Filed under: in the kitchen
Almost all my favorite tea mixes (not to mention my very favorite beverage aid – mulling spice) contain dried orange chunks or peel in them. I’ve been contemplating crafting my own tea mixes for a while, and up until the last couple of months, I was certain I would simply be buying dried orange from Mountain Rose Herbs or a similar organic retailer. The thought of buying oranges retail and then going through the effort of drying them didn’t seem cost or labor effective. Sad to say, living where a lot of citrus is grown doesn’t seem to translate to savings at the register.
However, I’ve moved to a new neighborhood in the last year, and lucky lucky me, it seems like everyone has a citrus tree of one type or another in their yard. Even better, the neighborhood directly north of me hosts a Produce Exchange on Sunday afternoons. I’ll post more about that later, but suffice to say for now, it meant I could trade the lemons growing in my yard for oranges growing in other peoples’ yards. In fact, the day I happened to attend, there were so many oranges up for grabs that it was more like a 6:1 trade than a 1:1 trade.
My kitchen crowded with free oranges, a gleeful me went to work figuring out how to dry them. Turns out it wasn’t hard at all. But what exactly did I want for my teas? The whole orange dried, or just the zest? Wouldn’t the pith part of drying the whole orange make my teas bitter? An experiment was in order.
After drying a good sized batch of orange slices, and a slightly smaller batch of orange zest, I chopped up a sliced orange and put it in mug #1. In mug #2, I put a healthy pinch of zest. I topped both mugs up with boiling water and let things sit for a while. When the brews were drinkable temperature, I sampled both as if they were the finest of wines and I a most dedicated connoisseur. Which is to say, I sipped and sniffed and rated them on their orangeness. The zest smelled good but tasted weak. The chopped orange slice won hands down. There was no noticeable bitterness from the pith at all.
So orange slices it shall be for my tea. Which is handy, as slices are much less labor intensive than zest. And what to do with the dried orange zest? I’ve discovered it’s a most excellent addition to marmalade.
Dried Orange Slices
The best slices will start with fresh oranges from a tree, which you can count on not to be coated in wax. If you start with store oranges, give them a soapy wash and rinse. For either type, give a good scrub with a natural bristle brush that you reserve for cleaning produce (and not your pots and pans). Slice the oranges with a sharp knife – I found slices between 1/8″ and 3/16″ did best. Try to keep the slice thickness consistent so the slices will dry at the same time.
Lay the slices in a single layer on a heavy duty baking pan lined with a silpat or parchment paper. Set your oven on the lowest temperature it is capable of, and dry the slices until the pulp part of a slice feels dry like a fruit roll-up when pinched between your fingers. About two hours did it for me, but your results will vary based on slice thickness, oven temp, and relative humidity.
When done, let the slices cool to room temperature and store in a glass container with a reasonably sealable lid. On my first batch, I noticed after a few days that the inside of my glass jar was fogging up – a sign that there was still some moisture in my slices. If this happens to you, you can put your slices back in the oven and dry them a little longer, but be careful not to burn them. I simply left the lid a bit ajar so the moisture can escape, and dried the next batch of slices for longer.
Dried Orange Zest/Peel
Dried orange zest is a little more work than the slices, but it does make for great additions in your baking and preserving. Although I have a microplane grater for zesting, I thought that little flakes of zest would be inconvenient for both drying and storage. Instead, I employed the technique used in candying peel, which gives nice big chunks.
Start with fresh oranges from a tree, which you can count on not to be coated in wax. If you start with store oranges, give them a soapy wash and rinse. For either type, give a good scrub with a natural bristle brush that you reserve for cleaning produce (and not your pots and pans). Dry your oranges with a clean dishcloth.
With a sharp paring knife or a hand peeler, peel away large swaths of orange skin. It’s okay to have pith attached, as you’ll remove it in the next step. Once you’ve assembled your pile of peel, sort through it briefly for pieces that have a noticeably thick layer of pith. Lay those pieces skin side down, pith side up, on a cutting board, and scrape the pith away with the edge of a spoon or knife. Thin layers of pith are perfectly fine to leave on your skins. They won’t affect in the final product.
Lay the skins in a single layer on a heavy duty baking pan lined with a silpat or parchment paper. Set your oven on the lowest temperature it is capable of, and dry the skins until they feel crisp. They will dry much much faster than slices, so keep an eye on them. Your results will vary based on slice thickness, oven temp, and relative humidity, so check after the first 20 minutes, and then every five minutes or so after that.
Cool the peels to room temperature, then store in a glass jar.
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