I Tried 45 Oranges and This Is the Best One
Oranges are my favorite fruit, and if I didn't see another one until next winter, I'd be OK with that. Citrus of all sorts is in peak season right now, so I make it my mission to jam as many segments into my mouth as medically possible during this halcyon time. But over the past few years I've had to reassess my diet and cut back on the quantity of acid I consume. In turn, the quality of the fruit matters more to me now, and I've come to realize that not all oranges are equally awesome.
Oranges—or at least what I'm classifying as oranges here—vary wildly in flavor and juiciness, even if they're of the same cultivar in the same year and from the same orchard. Weather matters tremendously, as does method of shipping, storage, how long it's on the shelf, how you treat it once it's in your clutches, and plenty of other factors. Even if you get an orange with the exact same sticker as mine, there's no guarantee that it's going to taste the same.
Still, with that in mind, I ran all over New York City and gathered 45 different kinds of oranges so I could at least in broad terms define my preferences. No, I couldn't track down every last variety from every producer on earth—some aren't in season and some would just be an exercise in frustration for folks who can't get them. And no, I couldn't get my hands on a precious Hallabong, but I was able to get a good sense of what makes a particular orange something I'd be happy to peel and eat.
For the purposes of this test, I included spherical, orange-skinned citrus that could be peeled and pulled into segments. That netted me navel oranges, mandarins, tangerines, honey tangerines (a.k.a. Murcotts), cara caras, blood oranges, Minneolas, clementines, Valencias, an Ugli, and a few other varieties. All were stored under the same conditions, and anything that didn't have a sticker with a price look-up number (a PLU), variety, producer, or country, I classified by signs on the bin. I ate them in three sittings because ouch.
These are ranked from my least favorite to most, and while your taste may vary from mine, try taking a closer look at the sticker the next time you're at the store and you just may peel open a new favorite.
45. Navel Orange, Sunkist, USA (PLU: 4013)
If aliens tasted this as their first orange on earth, there's a good chance they wouldn't ever reach out their sticky little appendages for another. This thick-skinned orange was a pain to peel, and there was precious little payoff. A 4013 is on the smaller side of the navel spectrum, which often results in a juicier fruit, but this one offered wan, dry, sour segments that tasted more of membrane than anything else. It's a miserly little orange.
44. Autumn Honey Tangerine, Noble, Florida (PLU: 4453)
The sticker touted its supposedly "easy" peel, but it didn't prove to be any more so than a standard tangerine. The powerful citron scent was a promising start, but it gave way to segments with very little flavor, a riot of seeds, and lots of webby pith. If you've ever made OJ from concentrate and used the can to ferry water from the tap to the pitcher, think about the second or third time you've filled it up and how the water is maybe slightly haunted by oranges, but nothing like the juice in the pitcher. That's the level of flavor we're talking about. I tried a second from another location a couple weeks later because I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt and I was equally disappointed.
43. Navel Orange, Conoley Fruit, Florida USA (PLU: 4385)
This orange was like a Victorian convalescent child confined to the nursery who subsists on tea-dampened toast. Its thin peel came away cleanly, unlike many of the other navels that left a bitter shag of pith behind, but revealed sweet, weak, watery fruit for which the sun was a distant memory.
42. Midknight Valencia, South Africa, (PLU: 3156)
Here was a teaching moment: The only thing separating this from the other Midknight much higher on this list (spoiler!) was its size. I've come to find that my preference is for small and mid-sized oranges rather than great big galoots that often feel like they've sacrificed flavor for heft. This fruit was a beast to peel and left behind a thick blanket of pith over oddly medicinal segments. If someone told me this had been grown in an underground lab under interrogation lights, I'd believe them. Midknight, indeed.
41. Cara Cara Navel, Sunkist, California (PLU: 3110)
Think of all the worst qualities of an over-acidic grapefruit, that love-it-or-hate-it almost chemically sweet, long-lasting aftertaste of a cara cara, and add a little gumminess to the mix. It was pretty, sure, that's a gimmie for this kind of orange, but that's really all it had in the plus column.
40. Navel Orange, Paramount Citrus, USA (PLU: 4012)
I nearly broke a thumbnail digging into the chalky skin and my reward for the trouble was arid, listless, bitter fruit. The only thing that kept this from ranking even lower was an unexpected pop of sour, like, at least it was trying something. Just not a good thing. I became very wary of large navels fairly quickly after this.
39. Navel Orange, Sunkist, USA (PLU 4012)
My wariness was validated. I actually tried two different Sunkist 4012 oranges from two different stores and came away with the same impression. The hefty peel came away easily but raggedly, and the fruit was juicy, extremely sour, and generic as heck. The segments of one snapped in the center, rather than separating naturally. A good orange tastes of the sun and sky. This felt like a basement.
