Just under the wire before Christmas, here’s an edible gift idea: candied citrus peels. Start them tonight, and they’ll be ready by Saturday.
I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s probably my greatest kitchen love-hate relationship. On the one hand, candied citrus peels are incredibly delicious, a real show-offy gift, and a great way to use up food scraps. On the other hand, making them is labor-intensive. Not difficult or complicated–just a lot of f’n work.
That said, this is the kind of elaborate kitchen project that even a rank newbie can take on. All you need is a sharp knife, a pot or two, a lot of water and some sugar, and a place to set your peels to dry. Beyond that, what matters isn’t skill so much–it’s patience.
Below is a long, elaborate explanation of how I do this. The short version is: peel yourself some citrus and cut the peels into pieces. Blanch the peels in boiling water a few times. Simmer the peels in simple syrup for about an hour. Lay the peels out to dry for a day or two. Coat the dried peels in sugar or chocolate. Done.
I usually save citrus peels in the freezer and make a big batch of candy every few months. Every time, about 24 hours into the process, I wonder why I got myself into this. Then I take a nibble, and remember: oh, yeah. It’s because candied citrus peels are amazing.
Candied Citrus Peels
This process will work for just about any kind of citrus. So far, I’ve done this with oranges, lemons, Meyer lemons, grapefruits, pomelos, tangerines, and Buddha’s hand citron. I like to candy one kind of citrus at a time, but you could certainly do a mix.
Harvest the peels
Start with organic, unwaxed fruit if possible. Otherwise, scrub your fruit vigorously under hot water before peeling it.
Use a sharp paring knife to slice a thin disc off each end of each fruit. Score the peel into quarters and carefully remove the peel from the fruit, saving the fruit itself for another use. Cut the peels into whatever shapes you like. (If using citron, which has no flesh, just cut the whole thing into pieces.)
Blanch the peels
Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the peels, boil for 1 minute, then drain. Refill the pot with fresh water, and repeat the process until the pith softens and the bitterness is tamed to your liking.
This is actually the most labor-intensive part of the whole process–boil water, blanch peels, drain peels, refill pot, lather, rinse, repeat. To speed things up, I like to keep a kettle of water boiling on the back burner and use it to refill the blanching pot. It makes the process go much faster, and also means I have hot water for tea to drink while I work!
How many times you blanch the peels is up to you. Each blanching washes away some of the bitterness of the pith, but also some of the citrus flavor. Alice Medrich’s rule of thumb is to blanch twice for thin-skinned fruit like Meyer lemons and tangerines; three times for medium-skinned fruit like oranges and lemons; and four times for thick-skinned fruit like grapefruit. I like a nice balance of bitter and sweet in my candy, so I tend to blanch fewer times rather than more.
Simmer the peels in simple syrup
Place the blanched peels in a deep-sided pan or pot. Add water in 1/2 cup (4 oz) increments until the peels are almost covered, then add an equal amount of granulated sugar. For example, if it takes 1 1/2 cups (12 oz) water to almost-cover the peels, add 1 1/2 cups (12 oz) sugar. (Conveniently, water and sugar weigh about the same cup-for-cup.)
Bring to a boil, then adjust the heat to keep the mixture at a steady, vigorous simmer. Simmer the peels, uncovered, for about 1 hour, or until the pith is evenly translucent and the syrup is slightly thickened. If you have an instant-read thermometer or candy thermometer, cook the peels until the syrup registers at least 220º F.
Dry and coat the peels
Strain the peels out of their syrup–more on that later–and lay them out on cooling racks, making sure they don’t touch. Put each rack on top of a baking sheet or a piece of paper/foil to catch any drips. Let the peels dry at room temperature for about 24 hours, until they’re sticky but no longer wet to the touch.
At this point, you have two options for finishing:
- Sugar. Working a few at a time, toss the peels in granulated or superfine sugar to coat. This is sticky work, so I like keeping a bowl of warm water and a towel nearby for dipping and drying my fingers. Once the peels have been sugared, lay them back out and let them dry for another couple of hours. Transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature for a few weeks, or in the fridge for several months.
- Chocolate. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Melt any chocolate of your choice–dark, milk, or white–and coat the peels in the chocolate. Lay the chocolate-dipped peels on the baking sheet and place in the refrigerator until the chocolate sets. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the fridge for a few weeks. (You can temper the chocolate if you want to store the peels at room temperature, but it’s a lot of extra hassle and I’m usually too exhausted to bother by this point.)
For an extra-fancy look, coat the peels in sugar and then dip them partway in chocolate, leaving a bit of the end exposed. Very nice.
Save the syrup
Once you’ve strained the peels, you’ll be left with a batch of thick, fragrant, bittersweet citrus syrup. This, to me, is the real treasure of citrus-candying–it’s fabulous in cocktails, or even just stirred into sparkling water and served over ice. Refrigerate the cooled syrup and use it quickly: mine usually keeps about two weeks in an unsterilized container, or closer to a month in a sterilized one.
To sterilize, I just pop a glass jar or bottle and a funnel in a 250º F oven while the peels simmer. Then I strain the peels over the funnel into the jar while everything is still hot. Let the jar cool on the counter before refrigerating, and keep an eye on the syrup over time–if it turns cloudy, it’s ready to toss.