Food Lifestyle

How (and Why) to Use Lemon in Recipes

10 min read

As popular as lemons are, I’d argue they aren’t popular enough. Delicious, easy to store and use, versatile, and full of health benefits, lemons can feature in many more dishes than lemon meringue pie, lemon bars, and lemonade. Let’s explore how to get this wonderful citrus fruit working for you on a daily basis.

If your vehicle is a lemon, that means it rolled off the assembly line with big problems. “When life gives you lemons” is shorthand for “when things go badly.” In Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, a character suggests that the god Mars’ gift to an unworthy Hector was a lemon. In short, for such a versatile, delicious, and healthy fruit, lemons have gotten pretty rotten press. In this article, I want to redeem the sour little fruit by exploring the many reasons (and ways) to add more lemons to your cooking.

Despite their less than wonderful reputation, lemons have many uses in both cooking and baking; their distinctive sourness adds depth and tang to savory and sweet dishes alike. Lemons, as we’ll see below, also feature prominently in some wonderful beverages, far beyond lemonade.

We associate lemons with summertime and warm weather cooking, which makes sense as they ripen through a season of warm weather and many long hours of daylight. The Mediterranean diet, renowned as one of the world’s healthiest widely adopted eating patterns, relies on lemons to flavor many of its iconic dishes.

Lemons contribute more than just taste, however. Thanks to their high vitamin C content (a single lemon provides nearly half of your daily requirement of the nutrient, though due to an absence of data, we don’t know if the same is true of married lemons, ba dum bum). Like all whole plant-based foods, lemons’ health benefits derive from a complex synergy of various phytonutrients, other vitamins, minerals, and even trace amounts of healthy fatty acids.

There are also chefs and foodies who swear that lemon can make just about anything taste better. Salty foods, sweet foods, and fatty foods can all be balanced and enhanced by the small but mighty yellow citrus fruit.

So, how can you skillfully add more lemon to your cooking? When should you use sliced lemons, or lemon juice, or even the outer skin (called the “zest”)? And, is there too much of a good thing? Are there downsides to consuming lemons on a regular basis?

Why Use Lemon in Recipes?

First — and most obviously — lemons add lemony flavor to dishes. As a charter member of the citrus family, the lemon hits both sweet and sour notes. In addition to adding its own distinctive flavor, the acidity of lemon juice and zest sharpens the other flavors in a dish. In some dishes, such as tomato sauce or mashed potatoes, a lemon can bring out the other scents and tastes while remaining undercover itself. Some cooks and chefs consider lemon as important a flavor enhancer as salt, using the peel (or a slice or wedge) as a garnish, or adding juice or zest at the end of cooking as a finishing touch.

Lemons are versatile, equally at home in sweet and savory dishes. Both salt and natural sugars combine well with the citric acid in lemons. That acid can enhance and intensify the chemical reactions that occur during the baking process. If you bake and don’t use animal ingredients, then lemon juice (or straight citric acid powder) can help substitute for animal-based ingredients like eggs and buttermilk and contribute to leavening. (Not-so-fun fact: Commercial citric acid powder used to come from lemon juice, but is now mass-produced by feeding sugar to a particular fungus.)

Lemons can also affect the texture and color of other plant foods. Lemon juice can help red foods (including red cabbage, red grapes, plums, cherries, cranberries, strawberries, and raspberries) retain their color and not turn purple or blue. This color enhancement is not a universal phenomenon, though — lemon juice can cause greens to fade if added too early in the cooking process.

Lemon juice can also inhibit the browning caused by oxidation in cut fruits like apples, pears, bananas, peaches, and avocados. Guacamole, for example, stays green for a good while if there’s enough lemon juice in it — but try lemonless guac, and you’ll be in for a grey-brown mess in short order.

As if all these culinary benefits weren’t enough, lemons provide significant benefits to human health as well. They’re anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, and they offer protection against cancer and parasites. Lemons are high in antioxidants, most notably vitamin C (your average lemon contains almost 31 milligrams), which can strengthen immunity, aid in the absorption of iron, and prevent the development of chronic disease. Lemons are also good sources of flavonoids — which are, surprisingly, not tasty robots, but rather phytonutrients responsible for an astounding array of health benefits in the human body.

