Last winter I kept the house stocked on oranges from Fiddleheads, mainly with the intent of staving off colds (the plan worked marvelously, by the way); halfway to pitching some of the rind into the compost bucket one day it occurred to me, "Oh, wait a minute - I can dry this stuff and use in it recipes, can't I?"
Why did it take so long for that to occur to me (apart from a distressing lack of mental acuity on my part)? Aside from the classic "We didn't do that when I was growing up" excuse, which comes in amazingly handy on all sorts of occasions (trust me), I think it may well have a lot to do with the fact that I was conditioned by decades of eating non-organic oranges, which we all knew had been sprayed to keep them pretty and long-lasting in storage, but you certainly didn't want to take the risk of drying them and consuming whatever toxins were sprayed on them. (That those toxins might also be inside the rinds, which are porous after all, somehow did not occur to me and, I suspect, to a lot of other people, until much later.)
Happily, we have baskets of organic citrus fruit on display and overflowing all season long at the co-op: mandarins (first satsumas, then murcotts); navel, hamlin and red cara cara oranges; blood oranges, tangelos, tangerines, and so on. The rinds can be dried very easily and saved for culinary purposes throughout the year: use them to flavor homebrewed beer or root beer; use them in place of or in addition to freshly grated zest when most citrus is out of season; toss a few handfuls into homemade granola. You can even drop some into an airtight tin of loose dry black or green tea that needs a bit of oomph, along with vanilla bean, anise, cardamon, or any spices of choosing. (The technique would be the same, of course, for any citrus fruit: lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc.)
Select the freshest fruit you can find, choosing varieties that have relatively thick rinds, for ease of handling. Tangerines, or other oranges with very thin skins are, ironically, more difficult to work. Also avoid any peel that has begun to dry even slightly sitting on your kitchen table; as the skin shrivels, the pith seems to become attached as tightly as an adult child who cannot bear to move away from Mama. There's just no getting between those two, so best save yourself the heartache.
Tear the rind off in chunks or strips, either from stem to navel or around the circumference, and peel off any loose layers of the bitter white pith. I personally find strips easier to work with, probably because the edges provide my hand and eye with a "guide" of sorts. (If you are the person who can write beautifully straight sentences on unlined sheets of paper, that probably won't be a concern for you.)
Lay the strips skin-side down on your flat surface and carefully pare or shave as much of the remaining pith as possible from the zest with a small, sharp paring knife with a straight (not serrated edge.) Hold the knife as parallel to the surface of your board/table as possible, and with a slight sawing motion move across the surface.
Once you've removed as much of the pith as possible, tear the strips into pieces, lay on a plate or tray and allow to air-dry. (I put mine on a dinner plate and stick them on a slightly-shaded corner of the kitchen table near the wall, where they won't be disturbed.) When the pieces snap and break crisply, rather than bend, they are done. Put them in a good zip bag and gently squeeze out any excess air before zipping shut, or put in an airtight tin or similar container. In either case, it's best to keep out of direct sunlight.
I find 12-48 hours is sufficient time to dry, and sometimes less depending on the heat of the house, the humidity and so on. Very small pieces may be ready overnight. The smaller the pieces the faster they will dry, of course. If stored properly they will last pretty much indefinitely; the bagful I made last winter got me through nearly an entire year.
As a comparison, the photograph above is of a sample I bought from one of my favorite organic herb and spice companies; generally I am very happy with their products, but you see how different their dried zest looks to my own. In fact, there's a lot of little chunks of what look to be pieces of pith. It works well enough in a pinch, but hasn't the same intense flavor the homemade does (predictably); and the homemade looks very pretty sprinkled into that aforementioned granola before or after popping the baking tray into the oven.
If you eventually get comfortable, or cocksure*, enough with the technique, you can pare the rind from the fruit from the outside, while the skin is still intact, and then pare away any bits of remaining pith on the underside. I have actually done this when I want fresh zest, as none of my erstwhile graters seems to do the job properly on the peel but can shred my fingertips with astonishing precision. I love "blood oranges" but that's taking the idea a bit too literally for my taste.
*No, that's no my favorite word, either, but let's be honest: "ovumsure" just doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?
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Text and photos copyright 2011-2013 Janice Janostak unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.