38. Navel Orange, Sunkist, USA (PLU: 3107)
See above. This orange had a thinner peel, but the acid level was practically punishing.
37. Cara Cara Navel, Paramount Citrus, USA (PLU: 3110)
This was everything good about a watermelon Jolly Rancher, immediately followed by a blast of near-rancid sweetness. It would have been less of a disappointment had the initial bite not delighted me, but my pleasure plopped straight off a cliff after a few seconds. Again, caveat, cara cara fans will probably be thrilled by it.
36. Fall Glo Tangerine, USA (PLU: 3144)
What an annoying orange. Hard to peel, left a residue of pith, and was packed with large seeds that obscured what would have been otherwise promising fruit. Like bobbing your head to a song you like and all of a sudden Kanye shows up and starts doing that unnnhhhhh noise. Mood ruined.
35. Uniq Tangelo, Good Hope, Jamaica (PLU: 4459)
I'm glad this ugly duckling exists and I got to try it, but I'm not going out of my way to acquire another. I had to use a knife to saw through the peel, then to cut out the segments. My prize: basically grapefruit. I dig an underdog, but you can't coast by on quirk.
34. Cuties Clementine, Sun Pacific, USA (Sack)
Not sweet. Not sour. A little bitter. It doesn't really taste like much—this varies wildly by year. I'd probably sit and eat a stack of them because it's a physical pleasure to do so, but flavorwise, there's nothing quite there. Like licking the Dum-Dums stick after the pop is gone. One of the oranges in the sack had a sticker that referred to New Year's Eve 2017 and I'm trying not to think about that too much. (Note: Cuties are available as Murcotts from February through April.)
33. Organic Navel, Sunkist, USA (PLU: 94102)
My thumbnail wasn't sufficient and I had to grab a knife to get through. I held high-ish hopes for this organic edition which delivered a decent sweet/tart balance, as often happens, oranges this size are mealy. The pith bittered away any pleasure and the whole enterprise wasn't worth it.
32. Minneola Tangelo (PLU: 4383)
This is a culty fruit with a distinctive bump at the top, and people tend to love them or hate them. (I've got a friend whose mother sends her a box every year, and she gives them all away.) This particular one tasted more like something orange-flavored rather than an actual orange-—think Lik-M-Aid or a Bottle Cap. While it's juicy and tart, there's something almost artificial tasting and flat about it. If this is your thing, I'm not gonna yuck your yum, and maybe I'll give my friend your address.
31. Cara Cara Navel, Ripe to You, California (PLU: 3110)
They're only available for a brief time each year, so if you've gotta get your fix, I get it, but if you truly care about cara cara, you can hold out for better. The flesh of this medium-skinned orange was generous and grapefruit-tangy, but with a slightly lower level of complexity than another higher up the list, and a finish that's almost cloying and saccharine.
30. Honey Tangerine, Jaffa, Israel (PLU: 4453)
If I could get away with carrying one of these around and creepily sniffing it all the time, I totally would, but that's weird. The peel's scent is intensely grassy—like it was shipped in a crate full of lawn clippings. It encased a stiff cluster of sour segments that were just fine. Nothing special, maybe even slightly harsh. If I'd not eaten one billion honey tangerines in service of this experiment, I'd probably be more impressed but as it stands, I'll stick to whiffing.
29. Navel Orange, California (PLU: 3107)
There was a curious little nipple at the top of this orange, but not much more set it apart from the pack. The fragrant peel left a whole lot of pith behind, and it housed some sunny, sweet, extremely juicy fruit that tasted more like an orange juice product (think Sunny D) than an actual orange.
28. Navel Orange, BlueJay, California (PLU: 4013)
This one was way harsh—too tart for straightforward snacking (unfortunate because this is what they give us for free at work), but would make a gangbusters addition to a cocktail (probably not at work).
27. Juice Orange, Conoley Fruit, Florida (PLU: 4382)
You don't bring a juice orange to a snacking fight, but this was good at its assigned task. The peel was a beast and needed to be nicked with a knife to come away, but it ripped away with no pith and contained extremely juicy (no shock) fruit that was too bitter and acidic to pick up and eat, but might likely rock in a smoothie or tempered with another fruit in a drink.
26. Sweet Seedless Mandarin, California (Bulk Bin)
It ain't pretty to look at, but that's not the point. There's something really satisfying about clawing off an easy-give peel, even if it leaves some shaggy pith behind. The fruit inside was oddly almost savory with no acid at all, but possessed of a honeyed sweetness like some of the tangerines I'd encountered as well. A perfectly adequate mandarin.
