Few fruits are as iconic as the lemon (citrus x limon). The sweet fragrance of these bright yellow ellipsoidal fruits with the nipple on the bottom (called the “stylar end”) is universally recognized, and their sweetly acidic juice, while almost never consumed alone, is used in just about everything—sweet to savory.
Lemons, called citrons by the French, are actually hybrids of the citron, which is a larger fruit with a thicker rind and very little juice. There are so many varieties of lemons that it’s difficult to pinpoint their origin. It is widely believed they are native to Northwest India and Pakistan and migrated into eastern Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean by way of Arab traders as early as 100 A.D. They arrived in Europe through southern Italy probably sometime during the Roman Empire, and early cultivations in Moorish Spain date back to 400 AD.
If there is a Johnny Appleseed of lemons, it’s largely believed to be Christopher Columbus, who brought them to the new world. The first plantings were probably in Florida, but an Italian hybrid initially planted near L.A. is believed to be the origin of lemon production in California and Arizona, which now accounts for 95% of the U.S. crop.
In the U.S., it’s difficult to find a freshly picked lemon in the supermarket. Here the demand for most lemons does not align with their natural ripening cycle. As a result, commercially produced lemons are picked while they are still green and cured for several weeks in controlled environments until they are ready for distribution.
The lemons grown along Italy’s Amalfi Coast are prized for their sweetness and are used in making limoncello, a lemon liquor.
There seem to be as many varieties of lemons as there are people; the differences between them are often indistinguishable. They tend to vary in size, number of seeds, rind thickness, sweetness, juiciness, and seasonal peak. Here are a few of the more prominent varieties.
Meyer (citrus x meyeri)
Femminello (aka Italian lemons)
Primofiori (aka Fino, Mesero, and Blanco)
Buying & Storing Lemons
Choose firm plump lemons that aren’t too hard and feel a bit heavy for their size. Their color should be bright yellow with show no sign of green. Avoid lemons that are brown, soft or appear to have patches of dried skin or even mold. If you intend to use the zest, avoid waxed lemons.
Fresh lemons will keep at room temperature for about a week, but they will last 2 weeks or more when stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Tightly wrap cut pieces in plastic wrap, store in the refrigerator and try to use as soon as possible.
Taste & Flavor Affinities
The fruit’s tangy, sour taste is caused by citric acid (5%) and its sweetness comes from the natural sugars. Their aroma comes from two compounds, limonene and citral.
Lemons pair so well with so many different ingredients that it might be easier to list those items with which they do not. Chief among the flavor affinities are fish, honey, shellfish and sugar. Other strong affinities include artichokes, blueberries, butter, capers, chicken, garlic, lamb, olive oil, oranges, poppy seeds, pork, raspberries, rice, and vodka. Soft cheese, especially goat, mascarpone, and ricotta, also pair well. Strong spice and herbal pairings include basil, cinnamon, mint, rosemary & time.
Cooking with Lemons
The culinary uses for lemons are too numerous to mention. Commonly used in dressings, marinades, sauces and mayonnaises, they also go great with vegetables and meats; but especially fish and seafood. A percentage of lemons are used for garnishments for dishes and cocktails.
Your tongue can only taste the sour and sweetness of the juice. The distinctive lemon flavor is picked up by your sense of smell. Most of the flavor is in the zest. So when you want the acidic sour edge, use the juice. When you want that great lemony taste without the sour taste, use the zest.
I love fresh citrus and always keep lemons, limes, and oranges on hand; they come in handy for spritzing up quickly grilled meats, seafoods, and vegetables, especially when followed up by a quick drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. – Emeril Lagasse
To remove the zest, it’s best to use the right tool. We recommend a Microplane or similar ultra-fine grating tool when cooking or baking with zest and an actual lemon zester when using the zest as a garnish. In either case, use delicate hand. Only the very thinnest outer layer of skin is desired. The white pith just below it is bitter and will ruin your zest. Always clean the lemon well and remove any stickers before zesting.
On average, a lemon will yield about 2 tablespoons of zest and 3 tablespoons of juice, but this depends on the size, variety and ripeness. When using both, zest first, then juice. When only the zest is needed, there are two ways to preserve the juice. If you anticipate using the juice in the next day or two, tightly wrap the zested lemon in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. It should keep for 2-3 days. Otherwise, extract and strain the juice and freeze in ice cube trays covered with plastic wrap.
Lemon’s acidic juice acts as a preservative. Use on freshly sliced apples, bananas or avocados to prevent browning.
Lemon Recipes & Techniques
David Ellis is the Founder and Editor of The Kitchen Journals. He is a food writer, an avid cooking enthusiast. In 2009, he started a food blog, David’s Table, and quickly learned that blogging was lonely work. He developed The Kitchen Journals to work with other food writers and bloggers. He lives in Washington, DC.