Adding acid to your cooking is one of the quickest ways to dim bitterness, layer in complexity, and brighten other flavors. Lemons offer one of the easiest ways to add acid to your food and drinks. Let’s learn about how to prepare and cook with lemons.
One of the most versatile ingredients, lemons add a tangy touch to sweets, brightness to savory dishes, and balanced floral aromas to drinks.
Originally from Asia (we think), lemons have played a role in cuisines from Asia to the Middle East to Europe to the Americas for more than a millennium.
While there are dozens of different varieties of lemons, the most common ones sold in U.S. supermarkets are Eureka and Lisbon. These lemons are available all year round and produce a lot of juice.
Meyer lemons are newer and less common. They offer a fresh flavor with less acidity than other kinds of lemons.
What are lemons?
Lemons are an oval fruit that fits into the palm of your hand with a fresh flavor and bold acidity (approximately pH of 2.2). The attractive yellow peel is packed with aromatic oils while the juicy interior provides nutrients, especially the all-important scurvy-preventing vitamin C.
Here’s an overview of the different parts of a lemon and how they are commonly used:
- Juice: Used in cooking, beauty, and cleaning, lemon juice is common in drinks like lemonade, fruit juices, and cocktails. Because of the high acidity in lemon juice, it’s a great addition to baked goods and sweets to balance out the sweetness. The acid in lemon juice is also useful in marinades as a tenderizer because it breaks apart amino acids in protein.
- Rind (a.k.a. zest or peel): The rind contains lemon oil, which is potent and fragrant. It adds a fresh flavor to your baked goods, beverages, and roast chicken or fish. Grated lemon peel is a lovely garnish over fruit salad, risotto, or a rice pilaf.
- Whole: Many Mediterranean cuisines use preserved whole lemons to add a mellowed brightness. You can roast lemons—juice, pith, and rind— and use every part of a lemon in recipes like broiled salmon or Shaker lemon pie.
NOTE: A lot of people find the seeds and pith (the white squishy stuff between the rind and juicy center) to be bitter. Discard the seeds. You can use the pith, especially if the recipe calls for a whole lemon.
How to prep lemons
Wash the lemons, making sure to remove dirt and debris from the skin by rubbing them thoroughly under clean running water. Cut away bruised or damaged areas. If cutting the lemon, remove and discard the seeds.
TIP: If you’re juicing the lemon, roll the lemon back and forth under your palm for 10 seconds or zap it in the microwave for 30 seconds. This pressure or heat bursts the cells, helping you squeeze out more juice. For tips on how to juice a lemon, check out this joke article.
How to cut lemons
Here are the most common ways I cut lemons and prepare the zest for cooking or juicing.
- Whole: Ideal for adding to a centerpiece to decorate your table.
- Halved: This is the best cut for juicing a lemon. Lemons cut in half can be stuffed into a chicken for roasting. I leave half-used cut lemons in the fridge as a deodorizer.
- Wedges: Great size to accompany a seafood platter with grilled and fried fish, steamed mussels, or shrimp cocktail to easily add a squeeze of lemon juice. Wedges are excellent for making lemon water because you can squeeze the juice into a cup and drop the wedge in.
- Diced: Diced lemon is useful for making chutney and jams and for stuffing poultry before roasting. Diced lemons can also roasted with pork chops, lamb chops, and root vegetables.
- Sliced: Ideal for making lemon water/tea, topping fish before grilling or roasting, desserts and baked goods like upside-down lemon cake. You can fry lemon slices and roast them to make a roasted citrus salad.
- Twisted slices: This pretty presentation is an ideal garnish for fruity drinks, cocktails, fruit salad, and cake topping.
- Peeled rind: A long strip of lemon zest is a great addition to cocktails. It’s the start of making limoncello and the ideal shape for making candied lemon peels.
- Julienned rind: This is a substitute for grated zest if you don’t have a fine grater or zester. Julienned rind is fantastic for topping desserts and fresh dairy products like yogurt, ricotta, and crème fraîche. It’s great for adding aromatic flavors to baked breads and desserts.
- Grated zest: Grated zest is ideal in baked desserts like fruit cake and pie crusts. Lemon zest adds aromatic oils to savory dishes, so it’s great in salads, marinades, and creamy pasta sauces. Use zest as a garnish and decoration over iced cakes, cupcakes, and quick breads.
- Juiced: Lemon juice is ideal for drinks, marinades, sauces, salad dressing, stews, soups, and many other dishes.
NOTE: You can keep the skin on or peel it off for any of these cuts. While skin has plenty of fiber and nutrients, it’s a personal preference to keep the skin on because not everybody like the texture.
How to use lemon juice
The most common way I use lemons is for the juice. Here are my favorite uses for lemon juice:
- Sauces & dips:
- Salad dressing:
How to cook with lemons
There are numerous ways to cook lemons, including:
- Baked in desserts: Lemon cheesecake, lemon bundt cake, lemon butter cookies, lemon poppy seed muffins, holiday fruit cake, etc.
- Griddle cooked: Lemon yogurt pancakes, lemon waffles
- Sauces: Lemon butter sauce, berry coulis, lemon pasta sauce
- Roasted in savory dishes: Roasted chicken stuffed with lemon, broiled salmon with lemon slices
- Jams and preserves: Lemon curd, lemon confit, candied lemon peels, marmalade, and more.
