With their refreshing juice and flavorful zest, lemons brighten the winter table.
Loved for their versatility and refreshing flavor as well as for their healing properties and natural beauty, lemons are a staple ingredient in kitchens around the world. The fruit of the Citrus limon originated in northwest India and Pakistan more than 2,000 years ago.
As lemons spread to North Africa, Europe and the New World, cooks found new uses for them. In Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, lemon was added to the harira soup that North Africans use to break the fast of Ramadan. The very first (and now ubiquitous) pairing of lemon slices with fish is credited to an Italian—such a recipe first appeared in a cookbook by the archbishop of Milan’s chef in the 1500s.
Today, lemon stars in endless classic recipes, from French hollandaise sauce to American lemon-meringue pie. Packed with Vitamin C, a potent antioxidant, lemons have also played an important role in health and healing: They were the first known prevention for scurvy, which plagued seafarers. Over the centuries, medical elixirs with lemon were used by doctors to cure many ailments from fever to general weakness, and mixing the juice with hot water and honey is still a popular way to soothe a sore throat.
Although lemons were once exotic and rare, they are commonplace today, stocked everywhere from fancy gourmet markets to humble corner stores. The most familiar type is the true lemon, also known as the common or regular lemon, which is sunny yellow in color and has plentiful tart juice. Two varieties, the Lisbon and the Eureka, dominate—the lemon crop from California and Arizona consists mainly of these two and accounts for approximately 25 percent of the world’s lemon production.
Yet one can’t talk about the fruit without mentioning the Meyer lemon, a favorite of citrus fans. This sweet hybrid fruit, a cross between a true lemon and either an orange or a mandarin, originated in China. A plant explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Frank N. Meyer, discovered the fruit in Peking and brought it to California in 1908. While Meyers aren’t always easy to find because of limited production, the season is now, and they are worth searching out—their naturally honeyed flavor makes them especially delicious in lemon desserts.
All About Lemons
How to Pick and Store Lemons
Choose fruit that is heavy for its size, feels firm to the touch and has bright-yellow, unblemished skin. Lemons with thick skin may appear rough or faintly pitted on the surface due to sunken oil glands, while thin-skinned lemons look more uniform and smooth. Lemons withstand moderate refrigeration quite well. Preventing moisture loss helps keep them fresh, so wrap them in plastic or store in the crisper drawer. Wrapped and chilled, lemons should keep for a month or longer.
To get the most juice from each lemon, immerse the fruit in a bowl of warm water or even warm it in the microwave on low power for 1 minute or less. (Similar techniques are used in commercial juice operations, where they immerse the fruit in boiling water before squeezing to increase the juice yield by as much as 50 percent.) Just before juicing, roll the lemon beneath your hand across a cutting board or counter using moderate pressure. Using a handheld wooden reamer or plastic reamer with a saucer is more efficient than squeezing wedges by hand. Save time by squeezing extra juice and freezing it in an airtight container or in ice trays for cubes so you have it on hand the next time you need it. One lemon usually yields between 2 to 3 tablespoons of juice.
Lemon zest offers intense lemon flavor without bulking up the ingredient proportions in a recipe, and works especially well in baked goods. To zest, use a microplane-style grater or the smallest holes on a regular grater, taking care to avoid the bitter white pith beneath. Another option is to use a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler to obtain strips of peel, and then finely chop them. Use organic fruit for zesting if possible. Most commercial lemons are exposed to numerous chemical treatments before being shipped: They are often sprayed with pesticides during the growing season, coated with thin layers of fungicide during storage and lightly varnished with wax. If you plan to use commercial fruit for zesting, be sure to wash it thoroughly first. One medium lemon usually yields about 2 teaspoons of zest.
These two delicious vinaigrettes made with freshly squeezed lemon juice are sure to become favorites in your repertoire. Either dressing can be used to dress a simple salad of greens or as a marinade for fish or chicken.
Warm Lemon-Maple Vinaigrette: In a skillet, cook 1 finely chopped shallot in 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, stirring until softened, about 4 minutes. Add 1/4 cup each of freshly squeezed lemon juice, apple-cider vinegar and pure maple syrup and bring to a boil. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the hot dressing over a salad of hearty greens such as spinach to make a warm, wilted salad.
Classic Lemon-Balsamic Vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard and a pinch of sugar. Gradually whisk in 3/4 cup of olive oil in a thin, steady stream. Add 2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley, 1 peeled and smashed clove of garlic, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Remove the garlic clove before serving.