25. Pink Navel, USA (PLU: 4012)
A note on the bin at my local bougie grocery touted this as a "pink navel" which piqued my interest, but ended up being a fib. The segments were a pale yellow-orange, and broke in half rather than separating, after I'd gone to the trouble of prying the sturdy peel off with a knife. Juicy, yes, and neither offensive or impressive—just a solid B-minus student of a fruit.
24. Organic Navel, Buck Brand, California (PLU: 93107)
Aaallllmost, but not quite on the mark. The scent was enticing, the juice a-flowing, but the acid burn at the back of the tongue was just a bit too intense to be pleasant. This would make grand OJ, but not an ideal solo treat.
23. Navel Orange, Sun Pacific, California (PLU: 4013)
What a weird, pointy little fruit, and a welcome break to the monotony of orange orbs. This boasted a better balance than some of the other navels, and much thinner skin and more modest segments which made it a distinctly better eating experience, even if the flavor was just average.
22. Moro Blood Orange, Bee Sweet Citrus, USA (PLU: 4381)
I'm always going to be swayed by the loveliness of a blood orange, and this was no exception. I could marvel at, Instagram, and muddle them endlessly, but at some point, the mouth has to come into play, and that's where this one suffered. It wasn't a bad orange by any stretch, but lacked that characteristic, almost savory depth of off-sweet flavor that defines an excellent blood orange and tended toward a less-nuanced tartness. It's a perfectly good piece of fruit and would play well in a cocktail, salad, or as a snack, but as a blood orange goes, it's on the average side of interesting.
21. Valencia Orange (Bulk Bin)
The peel was thin, mottled, and ugly, and I loved it. Within was extremely pale yellow flesh, thick membrane, and dry segments—but with much more sweetness than I'd imagined from appearances. If you're looking for a sunbursting orange, this isn't it, but this could grow on you.
20. Inka Gold Honey Tangerine, La Calera, Peru (PLU: 4453)
This little tangerine had a papery peel that was irksome to remove, but the payoff proved to be worth it. Though the scent was intensely grapefruity, the flavor contained no tartness, but a very assertive, bittersweet note that wasn't at all unpleasant—more like an autumn squash than a citrus.
19. Halo Mandarin, Wonderful Citrus, USA (Sack)
There's a reason that these little fellas are so popular—besides the marketing, of course. The pocket-sized, easy-peeling mandarins aren't necessarily outstanding, but they're consistent and correct. It's a benchmark orange and if this all you had, you'd be fine. You'd probably scarf a whole stack of them without thinking too much.
18. Moro Blood Orange, Sunkist, USA (PLU 4381)
This was less rapture-inducing (though probably easier to obtain) than its Aussie counterpart higher up the list, but still violently beautiful once cut open. It's more restrained, a tad drier, more tart, but still piquant and more pleasurable than some of the mealy navels.
17. Stem-on Mandarin (Bulk Bin)
This may be just a me thing, but if I can buy a stem-on orange, I do. It makes me feel clever and fancy. The segments came apart easily, were fully plump and juicy, and despite a little shag left behind by the peel, there was no pithy bitterness. Perfectly pleasant, plenty of lingering sweetness (maybe even too sweet for me) with very little acid. Top of the middle of the pack.
The Really Good
16. Minneola Orange, Sunkist, USA (PLU: 4383)
The juice blast radius as I attempted to peel this goofy guy was rather impressive, and the segments practically auto-detonated into serving portions as I giggled with delight, but my personal pleasure stopped there. I'll put my prejudices toward Minneolas aside as best I can because of the ones I've tried throughout my life, this was the best—but that oddly artificial sweetness that is the characteristic of the type will probably always put me off. This makes the top tier, though, because fans of Minneolas will likely appreciate a mass-market brand making a solid one available, minus the trip to a specialty store or mail order.
15. Random Grocery Store Juice Orange (PLU: 4382)
This mottled fella won’t win any beauty prizes and cripes, what a pain to peel and segment (a juice orange is meant to be sliced and, well, juiced rather than peeled and segmented, but I was on a particular mission). But the prize was top-notch, luscious, gloriously sunny citrus, so I couldn't be that mad. OK, I could—my nails will smell like that peel for days, but there are worse things. Honestly, since this this should be lower because it was deeply inconvenient to access, but that flavor bumps it to the top tier.
14. Cara Cara Navel, Bee Sweet Citrus, USA (PLU: 3110)
Look, I'm as shocked as you are that a cara cara ranked so high, given my general antipathy, but this brought all the ripe grapefruit glory tempered by a minimum of that fake-ish sweet aftertaste that makes me cringe. The internal pink hue isn't quite as dazzling as some of the other specimens, but it's still a damn sight prettier than another wan, flabby navel.
