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Lemons: Kitchen Basics

Lemons on tree1

Lemons on treeLemons are used to flavor both sweet and savory dishes. They are too tart to be eaten alone.

Lemons are rarely eaten raw because they are too tart for out of hand eating. Use lemons to flavor everything from salads to fruit desserts.

  • Lemon is used to enhance the flavor of fish, shellfish, and meat dishes. Use lemon juice to marinate and tenderize meat, poultry, and game. Use lemon in salad dressings, marinades, sauces, and mayonnaise. Add lemon to melted butter to use as a dressing for cooked fresh artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, green beans, and spinach.
  • Serve avocados, melons, or tropical fruits with lemon wedges to heighten the flavor. Use lemons to flavor ice cream, sherbet, mousse, tarts, pies, and cakes.
  • Lemon can be used as a low calorie seasoner and can take the place of salt in low-sodium diets. Add lemon juice or slices to lemonade, punches, ice teas, and cocktails. Lemon zest and dried and candied peel can be used in confections and baked goods.
  • The acidity in lemon juice will turn seafood and thinly sliced meat opaque and firm, similar to cooking. Lemon juice will prevent certain fruits and vegetables from browning after they have been cut.
  • Use juice in place of vinegar in salad dressings and sauces.
  • Use juice to marinate and tenderize meat, poultry, fish and game.
  • Add lemon juice or oil at the end of cooking for the freshest flavor.
  • Add zest to sautéed or roasted chicken and to flavor meats, sauces, and desserts.
  • Lemon zest can be candied or dried and used to flavor meats, sauces, and desserts.
  • Use juice to enliven lemonade, iced tea, tomato juice, fruit punches, and cocktails. Lemon juice is a thirst quenching ingredient.

Perhaps the three most popular lemons are the Eureka, Lisbon, and Meyer.

Eureka, Lisbon and Meyer lemons. The Eureka and Lisbon are two very sour and acidic lemons. They are so similar in flavor, aroma and acidity that they sometimes are lumped together in marketing.

The Eureka lemon is a knobby, thick-skinned lemon with a short neck. The Lisbon lemon is smoother, thin-skinned with no neck. The blossom end of the Lisbon tapers to a slight point, the Eureka does not. The Eureka contains some seeds and a moderate amount of juice while the Lisbon is usually seedless and quite juicy.

Both the Eureka and Lisbon are often contrasted to the Meyer lemon which has a sweeter-mild flavor and little acidity. The Meyer lemon has a thin, soft, smooth rind which is yellow orange. The Meyer–which is not a true lemon but a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange—is round and so easily distinguished from the more oblong Eureka and Lisbon.

Lemons grow on small, evergreen tree that grow from 10 to 20 feet tall. The lemon’s purplish-white flowers bloom sporadically for much of the year, meaning the lemon also fruits much of the year. However, in very warm regions, lemon harvests are concentrated in autumn and spring. For the best flavor, a lemon should be picked as soon as it becomes fully yellow. Those that remain on the tree too long will become pithy and lose flavor.

Season. The peak harvest season for lemons is the winter months.

Choose. Select lemons that are smooth and close grained, bright yellow in color, and have a shine to their skin. Lemons should be plump and firm and heavy for their size. Heavy, thin-skinned lemons will contain the most juice. Lemons with coarse or bumpy skins are likely to contain little flesh and are best for making lemon zest.

Lemons that are tinged green tend to be more acid and will not contain as much juice. Avoid lemons with wrinkled skin or those with soft or hard patches. They will be over mature. Dull skinned lemons are no longer fresh.

Store. Eureka and Lisbon lemons can be kept in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. (The Meyer lemon will keep for 1 week.) Lemons stored at room temperature will keep for about 1 week. The juice and zest of lemons can be frozen.

Refrigerated lemons should keep for up to a month.

Juice. Lemons release their juice more readily if they are kept at room temperature. It the lemon has been refrigerated, microwave it on High for 20 seconds before using.

To recover the most juice from a lemon, roll it firmly against a hard, flat surface or between your palms to crush some of their inner membranes. Don’t press too hard or you will crush the pith and infuse the juice with some bitterness. To extract the juice, use a reamer or insert a fork into the lemon and rotate it back and forth.

Freeze the juice in an ice cube tray; once hardened transfer the lemon cubes to a plastic bag for use later as needed.

Flavor partners. Lemons have a flavor affinity for artichokes, capers, cumin, fennel, fish, garlic, mint, poultry, raspberries, shellfish, and thyme.

Lemons are very rich in vitamin C and also provide potassium and folic acid.

Kitchen tip. The ascorbic acid in lemons can be used to prevent the discoloring of the flesh of fruits and vegetables that oxidize when exposed to the air. Rub the cut surfaces of low acid fruits and vegetables—such as bananas, peaches and avocadoes—with lemon juice to delay oxidation and darkening.

Lemons facts and trivia. Lemons are native to modern northwest India and Pakistan where they have been in cultivation for more than 2,500 years. Arab traders carried lemons form Asia to eastern Africa and the Middle East between 100 and 700 AD. The Arabs introduced the lemon into Spain in the eleventh century. Crusaders returning from Palestine in the twelfth century spread the lemon across the rest of Europe.

The lemon came into culinary use in Europe in the fifteenth century, and Christopher Columbus brought lemon seeds to the New World in 1493.

The lemon is a close relative of the lime. The names of both fruit came from the Arabic word līmach which means “citrus fruit”.

The botanical name for the lemon is Citrus limon.

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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