The Sour or Bitter Orange: It's Many Uses And Culinary Applications

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

The name “sour orange or bitter orange”, also known as Seville orange, bigarade orange, and marmalade orange, refers to a citrus tree (Citrus aurantium) and its fruit. (1)

In Spanish-speaking countries the sour orange is called naranja ácida or naranja agria. In Arabic, it is naranji; in Italian, melangolo; in India, khatta; in French or American Samoa, moli, and in Guam, soap orange. The uses for sour orange or bitter orange are many and it is just recently being discovered by the United States markets due in large part to the influx of Latin American populations and their culinary predilections.

It’s Far-Reaching Origins and Background:

South Seas Islanders believe the fruit to have been brought to their shores since pre-historic times.  It was known to the Arabians since the 9th century. Similar reported sightings of the species come from Sicily and Spain at about the same time and it was the only known orange for over 500 years. Having been brought over to the New World, it was cultivated and quickly sprung up in: Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere in the West Indies. In short, this bitter little fruit has really been all over the place. A different species has also been cultivated in both the French and Italian Rivieras areas. In England and the rest of the United Kingdom, sour oranges are used primarily to make marmalade. (2)

   After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the herbal stimulant ephedra, manufacturers substituted bitter orange in many herbal weight-loss products, and still remains a prime ingredient in these types of products.

   After the Florida State Department of Agriculture’s citrus fiasco in the late 1990’s, there were public outcries over the determination of the department’s decision to tear down and eliminate all citrus trees in South Florida in order to stop the spread of canker disease to the rest of the state. As it turned out, it was the workers of the agriculture department themselves who had inadvertently spread the disease by in their tramping from one private back yard and grove to another. The South Florida Cuban citizenry claimed a conspiracy was launched against the private home owners by large citrus industry owners to the northern part of the state. Most every private yard, (including this writer’s) had at least two sour or bitter orange trees. And that’s not counting grapefruit, lemon and/or lime trees. This is part of the Cuban culture and war was declared at the ballot box. Needless to say it cost many local (and state) officials their elected positions around November.

Propagation and Maintenance:

Easily grown from seedlings, sour orange or bitter oranges can bud from 1 to 2 years and some have been found to be as old as 600 years old. This fruit is hardy and has a tremendous ability to survive just about anything that can be thrown at it, (except the Florida Dept. of Agriculture).

Primary Uses:

Sour oranges or bitter oranges are indispensable to and primarily used for perfumes and for it’s essential oils, as it is more fragrant than the more commonly known valencia or navel sweet oranges. In honey bee production, it also provides nectar for the honey bees.

In Cuba, the sour orange’s or bitter orange’s wood from it’s tree is valued for cabinetwork and is fashioned into baseball bats.

As far as medicinal purposes, sour orange or bitter orange juice is antiseptic, anti-bilious and homoeostatic. In many parts of Africa, persons apply the cut-open orange on ulcers and areas of the body afflicted with rheumatism.

In Italy, Mexico and Latin America generally, concoctions of the leaves are given for their soporific, antispasmodic, stimulant, tonic and stomach healing action. Many times, the flowers, are prepared as a syrup and act as a sedative in nervous disorders and help induce sleep.

However, the sour oranges or bitter oranges variety has become popular in the United States with the introduction of Mojo.  Mojo is a marinade juice made up of sour orange juice, garlic, cumin, olive oil, vinegar and salt/pepper to taste. Some West Indian variations include oregano and hot Scotch Bonnet peppers.

Commonly sold in bottles in any Latin grocery store, Mojo is used primarily to marinade (a whole day if need be), chicken, red meats, pork, and poultry, in general. It is a prime element of the traditional “Noche Buena” celebration of Christmas Eve where its poured over the traditional roast pork over a pit or “caja china”, after marinading in the Mojo for an entire day.

Below, is a very simple recipe to be put together for both Mojo and English marmalade – Enjoy!


6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds, freshly toasted

1 cup pure olive oil

1/3 cup sour orange juice (you can substitute 1/3 cup combined orange and lime juices)

2 teaspoons Spanish sherry vinegar

Freshly toasted and ground black pepper, to taste

-In a mortar mash garlic, Scotch bonnet, salt, and cumin until smooth. Scrape into bowl, set aside.

-In a saucepan over medium heat, warm oil until just hot and pour over garlic-chili mix, stir.

-Remove pan from heat and let stand 10 minutes.

-Whisk sour orange juice and vinegar. Salt and pepper.

-Refrigerated, will keep up to 3 months.Enjoy!


-Pick 6 or 7 sour oranges, wash, and slice thinly seeding the slices

-Put them in a pot with a quart of water.

-The seeds go into another smaller pot with a cup of water.

-The small pot goes on the boil, for 5 minutes

-Strain the liquid, add to the big pot, discard seeds.

-Bring the large pot to a boil, let simmer 10 minutes.

-Turn off the pot and cover for 8 hours.

-Return pot to a boil, reduce heat, simmer until the peels get tender.

-Dump in sugar until you feel you have enough.

-Now cook until it’s thick enough to jell.

-You may want to watch the pot sugar water if it boils over is a mess.

That’s it!





Authored by Beverly Anne Sanchez, 2010


About Author

Leave A Reply