A few weeks ago I got a question from Rebecca asking about the different options for adding citrus flavor to her orange cake. She said, “I have tried adding extract to make an orange cake from scratch and it did not have much orange flavor and no orange color, where did I go wrong? Maybe I was expecting something similar to a cake mix–really orange.“
Most classic orange cake recipes originally called for the juice and freshly grated rind of fresh oranges which produces a much more delicate orange color and citrusy flavor than today’s cake mixes. Let’s start with color. While nothing but food coloring can provide that much color, selecting a cake recipe that calls for orange juice rather than milk helps some with color and acidity but not a lot with flavor once all the other ingredients have been added. Commercial orange juice will usually add a little more color than fresh squeezed, and thawed, frozen orange juice concentrate will help a bit more.
Flavor is a longer story; there are more options for increasing the orange flavor in a baked product. The main flavor component in citrus fruit is the oil in the orange zest and for more flavor, you have to go to more zest or the products made from it. Those include (in order of increasing strength of flavor) dried zest (dehydrated grated zest packaged with a preservative), extract (a mixture of alcohol, water, and orange oil), or oil (cold pressed from orange rind). When using freshly grated zest, one of the first problems is that oranges are a natural product and each will vary somewhat in the amount of zest they will produce and it’s flavor intensity. It is often recommended that you select juice oranges for more flavorful zest rather than those bred for beautiful skin and slices. There seem to be a lot of different opinions about the amount of zest produced by grating a medium orange and the amount of dried zest, extract, or oil needed to simulate it.
That considered, taking in the options I found and personal experience, I would start out by expecting to get about 1 1/2 tablespoons zest from a medium orange and would use about 1 tablespoon commercially dried orange zest, or 1 tablespoon pure orange extract, or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon food grade orange oil to add a similar orange flavor to a baked product. Orange oil provides the most concentrated flavor but you must make sure it is food-safe and store it in the refrigerator.
If using fresh zest, don’t wait to add it last as many recipes direct. It helps to give it a head start at releasing its oil. You can beat it with the butter and sugar or warm the liquid that is going to be used, add the zest and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature before adding.
Check the packaging on products as each brand should provide recommended substitutions of their product for fresh grated zest on the label.
Keep a record of what you used and how it performed so you will be able to use that amount or adjust it, if necessary, the next time you use the recipe.