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America is sweet on citrus—even the sour varieties.
Restaurant operators and chefs are increasingly using
oranges, lemons, limes, and other citrus items to liven up their menus with a fresh taste.
If there’s one word that seems to sum up citrus’ taste profile, it’s bright.
“Citrus is incredibly popular because it is so aromatic and has those bright and fresh notes,” says Kevan Vetter, executive chef and manager of culinary product development for seasoning giant McCormick & Co. “It really gives you a pop.”
Adding citrus perks up any dish, he says, whether the flavor comes from the fruit’s juice or even the rind, including zest.
McCormick’s global Flavor Forecast this year includes a half-dozen food trends, epitomized by a pair of taste combinations that include citrus.
One is using Meyer lemons—as in lemon thyme or limoncello—as part of a trend in which foodies seek ultimate taste through quality ingredients, flavors, and textures.
Another trend, “flavorful swaps,” extols the balance of bold flavor with demands for healthy products. One idea: combining grapefruit and red pepper to replace an old standby, lemon pepper.
“There’s just so much you can do with citrus,” says Frank Terranova, a chef and associate instructor of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University’s Providence, Rhode Island, campus. “It’s a very healthful way to deliver freshness and flavor.”
Menu items with citrus in their names or descriptions jumped 21 percent at limited-service restaurants last year, according to Technomic Inc.’s MenuMonitor. Gains were recorded in most meal parts.
Separate research from Mintel found citrus menu mentions grew by two-thirds since 2008, and tripled at small chain restaurants.
That, however, underreports the amount of citrus being used because the fruit is often never mentioned as an ingredient—like limes in Mexican rice, lemons in hummus, or various varieties in sauces.
“Citrus is so much a natural part of these menu items, operators don’t even need to mention them,” says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic, the Chicago market research and consulting company.
The consultancy’s “Flavor Consumer Trend Report” noted diners’ growing sophistication in accepting various layers and fusions of flavors, and citrus is perfect for that. “It adds brightness, acidity, and stands up to something spicy,” she says. “It’s really versatile.”
The single largest category for citrus is nonalcoholic beverages, ranging from orange juice to lemonade, both very traditional items. Most beverage companies and bottlers offer multiple products with orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit flavors.
For some operators, however, citrus drinks can be a differentiator.
Sonic Drive-In’s limeade and cherry limeade beverages have been on the menu since the company’s earliest days in the 1950s, and have been “a brand treasure as long as anyone can remember,” says Matt Schein, senior director of brand marketing.
The cherry version is the company’s top-selling drink, and something customers seek out. “It is always one of the first passion points they will bring up when asked,” he says.
Sonic’s limeade has a proprietary carbonated citrus base and juice from freshly squeezed limes. The company also has orange juice, lemonade made with fresh lemons, and slushies that use oranges and lemons.
Oranges are by far the most popular type of citrus grown in the U.S. Juice typically comes from varieties grown in Florida, and easy-segmenting and eating oranges, such as navels, often come from California.
Growers have been working to get more restaurants to cook with their products.
“For the past four or five years, we’ve really been promoting citrus as an ingredient,” says Vanessa Hodak, director of foodservice and school marketing for the Florida Department of Citrus. “The sweet and sour flavors have a complexity that cooks love.”
The department works with chefs in New York who continually develop all kinds of ingredients using Florida oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines, including sauces, marinades, glazes, and fruit sections or segments, which the experts now call filets.
“It’s affordable, versatile, and so easy to include in recipes,” Hodak says. It also provides dishes with “stealth health,” because citrus contains not only the well-known vitamin C and various other nutrients, but also no fat, sodium, or cholesterol.
“In fact, chefs are using oranges and other citrus as a replacement for sodium, pulling back on saline marinades and injections and using more citrus to tenderize or flavor,” she says.
Terranova says citrus is perfect for tenderizing because the acid “breaks down fibers in meat.” While lemon is a traditional flavor enhancer for seafood and poultry, chefs are increasingly using orange or grapefruit juices and segments instead.
For a company like Moe’s Southwest Grill, the ample use of lime in existing menu items helped maintain a flavor profile that could have been lost when the chain undertook a sharp reduction in salt last year, according to company officials.
“Citrus is a perfect fit for the trend toward fresh and healthy eating with nutritional values and enticing flavors that have long been consumer favorites,” says Claire Smith, director of corporate communications for Sunkist Growers in California and Arizona.
She notes that each variety has a distinct flavor, such as the sweet, tangy zing of high-nutrient, low-acid cara cara navel oranges or the berry overtones of a Moro, the darkest and most flavorful blood orange (named for its red blush rind and burgundy pulp).
New varieties of mandarin oranges are “claiming a growing niche” domestically and overseas, while Meyer lemons—an old Chinese variety—have become popular with chefs for their thin skin, fragrance, and sweeter flavor, she says.
The health benefits of citrus are a big plus for Fresh To Order, a seven-unit chain based in suburban Atlanta.
“I love citrus, and I’d use it anywhere,” says Jesse Gideon, vice president of operations and corporate chef. “Probably 20–25 menu items have citrus notes in them.”