Lemons work well with…
- Citrus: oranges, limes, grapefruit
- Fruits: berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries), apples, watermelon, kiwifruit, cherries, peaches, nectarines
- Spices: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, star anise, ginger
- Aromatics: garlic, onions, celery, carrots
- Leafy greens: butter lettuce, romaine lettuce, kale, cabbage (slaw)
- Herbs: rosemary, tarragon, mint, thyme, basil, dill, Italian parsley
- Cream and dairy: butter, cream, crème fraîche, ricotta, mascarpone, cream cheese (yum! cheesecake), sour cream
- Protein: chicken, turkey, duck, pork
Recipes with lemons
How to substitute lemons
Limes are the closest substitute to lemons. You can use other kinds of citrus too, including oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, and mandarins.
If you’re looking for a citrus flavor and the acid isn’t required, such as using the zest for the fragrant oils in baking, you can substitute with zest from oranges or grapefruit.
If you’re using lemon for the sourness, then an acid like a fruity vinegar (apple cider vinegar and balsamic vinegar) or a fruit juice (pineapple juice and orange juice are acidic) are good substitutes. For certain dishes, rice vinegar, white wine vinegar, or white wine may suffice.
If you want the lemon flavor in your dish, you can try adding lemon pepper or lemon balm to get a similar flavor.
Where to buy lemons
You can buy lemons at your grocery store and at local farmers markets.
TIP: Find a neighbor who has a lemon tree for a free and abundant source.
Are lemons seasonal?
Yes, lemons and other citrus are reach their height in winter months. You can buy lemons all-year round but the best discounts usually show up in January and February. Winter is a great time to stock up on lemons to bring sunshine to your kitchen.
TIP: If stored well, your lemons can last for weeks, if not months, fresh. And you can freeze them. Stock up if you see a sale.
How to pick lemons
Choose lemons with bright yellow unblemished skins. The peel should feel satiny. Pick the thinner-skinned lemons that feel heavy for their size as they contain more juice.
TIP: You can tell if the skin is thin when you gently squeeze the lemon. It should have some give (don’t bruise it though!). The less textured and shinier peels also tend to be thinner.
Avoid lemons with soft or brown spots or a mushy feel. Also avoid lemons with dried or shriveled skin, especially around the pointy end because those signs indicate the lemon is past its peak freshness.
NOTE: Bumpy skin on a lemon isn’t a bad sign. Eureka lemons tends to have heavily textured skins compared to smoother varieties like the Lisbon or Meyer lemon.
How to store lemons
Store lemons on the countertop if you plan on using them within a week. Otherwise, lemons can last much longer in the fridge or freezer.
Whole in the fridge: Lemons are best kept whole in the fridge, stored in sealable plastic bag for maximum freshness or a sealed container. Use the ones that appear to be softening or drying out first.
Sliced in the fridge: Lemon slices will last for about 1 week in the fridge before they start drying out. Store in a sealed bag or container. Add to your drinks, stuffing, or as a garnish.
Sliced in the freezer: Freeze lemon slices on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, move them to an airtight sealable plastic bag. You can add frozen lemon slices to drinks like lemon tea or grilled fish.
Juiced in the fridge: Lemon juice lasts for 1 week in the fridge. Store in a plastic or glass container with a lid.
Juiced in the freezer: Freeze lemon juice in ice cube trays. When I don’t have enough juice for an ice cube tray, I use a tiny ramekin to store the juice.
NOTE: It’s harder to pop the frozen juice out of the ramekin. I have to zap it in the microwave for 1 minute or leave it out on the counter for 10 minutes to allow it to melt, which loosens the juice enough to pop it from the container.
Zest in the fridge: The zest dries out quickly in the fridge. Cover well and use within a few days.
Zest in the freezer: If you’re going to store zest, I find freezing locks in more flavors than storing in the fridge. Freeze on a bowl or in a plate. Once frozen, transfer to an airtight resealable bag to store.
TIP: The aromas in the lemon peel are volatile and don’t store well. It’s best to grate the zest just before use rather than storing in the fridge or freezer.
Indefinitely: Canned and candied lemons that have been preserved with salt or sugar can last indefinitely.
Fun things to do with lemons
Remember back to your kid days when you pretended you were a spy and wrote a secret message in lemon juice? You can pass secret messages in lemon juice. Check out this recipe for using lemon juice as secret ink.
FAQ about lemons
What can you make with a lot of lemons?
Here are ideas for using up a lot of lemons:
- Lemon and honey tea
- Lemon meringue pie
- Lemon cheesecake
- Lemon curd
- Freeze the lemon juice for later use
What’s the difference between lemon rind vs. zest?
Lemon zest is the colorful (yellow) part of the skin that contains the aromatic oils. Rind usually has the zest and some of the white pith, which is inevitable when you peel the skin with a vegetable peel or paring knife.
What’s the difference between a Meyer vs. regular lemon?
Regular lemons are bright yellow and more tart. Meyer lemons have a vibrant orange-yellow peel, are thinner skinned and sweeter, mellower. I prefer using Meyer lemons when I can find them. They harder to find because they don’t ship as easily compared to regular lemons.
How much juice is in 1 lemon?
I squeeze 4 lemons to answer this question. 1 medium-sized lemon has about 5½ tablespoons of lemon juice, which is about ⅓ cup.
Surprisingly, the Meyer lemon produced the most amount of lemon juice even though it was quite a bit smaller than the others (its skin was much thinner).