Wintertime Sunshine: Brighten Your Meals—and Mood—With Citrus

Chefs and bakers share tips and recipes for making the most of peak citrus season
February 17, 2021 Updated: February 17, 2021

That the year’s coldest, darkest season is also prime time for citrus feels like a small gift from nature. Just when we’re most in need of sunshine, weighed down by dreary weather and a steady diet of rich braises and stews, oranges and clementines, grapefruits and pomelos, even humble lemons and limes are shining their brightest, here to lift and lighten our meals and spirits alike.

In honor of the season, I asked a few citrus-loving chefs and bakers for their favorite recipes and tips for making the most of these winter treasures. Here’s what they said.

Keep It Simple

With truly peak-season, high-quality produce, possibly the best thing to do is not much at all.

At all-day café Ghaya at JACX&CO in New York City, Ghaya Oliveira shows off her favorite citrus, Texas Ruby Red grapefruits (“they’re big, juicy, tart, bitter, sweet, tangy, and fresh—everything you’d hope for in a fruit!”) in a simple fruit salad. The café’s Vitamin C Bowl combines grapefruit segments, kiwi chunks, and pomegranate seeds, a fun mix of textures and colors, in a dressing of honey-sweetened, rosemary-infused grapefruit juice.

“I thought it would be nice to have something full of freshness in the morning, or really anytime of the day,” Oliveira said. “It’s very simple, and you just need to get the right fruits for it—high quality and perfectly ripe.” While she’s partial to Texas grapefruit, you can easily substitute in other citrus.

vitamin c bowl
Let high quality, perfectly ripe fruit shine in this simple breakfast bowl. (Alan Batt)

Amy Riolo, a chef, author, and TV personality specializing in the Mediterranean diet, offered inspiration from Morocco, where she co-leads culinary tours—and where the oranges are famously sweet and abundant in winter.

She’ll often serve a traditional Moroccan salad of juicy orange segments with sticky Medjool dates and crisp shredded carrots, a “unique combination of soft and crunchy textures and sweet and sour tastes.” For the dressing, she combines a freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice, black pepper for some kick, and orange blossom water—often made from home-pressed orange oil in the Moroccan countryside, where orchards are common, Riolo said—for an aromatic finish.

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Juicy orange segments, sticky Medjool dates, crisp shredded carrots combine in this traditional Moroccan salad. (Courtesy of Amy Riolo)

Another Moroccan classic, a simple platter of spiced oranges, makes for an easy yet elegant dessert, a crowd-pleaser on Riolo’s tours. Her barely-a-recipe recipe, inspired by the breakfast served at a favorite riad in the old town of Fes, tops thin orange rounds with honey, cinnamon, and sliced almonds. Other versions may swap the honey for granulated or powdered sugar—or omit it entirely, as the oranges are often sweet enough on their own—and add a splash of orange blossom water.

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A simple platter of spiced, sweetened oranges makes an elegant and healthy dessert—or breakfast. (Courtesy of Amy Riolo)

For a more involved dessert, cookbook author and food stylist Jason Schreiber shared a recipe from his baking book, “Fruit Cake”: a polenta pound cake spiked with orange zest and liqueur, served with saucy spoonfuls of spiced mandarins. The starring mandarins get gentle treatment, simply left to lounge in a bath of more orange zest and juice, orange liqueur, and whole spices for an hour or more.

Schreiber often bakes with sharper-flavored citrus, or cooks it into curds for filling cakes and pies, “but for delicate citrus like mandarin oranges,” he explained, “you’ll get the most bang for your buck by keeping the fruit out of the oven and spooning it over slices of cake.

This polenta pound cake is spiked with orange zest and liqueur, and served with saucy spoonfuls of spiced mandarins. (Ethan Calabrese)

A Finishing Touch

While citrus fruits can easily take center stage, they’re most versatile in playing a supporting role. Most dishes will benefit from a finishing squeeze of lemon juice: roast chicken or Brussels sprouts, fried fish or steamed mussels, a simmering pot of soup or stew.

“People underestimate the use of acid in cooking, but in fact, it can transform a whole dish from mediocre to amazing,” said Suzy Karadsheh, chef and founder of The Mediterranean Dish food blog. “That splash of acid is just the one subtle thing that will wake everything up and allow your stew to achieve the perfect balance of flavor.”

The same goes for citrus zest, for dishes both savory and sweet. Alex Grunert, pastry chef at Olmsted in New York, often finishes desserts with a dusting of citrus zest; he compares it to the now-ubiquitous finish of flaky Maldon sea salt. “A little zest of Meyer lemon, fresh yuzu, or kaffir limes, and it looks nicer, smells amazing, and elevates the taste of the dish.”