That includes lemon in the balsamic cabernet reduction used in several dishes and orange in a sauce served with grilled salmon. Shrimp is marinated in a lime, chile pepper, and cilantro sauce and then blackened so that the lime isn’t overpowering.
Although most people associate food as salty or sweet, “they forget the acidity levels, which make the flavor pop off your tongue,” Gideon says. “Citrus provides an explosion of flavor, making salt levels brighter without being saltier.”
The fruit is also best when fresh, he says. “Freshly squeezed lemon is much better, because it brings a brightness to round out the flavor.”
Historians say citrus originated in Southeast Asia and spread via trade and conquest. Oranges are an important part of Asian cooking and are also associated with Spain and Italy, while lemons and limes are in Asian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern dishes.
Citrus eventually made its way to America, first with explorers and then, in the West, by Spanish missionaries moving north from Mexico, says Tom Spellman, a director of Citrus Roots, an organization devoted to keeping California’s citrus heritage alive.
“The San Gabriel Mission (founded in 1771) was known for having orange groves,” says Spellman, who works for tree grower Dave Wilson Nursery in Hickman, California.
While several citrus types are grown in Mexico, limes became a predominant fruit in that nation’s cooking. Originally the Mexican lime, similar to the Key lime, was used.
Most Mexican-style limited-service restaurants in the U.S. use lime—sometimes the larger, thinner-rind Persian variety—in many of their dishes. At Café Rio, a Salt Lake City–based chain of 46 units in 10 states, it may be on as much as 70 percent of the menu.
“Lime is in all of our sauces, rice, and salsas and in multiple entrées,” says Ben Craner, chief marketing officer. “It’s in our fresh fruit frescas (drinks) and lime pie.”
Each Café Rio restaurant squeezes about 1,000 limes a day, because the fresh juice makes a big difference. “If you buy the prepared juice pasteurized, it’s a lot more bitter,” he says. “Fresh juice gives you all the natural flavor and essence.”
Lemons and oranges have been in a variety of dishes offered for years at the 70-unit Pick Up Stix chain of Asian restaurants in
“Citrus items are a nice addition to any Asian cuisine menu, as they offset the many traditional soy flavors we have to offer,” says Linda Nelson, COO for the company. “The fragrant aroma of fresh citrus used in dishes adds to the senses.”
Lemon chicken has a light, sweet lemon sauce, while orange chicken includes fresh orange peel along with chicken, water chestnuts, green onions, and red chili pepper.
The chain’s Pad Thai is garnished with fresh lime to stick with the traditional and expected style, while Mandarin oranges are an ingredient in the Chinese Chicken Salad.
The lime in Pad Thai is part of the Americanization of global foods, says Technomic’s Chapman. “Like many foods, it’s now what we consider the correct way to serve it.”
But traditional Thai cooking employs the Kaffir lime plant that produces a small fruit with a bumpy rind. The flavor often derives from the leaves and peel, not the juice.
Various citrus varieties, including lemons and some Japanese hybrids, are used in ponzu sauce at some U.S. quick serves.
Mandarin oranges, a cousin of the tangerine, have increasingly become fundamental to Asian salads at dozens of American restaurants and chains.
Segments from the small fruit were used in 2002 by Wendy’s in its premium Mandarin Chicken Salad, part of the Garden Sensations line. The following year, McDonald’s launched an upscale Asian salad with Mandarin oranges. Neither remained a regular menu item.
These days, Mandarin segments can be found on all types of dishes, even as a pizza topping.
Lemon juice and zest are favorites in Greek and Middle Eastern dishes, including glazes and marinades, particularly for poultry and salmon.
The juice is key in hummus.
“When people think of hummus, they are thinking about chickpeas, tahini, and lemon,” says Kyle Frederick, director of food and beverage for Zoë’s Kitchen, a 57-unit Mediterranean restaurant chain based in Birmingham, Alabama.
“The lemon balances it out, so you hardly need salt,” he says.
All of the seafood served at Zoë’s comes with a traditional lemon wedge, while the shrimp and salmon kabobs are finished with lemon oil.
Some Mediterranean cultures figured out long ago that a balanced diet is important to fitness, and citrus has health benefits that are part of that, Frederick says.
While dessert is not always the healthiest part of the meal, citrus has taken a big role in those dishes, whether it’s Key lime or lemon pie, orange topping on cheesecake, or various flavors for ice cream, frozen yogurt, smoothies, milkshakes, and shaved ices.
Rita’s Italian Ice uses fresh fruit, juices, and concentrates in its items, including Alex’s Lemonade, Florida Orange, and Key Lime ices. Lemon ices alone use 1.5 million lemons annually.
A new margarita flavor—margaritas and mojitos are increasingly popular alcoholic drinks that traditionally are made with lime juice—will launch this spring.
“The flavors with citrus are refreshing and sweet, yet tart,” says Jonathan Fornaci, president and chief executive of the Trevose, Pennsylvania–based chain. Fans say the citrus flavors “burst in your mouth.”