13. Random Grocery Store Tangerine (PLU: 4055)
No fancy cultivar name or producer, just a generic store sticker on an ugly little fruit, but hooboy, was this a delight. The knobbled peel was satisfyingly loose and easily gave way to generous, sweet, tart, deeply flavored segments that were delightfully easy to separate and dry to the touch, but a genuine treat and a perfect snacking tangerine. (Perfect name for your new indie psych-pop's first single.)
12. Sunburst Tangerine, Heller Bros., Florida (PLU: 4449)
This is a grown-up's orange with tartness only on the finish, preceded by a deep, honeyed, mellow sweetness, and not at all cloying. Like that weird shift where your friends start bringing bottles and growlers to a party rather than a sixer of whatever cans are cheapest.
11. Organic Navel Orange, Nature's Bounty, USA (PLU: 93107)
There's a pleasing array of segment sizes within this tough-peeling navel, and they all seemed to pop with the most ideal sweet-tart balance that I encountered in this orange-eating odyssey. Some thick membrane—sure, but that's par for the course. Frankly I'm relieved to have found a navel this good so I wouldn't go down in the books as a complete hater.
10. Honey Gold Gup Tangerine, La Calera, Peru (PLU: 4453)
If you're in charge of the snacks or breakfast, this is a great mini-swagger. This orange was adorable and with easy-peel skin that's ridged like a little pumpkin. The fruit inside was sunny and full, juicy, with very little tartness and a distinctive honeyed sweetness. It's a showy little orange worth seeking out.
9. Honey Tangerine, Peru (PLU: 4453)
The sharp, bright grapefruit smell was, for once, met with equal flavor force. It was bursting, alive, not cloying or overly tart. Sweetness was on the titular honeyed side with pith not as invasive as in others of the category. This is an orange that knows exactly who it is and does not apologize.
8. Cara Cara Pink Navel Orange, USA/EU (PLU: 3110)
The peel clung tightly to a ruby interior that I could easily be convinced was that of a grapefruit. I went in predisposed not to like it because cara caras just aren't my particular jam (as you may have discerned by now), but I was swayed by the lack of that nasty, cloying aftertaste that's characteristic of cara caras. If you do happen to be a cara cara stan, you'll be plenty thrilled.
7. Mandarin from an unmarked red net sack at an Asian grocery store
This was delightfully wee and round—a great little snack-sized orange around the size of a golf ball. So much power for such a tiny fruit! It packed such a punch of sour that lingered so long you might not need more than one—though of course you're gonna house half a dozen.
The very best
6. Clementine, Seald Sweet, USA (Sack)
With all due respect to the hustle of Halos and Cuties, if I'm going to pick up a sack of little easy-eating mandarins or clementines from a big brand, I'll opt for these. The peel pulls away cleanly, if not entirely easily, and unsheaths tidy segments that pop with power and land smack in the center of off-sweet tartness with no regret-inducing burn should you happen to gobble down multiples—which you will.
5. Midknight Valencia, South Africa (PLU: 3155)
This smaller Midknight has just the right amount of sweet, tart, and juice that I'm seeking in a clementine in a good year, but oddly it’s a navel. It's medium-sized, too—perfect size for one. Maybe eat one of these instead of a pile of no-name clems from anywhere other than a red sack from a grocery store where elderly women are closely inspecting every bit of produce they're going to buy.
4. Clementine, Seven Seas, Chile (Sack)
Boom—straight to the face like an orange lollipop. It's the thing you're expecting. Juicy, full segments, an ideal pocket orange.
3. Tangerine, San Miguel, Uruguay (PLU: 4055)
I was ready to give up halfway through the tough, gummy peel but once in, I was knocked back on my heels by the loveliness of it all. So assertively juicy, tart, sweet—like the platonic ideal of a canned mandarin. Falling face-first in a grove of these would be a dream, just mind the seeds.
2. Blood Orange, Australia (PLU: 4381)
Shockingly lovely interior and an almost rudely beautiful flavor. It's a stunning pop of tartness and sweet with a lingering deepness that only improves. This Aussie import is the platonic ideal of a SweeTart, and it's almost unfair that it's this gorgeous and delicious.
1. Satsuma Mandarin, Ripe to You, USA (PLU: 3209)
The smell is a welcome pop of sun, the peel a pleasure to remove, and the taste: COME ON! It's almost laughable how loud and full this flavor is. Unapologetically tart but stops just short of being too acidic. You wouldn't want to eat more than one—I mean you'd WANT to, but the reflux, man. Still, it’s just intensely orange in all the ways you want. Buy every satsuma you can while they're in season. I've never met one that disappoints.