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Citrus fruit, including grapefruit, oranges, mandarin oranges, lemons, limes and others, are at their peak of availability during the winter season. The various species of citrus fruit originated in tropical and subtropical Asia. The different species easily hybridize with one another and much of today's most popular kinds are a result of these hybrids.
Due to increased international shipping, it is becoming more likely that fruit in local stores has been shipped from outside of the United States. I recently found oranges in a local store from South Africa. This reduces the chances of finding fruit at its optimal ripeness. Stores are required to state the country of origin. Look for fruit grown in the United States. Further, many growers in California and other areas ship freshly picked fruit. Besides having common types of citrus, these growers usually offer specialty species and varieties at reasonable prices that can otherwise be difficult to find locally.
To determine if citrus fruit is at its peak, gently but firmly squeeze the fruit. The fruit should give slightly but not be mushy. Additionally, feel the fruit for soft spots that could indicate rot. The fruit should also not feel dry, leathery or hard, which indicates it is probably past its prime.
Oranges are the most widely grown fruit in the world and hundreds of varieties exist. In the USA, seedless navel oranges are the most popular. Later in the season, seedless Valencia oranges are more common. Even though the local markets are dominated by these two types, others are available, including Cara Cara navel and blood oranges. Their flesh colors are dark pink. Blood oranges are popular in the Mediterranean and are considered by many to produce the best juice. Cara Cara oranges were discovered in Venezuela and are the result of a cross between two strains of navel oranges. They are known for their sweet, low acid flavor.
Grapefruit is a result of a natural cross between pomelo and mandarin orange that originated on the island of Barbados. It was brought to Florida in the early 20th century but became popular several years later when the Ruby Red variety was introduced. Currently, grapefruits are produced in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Arizona and California, with the majority of pink and red varieties being grown Texas. Pomelo looks similar to grapefruit but is often larger and has sweeter, less acidic flavor.
Popular varieties include tangerine, Satsuma and Clementine. Tangor, a hybrid between sweet and mandarin oranges, is also becoming more common. Because mandarin oranges are more cold-hardy than other citrus species, breeding programs exist in Mississippi and Louisiana to increase production beyond where it currently exists.
Lemons and limes:
Lemons are more often grown in California, and limes in Florida. The popular Meyer Lemon is actually the result of the cross between lemons and sweet oranges and is less sour. Interestingly, Meyer Lemon fell out of favor in the mid-20th century, but over the last several years was re-popularized by Martha Stewart and other famous chefs.