Popular Oranges for Cooking: Navel, Cara Cara & Blood Oranges

Segments of Navel Orange, Cara Cara Orange and Blood Orange on blue ad white geometric print plate

Oranges can be used in so many ways when cooking. Orange zest, orange rind and of course orange juice are versatile ingredients in all sorts of sweet and savoury dishes. However, not all oranges have the same flavours and characteristics. Some are sweeter, some more tart and there can be big colour variations. We look at three of the most popular orange varieties for cooking, including the navel orange, sweet Cara Cara navel oranges and beautifully coloured blood orange.

spoons of different orange juice and fresh orange slices with text "Popular oranges for cooking, Cara Cara, Navel and Blood Oranges"

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How many types of oranges are there?

When you think of oranges, you probably think of the most popular varieties in the store, such as Washington navel oranges or Valencia oranges. These are the characteristic large round bright orange citrus fruits we know and love today.

Traditional oranges actually originated from Asia, where southeast China is today. The first oranges were actually small and bitter, and not really very edible at all. Sweet oranges were first cultivated hundreds of years ago, most likely by crossing an early Mandarin orange with a pomelo. From these early beginnings, sweet oranges have travelled around the world and are now commercially grown in countries like Spain, Italy, Brazil the US and Australia. These locations have the perfect climate to grow citrus.

Through natural variations and deliberate cultivation, there are now hundreds of orange varieties available today. Some of the widely known varieties include:

  • sweet oranges such as:
    • Washington navel
    • Valencia
    • Belladona
    • Cara Cara
    • Byeonggyul
    • Jaffa
    • Hamlin
    • Mandarin
    • Lima
    • Murcott
  • sour or bitter oranges such as:
    • Seville
    • Bergmot
    • Chinotto
    • Narinj
  • other hybrid varieties like:
    • Clementines
    • Tangelos
    • Tangerines

and many others.

Choosing the right orange for cooking

Recipes with orange as an ingredient normally include oranges for the characteristic sweet citrus flavour. Different types of oranges have varying levels of sweetness and some can even be slightly tart.

The type of orange you choose could depend on whether you are making a sweet or savoury dish. It may also depend on which part of the orange is used in your recipe: rind or zest, flesh or juice. Oranges can also be chosen for the colour that they add to a dish. That’s where the choice of orange can make a big difference.

Here are my 3 favourite orange varieties for cooking a variety of dishes. I haven’t included mandarin oranges (also called mandarines), tangerines or other smaller varieties in this line up, as I tend to think of these as types of citrus all of their own.

Navel Orange

Naval oranges are probably the most commonly found oranges at the store and are a staple for cooking. They are named after the similarity between the bottom end of the orange with a navel or belly-button. There are many different varieties of navel oranges, but Washington navels are the oldest and probably the most popular.

What makes naval oranges a good choice for cooking? Navel oranges are a perfect for cooking because they:

  • have a think rind that is great for zesting;
  • are easy to peel for recipes that require orange segments or peeled slices; and
  • don’t have any seeds.

Naval oranges are also sweet, but not too sweet, which makes them perfect for cakes, muffins and desserts, but also versatile enough to use in savoury orange dishes too. Orange goes really well with poultry dishes like chicken or duck.

The juice of naval oranges is sweet initially, but can tend to fade quickly. The colour is a lovely orange but not as vibrant as some other varieties. So if you are looking to add natural colour to desserts, you might prefer a different orange like the Cara Cara navel.

Cara Cara Orange

Cara Cara oranges are a type of navel orange, also called a scarlet navel. This variety is another natural cultivar that was discovered in Venezuela. It is a medium sized fruit without seeds.

The flesh of the Cara Cara is a beautiful pink colour, although not as red as a blood orange. This colour comes from an increased amount of natural lycopenes in the fruit. Unlike blood oranges, the juice of Cara Cara navels is not deep pink or red but rather slightly darker shade of orange.

What sets Cara Cara oranges apart from a standard navel is both its pink coloured flesh and its sweetness. This makes Cara Cara oranges perfect for:

  • desserts and baked goods like cakes and muffins;
  • fruit salads; and
  • jams and jellies.

Dried Cara Cara orange slices also look beautifully vibrant, If you are looking for an even more dramatic pink colour in your cooking, you might prefer to use blood oranges.

Blood Orange

Named for their deep crimson red flesh, blood oranges are a favourite with cooks. Blood oranges came about through a natural mutation. Their beautiful colour comes from the natural anthocyanin content.

Blood oranges are slightly smaller than navel oranges. The skin is also a darker orange and can have red patches. They are easy to peel and have relatively few seeds. The juice of blood oranges is distinctively bright red pink in contrast to other orange varieties. When it comes to flavour, I find blood oranges taste slightly more tart, a little like a grapefruit but not acidic, with a hint of berry flavour.

The dramatic red colour, orange pink juice and sweet but slightly tart flavour of a blood orange makes it a great choice for cooking by:

  • adding flavour and colour to sweet cakes, muffins and desserts;
  • using vibrant red segments in salads or fruit salad;
  • serving with cheese or chacuterie boards; and
  • incorporating in sauces, dressings and marmalades.

Sliced blood oranges also look amazing when dehydrated and used as garnishes.

The verdict: which oranges are best for cooking?

Navel, Cara Cara and Blood Oranges are all good choices for cooking, but suit different dishes best. My personal favourites ways to use these three orange varieties are:

  • Navel orange – best all round orange for juice and zest in both sweet and savoury foods and drinks;
  • Cara Cara orange – best orange for sweets and desserts, including for colourful orange slices;
  • Blood orange – best orange for adding vibrant colour (including the juice) and a more complex flavour to recipes.

For orange juice, I ran a small blind taste test with my family. Surprisingly, most preferred good old fashioned navel oranges for flavour while some preferred the slightly tarter blood orange. Cara cara was actually considered too sweet as a juice just on its own. That’s why it’s perfect for baking and desserts, or as a sweet fruit treat.

More about oranges

For more tips for cooking with oranges, you might like our posts on how to cut an orange into segments (supremes) or how to make dried orange slices in the oven.

Make sure to check out our recipes featuring oranges as an ingredient, like our blood orange loaf cake or easy orange and cinnamon oats with berries. Oranges are also the star ingredient in our easy orange vinaigrette salad dressing. Or try using Cara Cara oranges in one of our collection of marmalade recipes.

And don’t forget to subscribe for more citrus inspiration for your home and garden.

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