Bitter Orange Marmalade

I just spent two days making orange marmalade with son Nico and his wife. Elegant citrus aromas filled the house as we simmered, stirred, tested and retested, and the result: five jars of a clear brilliant yellow-orange marmalade made with white sugar, then eight jars of an astonishingly tasty evolution of a River Cottage recipe that simmers for two hours before demerara sugar gets stirred in.

The pale brown, unrefined sugar gives a wonderfully deep color and dark, complex flavor to the jam.

I’ve posted the recipes for you to choose–or make both as we did. You do need bitter oranges, aka Seville oranges, aka sour oranges. Regular sweet oranges, no matter where they’re from, simply don’t make interesting jam. I bought bitter oranges from, an on-line company that was good to deal with—they really worked to expedite the oranges to me from sunny southern California to the frozen depths of coastal Maine.

Bitter orange peel, slivered for marmalade

Bitter orange peel, slivered for marmalade

In the UK, where their use in marmalade originated, bitter oranges are called Seville oranges. I’m not going to go into tales of marmalade’s invention but just note that the fruits come, not surprisingly, from Seville in Andalucia. Bitter orange trees line the old town streets and perfume the April air with their fragrant blossoms during the Feria de Sevilla, an annual explosion of joy when the entire city closes down to party for a week. (In 2011, because Easter is so late, the Feria will actually take place the first week of May.)

The River Cottage recipe is easy, if time-consuming (all marmalade making is time-consuming). You’ll need 2 pounds of oranges (that’s about 8 bitter oranges which are rather small), plus about 3 pounds of demerara sugar, the juice of half a lemon, and, if you wish, about a quarter-cup of whiskey (traditional) or Armagnac (which we used because we ran out of whisky).

As with any citrus that isn’t certified organic, you should scrub the oranges well with soap and water before using them. Squeeze out all the juice and set it aside. Don’t discard the seeds—that’s where the pectin is and you need it to set the marmalade. Wrap the seeds and any pulp that comes with them in a square of clean muslin or a double layer of cheesecloth and tie with twine to make a little sack. Now, take the peels, pith and all, and sliver or chunk them. (If the latter, don’t make the chunks too big because they are hard to spread on toast.) Put everything into a big bowl—the cut peels, the seed bag, and the orange juice—and add about 2 quarts of cool water. Set aside, covered, and leave to soak overnight.

Next day transfer it all to a large stainless steel saucepan and bring to a simmer. Partially cover and simmer very slowly for a good two hours, or until the bits of peel are tender and the liquid has reduced by a third to a half. Discard the bag of seeds, after squeezing it to add its juice to the pan.

At this point, a candy thermometer is useful but if you don’t have one, put a saucer in the freezer to chill and use for testing.

Over low heat, stir the sugar and lemon juice into the oranges until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat slightly and cook at a rolling boil for about 25 or 30 minutes—until the jam has reached 220 to 240 degrees on the thermometer; or test by dropping a little spoonful of marmalade on the chilled saucer. If it firms up quickly, it’s done. You can also test by holding up spoonfuls of jam over the pot. If it sheets, rather than drips, from the side of the spoon, the jam is done. Take the pot off the heat and let cool down for about 10 minutes, then stir in the booze if you’re using it.

Transfer the marmalade to sterile jars and seal immediately. When the jar lids make that satisfying “ping,” you’ll know they’re sealed tightly.

The other recipe, the one that made a lighter colored jam with a more forward flavor of citrus, was also an evolution that began with instructions in the New Doubleday Cookbook, a wonderful book compiled years ago by my friend Jean Anderson. I confess I turn to that book the way others turn to the Joy of Cooking, for authoritative advice about all the pieces of kitchen information that are sometimes hard to keep in one’s own head. Here’s my version of the recipe:

Again, scrub 2 pounds of oranges with soap and water before using. Juice and seed them, just as you did with the earlier recipe. Set the juice aside and put the seeds and any bits of flesh in a small bowl. Now, take the empty rinds and, using a serrated grapefruit spoon, scrape away the insides, the white pith, as much as you can, to leave a shell not more than ¼ inch thick (a good deal easier than it sounds). Add the scraped pith to the seeds in the bowl. Again, sliver or chunk the peel.

Combine the peel with the juice in a stainless steel saucepan or kettle and add 2 cups of cool water. Wrap the seeds and the pith in a muslin or cheesecloth bag, as described above, and immerse the bag in the saucepan. Set over medium-low heat, bring to a simmer, and simmer gently, covered, for 30 minutes, then remove from the heat and set aside overnight.

Next day, discard the seed bag. Measure the stuff in the pan and add water if necessary to make 4 cups. Then for each cup add a cup of regular white sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for another 30 to 40 minutes, or until the jam is ready—as described above, when the temperature gets up to 220 to 240 degrees or the jam sheets off the side of the spoon.

Add booze if you wish, put in sterile jars and seal, as described above.

You’ll note that this contains a good deal less sugar than the earlier recipe and yet it’s sweeter, less bitter. Why? I can only think it’s the difference between the two sugars, with demerara adding more complex flavors. Which do I prefer? Impossible to say—they both have considerable virtues.

Does marmalade need further processing? I don’t think so. The combination of sugar and acid should be sufficient to preserve it for a very long time. But I can guarantee that it will be entirely consumed long before you have to think about that.

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  • Reply Jessica February 6, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Beautiful photos! I can’t wait to taste the results…maybe we should bake some bread in honor of the marmalade?

  • Reply allison April 1, 2012 at 4:58 am

    Hi, I have been reading your recipe, and am wondering if the outcome still carries a bitter flavor? My first attempt at making marmalade from bitter oranges (not using your recipe) came out so bitter I added 5 pounds of sugar and it was quite unpalatable.

  • Reply Adam November 22, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Useful info. Lucky me I found your website by chance, and I’m stunned why this coincidence didn’t came about in advance!
    I bookmarked it.

  • Reply Sissy March 23, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    I made a batch today using the first recipe & it is amazing! I have 4 bitter orange trees & a ton of fruit so I will definitely be making more. Thank you for sharing these recipes!

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