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Should You Refrigerate Citrus Fruits?

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If you think citrus should be stored in the refrigerator, raise your hand. You're right! Citrus fruits should be refrigerated. But not so fast—those of you who've been keeping your lemons and oranges in a bowl on the counter are right, too.

If you've been firmly in one camp for as long as you can remember (either because your parents did it that way, or you're convinced either the room or the fridge dries out citrus, or you only like cold fruit—or vice versa), you might be wondering: How could this be so?

Well, citrus, like any other fruit, begins the decomposition process as soon as it's off the tree. For citrus, this means drying out—a process that can be slowed by refrigeration. But citrus also tastes best (and is juicier!) at room temperature. So what's a citrus lover to do? Refrigerate—and then bring to room temp before eating.

Here's why:

Hello, pomelo.
Hello, pomelo. Photo by James Ransom

Citrus begin the drying-out process as soon as they're off the tree, and that's reason enough to chill your lemons and limes. But if you live far from the source (i.e., you didn't just pluck a couple of fruits off your backyard tree or out of a crate at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market), your citrus found its way to you in a refrigerated truck:

"Your fruit was picked and it was warm. Then it was packed and refrigerated and sent to you—and unless you refrigerate it, it gets warm again," Scott Matthew, a procurement manager for Florida-based citrus growers Hale Groves, explained. That kind of temperature variation isn't good for anything, but especially for something fairly delicate like fruit.

Happy, refrigerated blood oranges make for happy, refreshing cocktails.
Happy, refrigerated blood oranges make for happy, refreshing cocktails. Photo by James Ransom

Citrus fruits will store best between 40° F and 50° F, Patrick Ahern, a senior buyer for Baldor Food told me. He recommends keeping them in your refrigerator's crisper drawer, out of any plastic bags. Additionally, "You want to keep it dry. Don’t rinse the fruit first," he said. Rinse as you're eating, but not before, to prevent mold from growing.

If you don't have much fridge space to spare, simply keep citrus in a cool, dry place—like a laundry room or garage—and away from any heat vents or sunlight, as Destiny Marquez, owner of Pearson Ranch in Porterville, California, does with oranges from her ranch. Terry Crockett, of Crockett Farms in Harlingen, Texas, leaves her grapefruits in a box in the cool outdoors. "I don't mind if the skin starts to get a little shrivelly," she told me. "People sometimes feel that if it doesn’t look good on the outside, it won’t be good on the inside, but that’s not how citrus works." (The peel of a citrus fruit may have blemishes, but very rarely do the blemishes on the fruit's thick skin indicate that anything is wrong beneath the surface.)

If you do choose to leave the fruit out of the refrigerator, make sure the room they're in is cool and, advised farmer Al Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, California, they're not piled up on each other: "Wherever food is touching each other, that’s where moisture will accumulate and a fungus will get started."

Photo by James Ransom

The farmers I spoke to agreed that, for the most part, your fruit won't suffer on the counter if you're going to eat it right away—and for a few members of the Food52 team that I polled, that's exactly why they choose to keep their oranges out in the first place: so they'd be in plain sight, and would be eaten quickly. ("The fridge keeps it good for longer, but that doesn’t matter if I completely forget about it and don’t end up eating it at all," our editor Leslie Stephens said.) Scott, the procurement manager for Hale Grove, was passionate that we should only buy as much fruit as we're realistically going to eat within a week. "Fruit has a finite lifespan," he said—even citrus, which, with its leathery skin, you'd think might stick around a while.

And it will stick around if you keep it in the fridge—up to a couple of weeks (though, with most fresh produce, the sooner you eat it, the better). When you do get around to eating your citrus, said Patrick of Baldor, bring it to room temperature first by letting it sit out on the counter for a day or two. "When you bring it to room temp, you get a little more juice out of the cells and there’s a little more flavor," he said.

Do you keep your citrus out on the counter, or tucked away in the fridge? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Tags: Citrus, Fruit, Winter, Tips & Techniques