Citron is a citrus fruit which is cultivated primarily for its aromatic and flavorful peel, rather than the often dry and tasteless flesh inside. Many consumers are familiar with citron in a candied or preserved form, although fresh citron is sometimes available at specialty markets and greengrocers. It can also be grown in the home garden, in warm regions with no risk of frost, as citron is highly frost sensitive. There are a number of uses for citron, ranging from flavoring in fruitcakes to scents in cosmetics.
There are a number of different cultivars in the citron species, all of which come from the Citrus medica tree. The fruits share the characteristics of being yellow and extremely knobbly, growing on thorny evergreen trees which prefer full sun and very warm weather. The citron is native to India, and it is also widely cultivated around the Mediterranean, especially in Italy. History suggests that it was probably the first citrus fruit introduced to Europe, and botanical evidence indicates that it is one of the oldest fore bearers of modern citrus fruits.
One of the most famous citron cultivars is fingered citron or Buddha's hand. This bizarre fruit looks like a giant yellow squid, with a bulbous rounded area at the stem and a series of trailing segments which do strongly resemble fingers. This citron variety is often used in Asia, and sometimes appears as an offering at Buddhist temples. Just as with other varieties, the rind may be peeled and candied or used fresh.
Another important variety of the fruit is Etrog, used by practitioners of the Jewish faith traditionally during the Feast of the Tabernacles. As should come as no surprise, Etrog is cultivated widely in Israel. It shares the knobbly, warty look of most citron cultivars, and has an almond-like shape. After use in religious ceremonies, Etrog may be turned into candies, jams, and other sweets.
Dry candied citron is available in many markets for inclusions in baked goods and sweets. Fresh citron should be used promptly, preserved, or frozen to retain flavor. When seeking a citron out in the store, look for one with a plump, full rind without any signs of discoloration, mold, or softness. Consumers of Buddha's hand citron may want to be aware that according to Asian tradition, a Buddha's hand which is closed is considered to be more fortunate, since closed hands indicate prayer.