Citrus season began this month and continues until March or April, depending on the weather. For the next few weeks, I’ll take the time whenever I am at the grocery store to poke around in the produce department. I’m looking for pink grapefruit, Meyer lemons, blood oranges, pomelos and cara cara oranges. In DIY mode, I plan to take full advantage of the mountains of clementines, mesh bags of mandarins and even lower prices on the everyday Eureka lemon.
Preserving citrus leans heavily on extracting the zest or juice, and it demands the right tool. The zest is the outermost layer of the peel and contains the oils that carry a pure citrus flavor. Below the zest is the white pith, which can have a spongy texture and adds a bitter edge to the zest’s characteristic taste.
While a vegetable peeler can remove the zest and leave the pith behind, recipes for candied peel call for keeping the pith; in that case, a channel knife or stripper is an excellent tool for the job, extracting long, slim pieces of zest and pith together. Other presentations demand the fine wisps created by a garnishing tool called, predictably, a zester. Just about every option can be achieved with a sharp knife and perseverance.
Juicing tools run from basic to complex. A modest reamer is useful for a single lemon but taxing when you’re faced with dozens of them. I prefer a juicer that separates the juice from the pulp and seeds all at once. When a friend sent me a box of lemons from California, I borrowed a clamp-on juicer to dispatch them — and recommend the same when that happens to you.
The preservation of citrus has a long history. When sailing ships returned to northern climates, they carried in their holds citrus from the south. Clever cooks captured the flavors by drying, candying, salting and jamming. I do the same, centuries later.
If you’re already zesting, you might like to try candying citrus peel. It’s easy, albeit time-consuming, with three blanching rounds and a long simmer in sugar syrup until tender, after which the fruit, dried and sugared, is a great addition to the pantry. Bakers appreciate orange, lemon and grapefruit peel and add it, chopped, to quick breads and scones. I like to dip citrus-peel batons in chocolate; they make an elegant gift. When I spend the time on a winter weekend, I can make enough candied citrus to accommodate a year of finding new ways to use it until next citrus season. Once the peel has simmered in the sugar syrup, the syrup itself is a divine bonus ingredient, useful in cocktails, brushed on baked goods or used to baste meats headed to the barbecue.
More zesting fun: marmalade, the jam made with the juice and zest. Citrus has copious amounts of natural pectin, so achieving a proper gel/set is easy. Keep in mind that, beyond the scone, marmalade makes an excellent base for barbecue sauce and marinades, adding bitter and sweet elements. I like to pair it with mustard for a stunning glaze on a pork roast.
Even when a recipe calls for just the juice of an orange or lemon, I save the zest. Whether I grate it, remove it with a vegetable peeler or use a channel knife, I cannot throw it out. Instead, I add it to the zip-top bag of citrus swaths in the freezer that I’ll later use in stir-fries and marinades.
After measuring for a recipe, I often have a pinch or two of zest still on the cutting board. I tuck that into granulated sugar and use the resulting perfumed sweetener in any baking project, but especially muffins. Or I stir zest into kosher salt with a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes to DIY a sprinkle for chicken, salad or slices of avocado.
Juice shouldn’t go to waste, either. When you’re zesting fruit for a recipe, squeeze and freeze the juice afterward. Use an ice cube tray to hold two-tablespoon portions. One cube can give a sauce or soup some zing, ice down a glass of sparkling water or activate fruit’s natural pectin in a jam recipe.
Juice and zest combine with eggs and butter to make curd. While lemon curd is the go-to, I also like to use pink grapefruit, cara caras, Key limes and blood oranges. The delicious spread turns up between layers of cake or atop a cream biscuit served with afternoon tea. Make curd now, freeze it in jars (leave about an inch of head space) and it will keep for six months.
Looking for a savory option? Preserving lemons in salt is de rigueur in Mediterranean cuisine, and I like to preserve limes in salt, as well. I quarter the fruit vertically, fill the centers with kosher salt and pack them into a clean glass jar, pressing down to encourage their natural juices to cover the fruit. (Supplement with additional juice, as needed.) After a week in a cool, dark spot, the citrus will have softened and pickled slightly. After a month, it’s even better. Citrus preserved in salt is shelf-stable if thoroughly submerged in the juice, although its color may fade.
I chop the preserved rind for a piquant addition to poultry and fish. I add chopped preserved lime rind to subtly elevate black bean soup.
Before the season ends, I make sure to put up a few jars of Lemon Squash, intensely flavored with lemon oil, zest and juice. A squash is an old recipe, named for an Indian concentrate of fruit juices. Squashes show up in British preserving books from the early 20th century. A presweetened concentrate, it makes exceptional lemonade by the pitcherful. It is a pantry wonder, stirred into tea, sparkling water, wine or bourbon. The cheerful and sunny flavor is welcome in any season. I make a version with ginger; when a cold is coming on, I put a glug into a hot toddy for an instantly soothing tipple. Make a version with lime, and you’ll be ready for margarita season.
When I can find more-exotic citrus, that’s a bonus. Buddha’s hand has little juice but copious zest, which can be confited (cooked slowly in sugar syrup) and held in the refrigerator to scent tropical cocktails. The zest and juice of yuzu (a Japanese fruit that can be ordered online) combine for an exquisite flavoring for gumdrops or for the fancier pâte de fruits. Kumquats can be pickled. Key limes and shortbread are best friends. Citrus likes savory or sweet, and the opportunities to preserve are numerous.
We are fortunate. There’s no waiting for the sailing ships to arrive with their holds filled with citrus. Lemons are available every day; at this time of the year, when unusual citrus varieties are obtainable, consider the options and put up some of these glorious, sunny flavors for your own pantry.
Barrow will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat: live.washingtonpost.com.