Tips for Using Lemon Juice

The big question here is: How much juice is in one lemon? If your recipe calls for two tablespoons, how many lemons do you need to buy? The answer is, it depends on the size, ripeness, and variety of the lemon, as well as the thickness of its skin. If that’s too wishy-washy for you, let’s say that the average lemon contains about three tablespoons of juice. If you’re buying lemons by the pound, figure that a single pound will give you about three-fourths of a cup to a whole cup of juice.

Most healthy food lovers prefer fresh lemon juice over artificial lemon flavoring, which comes from petrochemicals. But, you can also buy real lemon juice in a glass bottle, or even in a squeezable plastic bottle that looks like a lemon. While this will do in a pinch, it’s still not as good as the juice you squeeze in your kitchen right before cooking. Bottled juice often contains preservatives, and will rarely taste as good as fresh-squeezed. Also, bottled juice is often concentrated — so using the amount the recipe calls for can sometimes overwhelm the dish (and your palate).

So, how should you juice that fresh lemon? You can go extremely low-tech: Cut the fruit in half, dig a knife or fork into the inner flesh, and squeeze with your hand. The next step up is a lemon reamer, which is a crenellated piece of wood or plastic that you hold in one hand and twist the cut lemon against to release the juice. Put that crenellated head in the center of a dish and you’ve got a manual hand juicer; turn the lemon half left and right while pressing down to juice it. There are also hand juicers that involve squeezing rather than rotating the lemon, using a long arm for leverage.

If you’re going to be juicing a lot of lemons (or just prefer using motors to muscles), there are some very efficient electric juicers on the market. You can check out a wide variety of types here.

Using Lemon Juice in Recipes

When cooking with lemon juice, wait until the dish has almost finished cooking before adding it. This preserves the lemon’s water-soluble vitamins, such as the famous vitamin C.

You can also squeeze fresh lemon juice over just about any dish. It goes well in most sauces, including pesto, tomato sauce, plant-based tzatziki, salad dressings, and more. Almost any time you might use vinegar in a sauce, you can substitute lemon juice. Lemon juice also fits perfectly into dips like hummus or cashew cheese.

As we’ve seen, lemon juice can act as a leavening agent in baked goods in the absence of eggs and buttermilk. Lemon juice can also add flavor and enhance colors and textures in soups, stews, and chilis.

Finally, there’s almost no end to the ways you can use lemon juice in beverages. From the classic lemonade to the more sophisticated iced tea, from mocktails to smoothies, lemon juice can jazz up most cold beverages.

One word of caution: The high acidity in lemons can harm dental enamel and promote tooth decay. Here’s a pro tip for dental hygiene: After drinking a beverage that contains lemon juice, protect your pearly whites by rinsing your mouth with water. To be doubly protected, pop a xylitol gum or mint to alkalize your mouth.

Tips for Using Lemon Zest

Unlike the word “lemon,” with its multiple negative connotations, the word “zest” is wholly positive. Happy and energetic people have a zest for life. Things that are full of zest add enjoyment and excitement.

When it comes to lemons and other citrus fruits, the zest is the delicious and extremely concentrated outer skin. Here’s the anatomy of a lemon: The outer yellow layer is the zest, next comes the white pith (which most people don’t eat as it tastes bitter), and inside of that is the fruit itself (with juice, pulp, and seeds).

In culinary parlance, the zest is actually the outer skin after it has been grated or shredded into fine pieces — an act that releases its pungent oils. The taste of zest is more concentrated than that of juice, and contains a hint of bitterness. Recipes also use the word “zest” as a verb, as in, “Zest one lemon.”

Your average lemon (you know, the one with three tablespoons of juice) will yield about one tablespoon of zest. You get the zest by using a tool such as a fine grater or a microplane, which will give the finest pieces. Make sure to wash the skin well to remove pesticides, and buy organic whenever possible. Also, if you have a recipe that calls for both zest and juice, zest the lemon first and then juice it. Trying to zest a lemon that has been squeezed is an awkward and inefficient process (I speak from experience).

Use lemon zest when you want to add flavor to a recipe without adding more liquid. You can sprinkle zest over salads, use it in salad dressings and other sauces, and garnish curries, soups, stews, and chilis. You can punch up the lemon-ness of baked goods (zest is awesome in lemon muffins, for example), sprinkle it over grain or oatmeal bowls, and use it as a tasty and colorful topping for plant-based yogurts.