No Peel Left Behind

Before you get zesting, Beverly Luk, pastry chef at Miro Kaimuki and Hau Tree Lanai in Honolulu, has a word of caution: “Don’t ever zest [citrus] in advance for recipes. Zest it right into the batter if you are making a cake or pancakes. The natural essential oil is the key, and it will get lost if you transfer the zest from container to container.”

Still, while fresh is best, zested in advance and stored for later is better than wasted—the fate of all too many citrus peels, thrown away after their insides are juiced or eaten. Before you cut open that lemon or orange, Luk offers a suggestion: “Zest it over a bowl of sugar. You will end up with the best sugar for all your wonderful baked goods!”

Riolo, meanwhile, always stores extra grated zest in between paper towels, or strips of peel on their own, in a sealed plastic bag for up to a week; for longer storage, keep it in the freezer. Make it a habit to zest every lemon, lime, and orange that passes through your kitchen, and you’ll always have a supply of kitchen gold on hand.

If you can’t be bothered with all that zesting, though, Schreiber has another sweet solution: “Candied citrus peel is a fantastic way to use a part of the fruit that often gets thrown away. You can make it from virtually any citrus.” Once you’ve tried the freshly candied stuff, he writes in “Fruit Cake,” “you’ll never waste your time with the store-bought drudgery.”

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Candied citrus peel is a fantastic way to use a part of the fruit that often gets thrown away. (Ethan Calabrese)

The Whole Fruit

Then, of course, there are the ways to directly use the whole citrus fruit all at once.

Brian Casey, chef and founder of the KnifeGeeky blog, shared a recipe for Shaker lemon curd, which he describes as a “lemon marmalade curd, because it uses the entire citrus all at once—peel, pith, and seeds included!”

It’s a shortcut to the filling of the famously frugal Shaker lemon pie, originally from the Shakers, an early 19-century religious group with communities from New England to the Midwest. The original pie recipe involves slicing whole lemons paper-thin, macerating them in sugar, and mixing them with eggs to bake into a bitter-sweet-tart filling.

Casey simply blitzes all the ingredients in a blender until smooth—a ratio of two lemons, four eggs, and two cups of sugar—and cooks the mixture on the stovetop over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a spatula to keep the bottom from burning. When the curd is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, it’s ready—to pour into pie or tart shells, spread between cake layers, or swirl into yogurt. The method works well with “any citrus that is juicy and has a flavorful peel,” Casey said, though sweeter varieties will need less sugar. “Yuzu, lemons, Meyer lemons, and oranges are great for this.”

If you still find yourself with an excess of citrus fruits, preserve the harvest—especially specialty varieties you won’t find year-round. Marmalade is a classic, but for a savory condiment, try your hand at salt-preserving.

Toward the end of the season, Brandon Boudet, executive chef and co-owner of Little Dom’s in Los Angeles, often has excess Ojai pixie tangerines from his 18 trees—a specialty of Ojai, where Boudet lives, just northwest of Los Angeles.

“I like to preserve them by cutting them into quarters, adding a teaspoon of salt [to each], and packing them into glass jars,” he said. “Typically, I let them sit for three days and shake them up each day to move the juices around. After that, you can place the jars in the fridge for three weeks. When you are ready to use them, remove the pith, rinse well, and use only the peel. I recommend adding it to soups, stews, and salads for flavor.”

Expert Tips for Buying and Storage

First Impressions: “Citrus is such a wide family of fruits that there really is no universal tip for how to go about purchasing it. Some should feel firm and taut with thin skins, like clementines, lemons, and limes. Others, like satsumas, have naturally looser skin, which says nothing about their freshness. In general, look for fruit that is brightly colored, feels heavy for its size, and is blemish-free.” —Jason Schreiber

Scratch and Sniff: “You should be able to smell the fruit faintly, and when scratched, the peel should burst with aroma.” —Brian Casey

Smart Storage: “Citrus lasts at room temperature for a few days, but other than that should be refrigerated. Store away from garlic and onion, which can speed up the aging process, and try to keep a space between oranges, either by storing them in special boxes or simply wrapping paper towels around them so that their skin does not touch and form condensation.” —Amy Riolo

A Note Before Use: “It is best to use room temperature citrus to extract more juice—or microwave them for a few seconds before juicing.” —Amy Riolo

RECIPE: Vitamin C Bowl

RECIPE: Carrot, Date, and Orange Salad

RECIPE: Moroccan Oranges With Cinnamon and Honey

RECIPE: Polenta Pound Cake With Spiced Mandarins

RECIPE: Candied Citrus Peel