus fruits includes familiar favorites like oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits and mandarins, as well as less common varieties like kumquats and pomelos. Each fruit has a distinct flavor profile and culinary use, making them versatile ingredients in a wide range of dishes. Their zesty flavors and aromas come from citric acid and natural oils found in their skins, which are also often used for their fragrant zest.

citrus buying guide, types of citrus fruits

Types of citrus fruits

Each type of citrus fruit brings its own unique taste and texture to the table, making them versatile for a wide range of culinary applications. Whether used for their juice, zest or whole segments, these fruits can brighten up any dish with their fresh flavors. Here’s a look at some common and unique citrus fruits, along with their distinct flavor profiles:

  1. Oranges: Perhaps the most well-known citrus, oranges are prized for their balance of sweetness and acidity. Varieties like the Valencia are ideal for juicing, while the Navel is perfect for eating out of hand. The Cara Cara offers a slightly berry-like flavor with less acidity.
  2. Lemons: Known for their bright acidity and zesty flavor, lemons are a kitchen staple. The Eureka lemon (what you’ll commonly find at the grocery store) is tart and ideal for both culinary and household uses, while the Meyer lemon, a cross between a lemon and a mandarin, is sweeter and less acidic, perfect for desserts (lemon bars, anyone?) and cocktails (we can’t say no to this Lemon Gin Spritz).
  3. Limes: Limes add a sharp, tart flavor to dishes and drinks. The Persian lime, the most common variety, is seedless and has a bold, acidic taste. Key limes, smaller and rounder, have a more aromatic and intense flavor, ideal for a key lime pie or tart.
  4. Grapefruits: These range from bitter to sweet. The Ruby Red has a sweeter, less acidic profile, making it popular for breakfast and salads. White grapefruits tend to be more bitter and are often used in marmalades.
  5. Mandarins: Including tangerines and clementines, mandarins are sweeter and less acidic than oranges. They are easy to peel and popular as a snack or sweet treat. Tangerines are a bit tangier, while clementines are very sweet and almost seedless.
  6. Blood Oranges: If you’re wondering “what exactly is a blood orange?,” you’re not alone. Unique for their deep red flesh, blood oranges have a sweet flavor with hints of raspberry or cherry. They are less acidic than regular oranges and are excellent in salads, desserts and cocktails (or mocktails!).
  7. Kumquats: Unlike other citrus fruits, kumquats are eaten whole, including the peel. They’re typically oval or round and offer a burst of tart, tangy flavor followed by a sweet finish. They are commonly used in marmalades, chutneys and spreads or are baked into candied treats (we also love them in this bubbly crisp).
  8. Pomelos: The largest citrus fruit, pomelos have a sweet, mild flavor and a dry, less juicy texture. They have a thick green or yellow rind and are less acidic than grapefruits. They’re often used in Asian cuisine, especially in salads.
  9. Ugli Fruit: A lesser-known variety, ugli fruit is a hybrid between a grapefruit, an orange and a tangerine. They’re known for their wrinkled, rough skin, which is easy to peel. It has a sweet, slightly tangy flavor, is milder than a grapefruit and is often eaten fresh or used in fruit salads.
citrus buying guide, how to pick citrus at the store, how to tell if citrus is ripe

Citrus buying tips: What to look for at the store

When shopping for citrus fruits, there are several key factors to consider to ensure you’re getting the freshest and most flavorful options. Here are some tips to help you choose a good lemon, lime or other citrus at the store:

  • Check the weight: Pick up the fruit and assess its weight. A good citrus fruit should feel heavy for its size, indicating it’s full of juice.
  • Examine the skin: Look for fruits with smooth, firm and brightly colored skin. Avoid fruits with dull, wrinkled or blemished skin, as these can be signs of over-ripeness or poor quality. However, note that some superficial blemishes might not affect the quality of the fruit inside.
  • Test the firmness: Gently squeeze the fruit. It should feel firm but not hard. Overly soft or mushy fruits may be past their prime. A slight give can indicate ripeness, especially in oranges and grapefruits.
  • Smell it: To assess a citrus’ freshness, gently rub the skin to release essential oils or smell near the stem. A ripe citrus fruit will emit a strong, fresh and characteristic aroma. Oranges should smell sweet and tangy, lemons sharp and zesty, and grapefruits robust with a hint of bitterness. A good scent indicates ripeness and flavor; absence of smell or any off odors like mustiness can be a sign of poor quality.
  • Avoid fruit with soft spots or mold: Soft spots might indicate internal spoilage, and any signs of mold are a definite no-go.
  • Look at the size and shape: While size and shape can vary greatly among citrus fruits and don’t necessarily indicate quality, they might matter for your specific needs. For example, smaller limes might be preferable for squeezing into drinks.
citrus buying guide, organic vs regular citrus

Organic vs. conventional citrus fruits

When choosing between organic and conventional citrus fruits, several factors come into play.

