Citrus is a promiscuous family: witness the grapefruit (pomelo x orange), the Meyer lemon (lemon x orange), the Persian or Bearss lime (Mexican lime x orange or lemon). Most citrus fruits we eat were initially spontaneous crosses that an alert orchardist noticed and improved upon. Grapefruits are one such cross, first appearing on the island of Barbados in the 18th century, a hybrid of the imported pomelo and orange. Grapefruit trees are true to their name: the fruits cluster, rather like vine grapes, though in spreading, densely shady and thorned trees. First brought to the U.S. in the 1820s, grapefruit didn’t exactly take the country by storm; initially no one could figure out what to do with them. This isn’t surprising, for compared to other members of the citrus family, early grapefruit had very thick and bitter pith, the genetic gift of their pomelo ancestors.
Give grapefruit another chance
Today’s grapefruit, at least the most popular varieties, are quite different from the white grapefruit you may remember from your childhood. In the 1920s, spontaneous crosses in Rio Grande orchards in Texas produced thin-skinned, red-fleshed grapefruit. Gradually Texas Ruby Red and Florida red grapefruits have superseded the white ones. Reds do offer two advantages: their skins are much thinner, with less bitter pith, so they seem sweeter, though there’s no objective evidence that their flesh itself is any sweeter than that of whites. Because of their color, they make especially beautiful marmalades.
Selecting the best grapefruit
Whether you choose a red or a white grapefruit, select the smoothest, shiniest, heaviest fruit you can find—it will be more flavorful and juicy. Refrigerated, grapefruits will stay tasty for up to eight weeks. This time of year, they’re happy to stay in a sack on a porch, but bring them in before the temperature hits freezing; citrus fruits positively cringe when temperatures get that low.
Or perhaps a pomelo?
If you’ve not seen or eaten one before, grapefruit’s pomelo ancestor is likely to strike you as distinctly feral. The fruits are immense—some the size of basketballs, particularly backyard fruit in California—blowsy, baggy-skinned, and oddly shaped, as if a three-year-old had molded them uncertainly from clay. Their skin and pith can be more than an inch thick! So what’s the attraction? Pomelos are easy to peel, and they have a sweet but wild taste. Their thick hides are terrific for candying and making marmalade.