Choosing, Storing, and Preserving Lemons

In terms of how they keep, lemons are basically the easiest fruit to deal with. While you might have to be some kind of magician to figure out if other fruits are ripe (just watch people in the produce section drumming on watermelons and cantaloupes), lemons — as long as they’re bright yellow, full (one might say “lemon-shaped”), and unmarred — are pretty much guaranteed to be fresh and taste good (or, at least, to taste sour, which is a lemon’s own version of goodness).

Once you get them home, reasonably fresh lemons will typically keep at room temperature for a week, or even a bit longer. In the refrigerator, they’ll last up to three weeks in dry and sealed conditions. From the perspective of the avocado (which can go from unripe to rotten in the time it’s taking me to type this sentence), intact lemons are practically immortal.

You can store fresh lemon juice in the refrigerator, but it’s best to use it within two to three days of squeezing. Lemon zest should be used right away, since the aromatic lemon oil it contains is highly volatile. The longer the grated zest sits out, the drier, less fragrant, and less flavorful it will become as it releases oils into the air.

In olden days, lemons were a rare treat in much of the world, since they grow only in warm climates that don’t experience killing frosts in winter. Now (thanks to global trade) most of us can enjoy lemons year-round, but there are also ways to preserve fresh lemons so you can use them well into the off-season. Also, if you happen to be in possession of a large number of lemons and can’t use them quickly enough, preserving them can keep you from wasting the ones that would otherwise go bad!

One common method is to preserve lemons in jars, fermenting them in salt or sugar. I strongly recommend the salt method, though if you eat sugar you can add a bit for some extra sweetness. If you’re worried about the saltiness ruining your recipes, you can (and probably should) rinse the salt off before using the preserved lemons. Once made, it’s best to use the preserved lemons in moderation because they are very strong (and very salty), and a little goes a long way.

You can also freeze lemon juice, either in an airtight container or (for convenient use in recipes) in ice cube trays. The juice can be used for about a year, although it will taste best in the first three to four months.

Lemon zest also freezes well and will remain at its peak for about three months as long as you store it in an airtight, freezer-safe container.

Lemon Recipes

Preserved, frozen, or fresh, lemon can enhance the flavor of dishes by adding brightness to rich and creamy recipes as well as to sweet and savory ones. It can also work well in baking with its high acidity content, helping to leaven and add structure to baked goods. Watch lemon transform Lavender Lemon Poppy Scones by adding some brightness and helping to “lift” them into a delightful breakfast or afternoon snack. Lemon might just be the key ingredient in Beet and Lentil Salad with Lemon Shallot Vinaigrette, and it adds some acidity to Creamy Avocado Pasta with Asparagus and Tomato (as well as the finishing touch once the pasta is served).

1. Lavender Lemon Poppy Scones

A squeeze of lemon juice can transform baked goods from drab and heavy to bright and light with its citrus flavor and ability to leaven. In this Lavender Lemon Poppy Scone recipe, lemon balances the nutty and floral flavors while helping the scones to rise, making for a pleasant breakfast or delightful afternoon snack. Adding the lemon zest along with the juice heightens the lemony flavor even more. Chef’s suggestion: Make sure family members are around to enjoy the aroma and flavor straight out of the oven!

2. Beet and Lentil Salad with Lemon Shallot Vinaigrette

Tangy lemon is blended with pungent shallot and nutty tahini to create a mouthwatering recipe that brightens up earthy beets and lentils. The dressing has a touch of natural sweetness from the dates, but if you’d like to add more you could consider fruit-juice sweetened dried cranberries, apricots, or figs. This hearty and comforting salad will keep you warm during the chilly fall and winter months.

3. Creamy Avocado Pasta with Asparagus and Tomato

Ingredients that are rich in fat can be great for creating thick and creamy bases like the sauce in this avocado pasta. They can also, however, feel kind of heavy. That’s where an acidic ingredient like lemon can help to make a sauce feel lighter and brighter while maintaining its creaminess. Adding a little extra squeeze of lemon on top once the meal is ready to be served is like icing on the cake — or, the lemon on the creamy pasta!

Use Up Those Lemons

Lemon is a popular ingredient in everything from sauces to desserts. Versatile (and boasting multiple health benefits) the fruit can be juiced for fresh or frozen use, or zested on demand just before finishing a dish. Lemons bring a distinctive sour/sweet flavor profile to a variety of dishes and beverages — so I say, “When life gives you lemons, celebrate!”

Tell us in the comments:

  • What’s your favorite dish that features lemons?
  • How many lemons do you use in an average week? What’s the dish that uses the most?
  • What new lemon dish will you try next?

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