This is a story of bitter orange, naranja agria. I came to love this little bundle of pucker power through the cuisine of the Yucatán peninsula. There, bitter orange is everywhere in the food, most famously in the signature dish, conchinita pibil, an intoxicating alchemy of naranja agria, chile heat, and low and slow pit cooking. While chiles and the Yucatán swing on pit barbecue are critical elements here, the one thing you absolutely can’t do pibil without is bitter orange.
Bitter Orange is seminal to a bunch more cuisines as well, from Cuban and other Caribbean islands, to Spanish, Moroccan, and Persian. This is not, for the most part, an eating or drinking orange and juice, although in Mexico, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see them sliced, salted, and slathered in chile paste as a snack. These oranges are very bitter indeed, and sour to boot – Think more lemon or lime than orange in that regard. Yet the orangey notes are most definitely there, and that’s what brings the magic.
Also known as Seville orange, sour orange, marmalade orange, naranja acida, naranji, melangolo, and even soap orange, Citrus x aurantium originated in Southeast Asia and spread rapidly around the globe. Natives of the South Sea Islands believe it hit their shores prehistorically. It was the sole European orange for hundreds of years, and the first to arrive on this side of the pond. Now grown commercially virtually worldwide, bitter orange trees range from maybe 10 feet to over 30 feet. It’s generally a thorny evergreen tree, with leaves and flowers that smell absolutely delightful, and smallish fruit, 2 to 4 inches or so, and thick, wrinkly, oily skins, (that make great marmalade, of course.)
As favored as these fruit are to so many cuisines, it’s natural that numerous varieties have been established. Seville is probably the most internationally recognizable, but there’s also the English bergamot (bouquet here in the states), the chinotto from the Mediterranean, the daidai from Japan and China, the Californian goleta, the South American Paraguay, and the Indian karna – There’s a bunch more than this, but you get the idea – They’re beloved all over the place.
There’s a nice range of notable food uses for sour orange, other than powering sauces and marinades – The peels make amazing marmalade, of course. Oil squeezed from the peels is a signature orange flavoring for curaçao liqueur, candy, soft drinks, ice cream, and a bunch of other stuff. Orange blossom honey is a treat wherever you can find it. Orange flower water finds its way into Middle Eastern and Persian food. In quite a few places, the juice is fermented into wine – I’ve never tried that, but I’d like to.
There are some very interesting non-food uses for naranja agria, tambien – when the fruit and leaves are crushed together, they’ll lather in water, and are sometimes used as soap. The perfume industry loves the oil and flowers. The juice has antiseptic and hemostatic properties. And finally, the wood is nice stuff – Dense and hard, it was used in Cuba for baseball bats.
So, now that you’re all excited to join the party, it’s time for some good news/bad news – First, the bad – in all likelihood, you won’t find decent sour orange juice anywhere near you – In fact, you probably won’t find it at all. Oh sure, there’s stuff out there called bitter or sour orange – Goya, Badia, and Lechonera are the brands you’re most likely to see – But the fact is, none of them are bitter orange juice. They contain, variously, orange juice concentrate, other juices like lime, lemon, or grapefruit, and at best, a little bit of sour orange oil, and a bunch of stabilizers and preservatives – the Lechonera brand, in fact, has lists propylene glycol as the seventh ingredient therein – In other words, at best these are shelf stable, pale shadows of the real thing.
The good news is, if you have a decent Latin grocery near you, there’s a 90%+ chance they sell fresh naranja agria, (and same goes for a Persian or Middle Eastern grocery, where they’ll probably call them Persian oranges). I get plump, juicy Valencias for around 50¢ a pop at La Gloria in Bellingham, WA. Do make sure you confirm they’re agria, (albeit they’ll probably have the little sticker on them telling what variety and place of origin they are). They’ll last like most citrus, good for three to four weeks refrigerated in a drawer designed for holding produce. Four or five is plenty to provide enough juice for most recipes. As with all citrus, look for firm, heavy fruit. More so than sweet oranges, bitters may have some green on their skins and still be ripe.
Now, what to do if you get a sudden hankerin’ to build something that calls for bitter orange when you ain’t got none? Then, it’s definitely time to fake it. As those commercial marinades indicate, the proper substitution is a combination of citrus juices, and maybe even some vinegar. The key here is the taste of orange forward in the mix, with the sourness of lemons, limes, and maybe vinegar – Again, naranja agria is really, really acidic – truly sour, with bitter notes from the oils. What you really need to do, assuming you’re into this, is try fresh squeezed sour orange juice, and then concoct what most closely resembles that to your taste – Everyone’s different, so your mix shall be your own.
When I posted a piece on pibil back in May of ‘17, I was using a mix of orange juice, lemon juice, cider vinegar, and tequila – And for the record, no, I don’t do that any more, and yes, I’ve revised that post. My current, (and consistently used), go to sour orange sub mix has morphed into equal portions of orange juice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and a minor share of pineapple vinegar, (the latter comes from Rancho Gordo and is worth its weight in gold). I build it in just shy of one cup batches, like so,
Urban’s Faux Sour Orange
All juices fresh squeezed
1/4 Cup Orange Juice
1/4 Cup Grapefruit Juice
1/4 Cup Lime Juice
2 Tablespoons Pineapple Vinegar (Good Cider vinegar is just fine)
Again, you’ll have to experiment and tweak things to your liking. Finally, here’s a Cuban inspired chicken dish that’ll take full advantage of naranja agria you can give a try to.
Urban’s Pollo al Cubano
1 whole chicken, around 3 pounds
1 Cup fresh Bitter Orange Juice (or Sub)
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
1-3 Hatch or Anaheim Chiles, (Assuming you can’t get fresh Cubanelles – If you can, do)
1 small Sweet Onion
1 Red Bell Pepper
4-6 fat cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano
2 Bay Leaves
Salt and fresh ground Pepper
Butterfly the chicken, (if you don’t know this trick, check it out here)
Skin and trim onion and garlic.
Fine dice onion, and mince the garlic.
Stem and seed chiles, then fine dice.
Stem, seed, and fine dice the bell pepper.
In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil and allow to heat through.
Add chiles, peppers, and onion. Sauté until the onion starts to turn translucent, about 3-5 minutes.
Add the garlic and continue to sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about another 1-2 minutes.
Remove veggie blend from heat and allow to cool to room temp.
Zest and juice whatever citrus you’re using.
In a non-reactive bowl, combine juice, zest, remaining oil, the cooled sofrito, oregano, bay leaves, a pinch of salt, and a few twists of ground pepper. Whisk to fully incorporate.
Place the chicken in a baking dish as close to the size of the butterflied bird as you’ve got.
Pour the marinade on the chicken, and then rub it in by hand, making sure all exposed surfaces get coated, including underneath.
Allow the bird to marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 3 – Any more than that can lead to a mushy chicken.
Bake the bird on a middle rack in a 350° F oven, or grill it if you prefer –
I like to bake, because more of the marinade stays with the chicken.
Serve with rice, black beans, and cold beer.