Published January 2, 2007. Web Exclusive.
We found three brands to recommend—choose the one that matches your preference for sourness.
Marmalade is commonly defined as a fruit preserve that includes pieces of rind in the jelly base. Although historically made from quinces ("marmalade" comes from the Portuguese word marmalada, meaning “quince jam”), most marmalade today is made from citrus fruits, especially oranges. Because of the sour tang derived from both the rind and the flesh of the Seville oranges customarily used as the base fruit, good orange marmalade should have a complexity and depth not associated with sweeter jams and jellies.
We bought eight readily available orange marmalades and gathered 20 tasters to see if we could find that favorable complexity in marmalade sold at supermarket prices. Tasters sampled each marmalade straight and with pieces of dry toast. When the results were tallied, we found both consensus and division. The rankings correlated perfectly with orange flavor intensity—those earning a "recommended" rating had the strongest natural orange flavor, those given a "recommended with reservations" rating had some, and those ranked "not recommended" had only a chemical orange taste.
But within our recommended group, our tasters disagreed about the level of sourness that defined the best marmalade. Some celebrated a strong, sour bite, finding this tartness accented the orange flavor and created "a nice dance of bitter and sweet flavor." Others, however, found that the same sourness overwhelmed the orange flavor—one taster called the tang an "anesthetic" and wanted a much sweeter profile. Another segment wanted a balance between these two elements. In the end, we found three brands to recommend—one for each flavor profile.
Our top-rated brand uses Seville orange rind, but its first ingredient is sugar, earning it a middle-of-the-road sweet/tart profile—it was consistently described as "grapefruit-tart." Our second-rated brand had the highest degree of bitterness—it was the only brand that listed oranges rather than sugar as its first ingredient. Those who loved it claimed its "true orange flavor" made their "taste buds jump"; those who didn't like it complained of a "bitter, pithy aftertaste." Our third recommended brand was favored by those who wanted a "good floral/orange element" without any pithy/bitter distraction—its critics likened it to orange candy.
Our suggestion? If you like an orange marmalade with intense orange flavor and significant tartness, we suggest you look for one that lists oranges as its first ingredient (before any sugar component). For a more balanced tart/sugar taste in a marmalade that also features good orange flavor, sugar may be listed first as an ingredient, but the label should at least specify Seville or bitter oranges.