Orange peels can be used for many things around the house, in the kitchen, and in the medicine cabinet, and they have purposes as varied as dessert garnish, insect repellant, and skin pore cleanser. During the earliest days of orange cultivation, peels were often more prized than the fruit they protected due in large part to the essential oils they contain. These oils were used as a topical skin treatment, as a malady for indigestion, and as an additive in many different foods.
Cooks during the Middle Ages were more likely to use dried peels as seasonings than they were to serve the fruit or the juice. Most scholars speculate that it wasn't until sweet oranges were introduced in Spain and Italy that the rest of the orange received much recognition as a food in its own right. Even today, there are perhaps more uses for orange peels and the oils they contain than there are for the rest of the fruit.
In the Kitchen
One of the most common uses for an orange peel is for its zest, which is popular both fresh and dried. “Zest” is basically a fancy name for the thin outer layer of peel, not including the fleshy pith, that has been finely chopped or grated. It is frequently used as a seasoning in recipes and is particularly popular as a way to add flavor to baked goods. Zest is easy to make at home using a fine grater or specially designed zester, though it can also be purchased as a dried spice in many places.
A number of cooks also candy the peels, usually by chopping them into strips, then boiling them in a sugar syrup solution. Candied peels typically contain both the zest and the pith, and they are thick and somewhat chewy as a result. They are often eaten on their own as a sweet treat or snack, but they can also be used to garnish dishes or as an accent or edible decoration on cakes and cupcakes. In many European countries, this candy is a traditional homemade gift during the winter holidays.
Around the House
The peels also have a number of uses unrelated to food or flavoring. Oranges of almost every variety have a high concentration of fragrant essential oils in their peel. Boiling them in water can diffuse the oils into the air, creating an easy air freshener; dried pieces can be tied together into sachets to freshen drawers and closets, too.
Many people run peels down sink-based garbage disposals to eliminate unpleasant odors and “cleanse” the surrounding air, and placing strips or large pieces in compost piles or near trash heaps can mask the smell of decay. It is also possible to deodorize a refrigerator by putting pieces in a small bowl, often with a bit of salt to act as a preservative.
Rubbing fresh peels on counter tops and tile floors can sometimes help remove stains and brighten surfaces thanks to their high acid content. They can be a very effective abrasive and are completely non-toxic, but they must usually be followed by a soap and water wash to prevent the acid from building up or leaving sticky residue.
As a Repellent
Most insects find the scent of orange off-putting, which may be one of the ways nature protects the fruit from would-be predators. People can capitalize on this when it comes to repelling bugs. Rubbing orange peel on the skin is believed by many to help repel mosquitoes, and dropping bits of it near anthills and places where ants have been seen around the house can help keep them away.
Some experts advise that a mixture of dried orange peels and coffee grounds will discourage neighborhood cats from using lawns and yard space as a litter box. Cats, like dogs and many other animals, are territorial, which means that they use scent cues to orient themselves. The overpowering smell of orange oil combined with coffee may override their signals telling them to mark land as their own, and in many cases will send them away.
Orange oil is highly flammable, which makes the peels effective as a fire starter. They burn more slowly and steadily than common kindling material like newspaper, and they also have the advantage of giving off a pleasant smell. Depending on how much moisture they have, they may need to be dried or at least partially dried before they can be used for this purpose.
Orange peels can be ground into an abrasive scrub for face and skin that can help remove dead skin cells, and the acids may also help skin look temporarily more vibrant and youthful. Rubbing skin blemishes like pimples with a piece can also help them heal faster.
Some dermatologists also say that orange oil can help reverse the negative effects of sun exposure, though this, too, is usually only a temporary and topical fix. Rubbing the oil over the skin can help it look less tanned and damaged and may be able to relieve the pain of sunburn, but it cannot usually do anything to counteract cellular damage that exposure has caused.
Eating orange peel can have a number of positive health benefits, as well. People suffering from seasonal allergies or head colds often boil strips in water to drink much as they would a tea; combining it with ginger can also help cure nausea and minor stomach upset. Small doses of orange essential oil can be used to calm indigestion and sometimes even ease constipation. Simply chewing on small bits can also regulate the pH levels of the mouth, which can stave off tooth decay and gum disease while freshening the breath.