Organic citrus are grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, adhering to standards that aim to maintain soil health and ecosystem balance. This often results in a higher price point due to more labor-intensive farming practices and typically lower yields.

Conventional citrus, on the other hand, are grown using standard agricultural practices, which might include the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These practices often result in a lower cost to the consumer and a higher fruit yield.

As for flavor, some people report a taste difference, with organic citrus often described as having a more robust flavor—though this can vary widely and is subjective. Additionally, those concerned about pesticide residue may prefer organic citrus fruits, but thoroughly washing conventional fruits can significantly reduce surface residues. Ultimately, the choice between organic and conventional citrus fruits depends on personal preferences regarding farming practices, environmental impact and budget.

citrus buying guide, how to store citrus

Storage tips for lemons, limes and citrus fruits

Storing citrus correctly can greatly extend their freshness and flavor.

For those intending to use citrus fruits within a week, room temperature storage is ideal. This approach works especially well for lemons and limes, which maintain their freshness and flavor outside the fridge. Find a cool, dry place in your kitchen to keep them, ensuring they’re not exposed to direct sunlight.

For longer storage exceeding a week, the refrigerator is your best option. Placing citrus fruits in the crisper drawer of your fridge slows down their degradation, helping to preserve both moisture and freshness for several weeks. It’s important to remember not to pack them too tightly or wrap them, as proper airflow is crucial in preventing mold due to moisture buildup.

If you have cut or sliced citrus fruits, they should always be refrigerated. Wrap them in plastic wrap or place them in an airtight container to prevent them from drying out and picking up odors from other foods in the fridge. This way, even partially used citrus fruits can last longer while retaining their taste and freshness.

citrus buying guide, what to substitute for lemon

Easy substitutions for citrus

If you find yourself without a specific type of citrus fruit, there are several easy substitutions you can use to achieve a similar flavor profile in your recipes:

  • Blood orange: If a recipe calls for blood oranges and you can’t find any, a good substitute is a combination of regular navel oranges and a splash of cranberry or raspberry juice. This mix mimics the slight berry-like flavor and color of blood oranges.
  • Lemon: In place of lemon, lime is the closest substitute, offering a similar level of acidity and tartness. For less acidity, a small amount of white vinegar or white wine can also work in some recipes.
  • Lime: When limes are unavailable, lemons are the best alternative, providing comparable tartness and zing.
  • Grapefruit: If your recipe requires grapefruit juice and you don’t have any, try using an equal mix of orange juice and a bit of lemon juice. This combination will give you both the sweetness and tangy edge of grapefruit. To better mimic the complete flavor profile of grapefruit, you can also modify the substitution by adding a dash of grapefruit bitters or a tiny bit of pith (the white part under the peel) from an orange or lemon to introduce that bitter note. It’s important to use the bitter component sparingly (it’s also totally fine to just omit), as it can easily overpower the other flavors.
  • Mandarin or tangerine: For recipes calling for these sweeter citrus varieties, a mix of orange juice and a touch of lemon juice can provide a similar balance of sweet and tart flavors.
citrus buying guide, citrus tools

Cooking and Baking with Citrus: Essential Tools

When it comes to cooking and baking with citrus, having the right tools can make all the difference in your culinary creations. Here are some essential tools you’ll need to extract the zest, juice and flavor of citrus fruits effectively:

  1. Citrus juicer: A citrus juicer is a kitchen workhorse for effortlessly extracting fresh juice from citrus fruits like lemons, limes and oranges. Whether it’s a handheld reamer or an electric juicer, having one is essential for various recipes.
  2. Microplane or zester: Elevate your dishes with citrus zest using a microplane or zester. These handy tools finely grate the outer peel of citrus fruits, infusing your creations with vibrant flavor without the bitterness of the pith.
  3. Fine mesh strainer: For recipes that call for pulp-free citrus juice or a smooth citrus zest, a fine mesh strainer is your go-to tool. It ensures that your final product is free from unwanted bits.


Hungry for more? Shop our collection of Citrus Tools! From reamers and zesters to juicers and peelers, we’ve got exactly what you need for your next recipe.

Shop Our Citrus Tools

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