The versatile lemon plays an integral role in the culinary process--the skin, seeds, juice, and flesh all contribute in their own right and collectively to the chemistry of food. The lemon activates change--it is the revolutionary of the food world.
--Christine Manfield, Paramount Cooking
Whether you are buying your lemons at a farm stand or a supermarket, you don't have to worry about ripeness. Every lemon in the market is fully ripe and ready to use, so you can pick and choose according to what you'll be using them for.
If you're looking for juice, choose firm but not rock-hard lemons that are heavy for their size. Very hard ones invariably yield little juice. Slightly softer, medium-sized, and thin-skinned lemons are juicier. Heaviness indicates that lemons are fresh and full of juice; heft them and compare to find the weightiest fruit.
If you're looking for zest, thicker-skinned lemons usually have more abundant, flavorful zest and are easier to grate.
Lemons should be as bright as the sunshine, with a glossy sheen, a firmness to the touch, finely textured skin, and a pleasant citrus fragrance. The condition of the skin is important. A very coarse exterior may indicate an excessively thick skin, which in turn may mean less flesh and juice. Lemons should be vibrant, bright, and uniform in color, with unbroken skin, free of moist or brittle spots or shriveling. The fruit beneath the skin should feel firm, with no evidence of softness.
A small, very green stem is a sign of freshness. Lemons from warmer climates may have slightly green skin--it does not mean they are not ripe. But fruits that have a slightly greenish cast are likely to bemore acidic than those that are a deep yellow. Deep yellow lemons are usually more mature than lighter yellow ones, and not quite as acidic.
Avoid lemons that are hard and rigid; they may have been frost-damaged. Also avoid lemons that are soft, spongy, wrinkled, or have bumpy, rough, or hard skin. A dark yellow or dull color or hardened or shriveled skin indicates old age. Soft spots, mold, or broken skin indicate decay, but brownish spots or patches may have been caused when branches rubbed against the immature fruit and are not a sign of damage.
Dampness is a great enemy to lemons. It's best not to buy lemons that have been displayed on ice or sprinkled with water in the store. Damp lemons will deteriorate quickly if they touch one another; mold, which spreads rapidly, will form and the lemons will soften and rot. That's why lemons used to be packed in boxes lined with sawdust--to absorb the moisture. (I remember when each lemon was wrapped in a twist of tissue paper to keep the damp away from the fruit.) And lemons are never picked in the morning, for the same reason; if the fruit is damp with the morning dew, it will deteriorate quickly.
You'll also want to stay away from lemons that have been stored near fruits with strong odors or ethylene-gas-producing fruits, such as apples. Pitting of the skin, that tinge of red interior dis-coloration, and loss of juice are all indications of a chill injury, when the fruit is damaged by cold temperature.
If you are going to use the peel, don't buy lemons that have been colored. Almost all of our lemons come from California and Arizona, neither of which allows lemon growers to color their fruit. If possible, check the box the fruit came in to see if the telltale words "color added" are there. You can't always tell a dyed lemon by looking at the skin, but sometimes you can: often a red dye that doesn't completely cover the greenish skin is used. As always, it pays to buy from a greengrocer you trust, one who knows if the fruit has been colored and will tell you so.
The primary varieties of commercially available lemons are the Lisbon and Eureka from California, Arizona, Chile, and Spain. Those grown in the U.S. are given one of four grades: U.S. 1, U.S. Export 1, U.S. Combination, and U.S. 2. The difference in grades relates primarily to appearance, mostly size. Organic lemons are becoming increasingly available.
Lemons store well, and they keep longer than any other citrus fruit. They are picked according to size, rather than ripeness, and are then placed in large temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms to "cure," or ripen. They are often kept this way for up to six months.
If you maintain similar storage conditions, you can keep lemons for quite a long time. Just remember that they like the same kind of temperature for storage as they do for growing, not too warm and not too humid--the proverbial cool, dry place. Lemons will keep at room temperature for up to 2 weeks and in the refrigerator for as long as 6 weeks. Be extra careful with them in humid weather, even more so than in the heat; humid conditions will make them rot quickly. Your refrigerator's vegetable bin is always best for long-term storage. Some authorities recommend storing refrigerated lemons immersed in water in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, to prevent loss of moisture, and they may last even longer that way. If you want to store lemons at room temperature, keep them in a cool room on a tray or in an open basket so that air can circulate around them, and turn them over now and then to make sure that they are not getting moldy (one moldy lemon will ruin the rest very quickly). Whether in or out of the refrigerator, lemons should not be stored in plastic, which encourages moistness and mold.
Whole lemons should never be frozen; the juice sacs burst, and when the fruit thaws, the pulp may be dry and mushy. But both lemon zest and juice freeze well. If you have more lemons on hand than you can use before they are likely to spoil, remove the zest and juice them, then freeze each separately. Or, if you don't remove the zest, the juiced shells can be frozen to use as containers for sauces, sorbets or other desserts, or relishes.
Freeze freshly grated lemon zest or strips of zest removed with a vegetable peeler in small self-sealing plastic bags for up to 3 months. You'll have it ready to add flavor and aroma to your meals anytime. You can freeze freshly squeezed lemon juice for up to 4 months. Many cooks prefer to freeze the juice in ice cube trays, 2 tablespoons per cube, rather than in larger quantities, so they don't have a big block of frozen juice. Then transfer the frozen cubes to plastic bags. Fresh lemon juice can also be kept in the refrigerator, in a tightly covered container, for 2 to 3 days without significant loss of flavor.
Frozen lemon slices or wedges are great for adding to iced tea, lemonade, and many other drinks. Cut lemons into paper-thin slices or wedges, lay them on baking sheets, and freeze until solid. Then carefully remove them and transfer to a self-sealing plastic bag until you need them. Lemon twists can be frozen in the same way.
Always refrigerate a zested lemon and juice it within a few days, since the fruit quickly deteriorates without its protective skin. When you only need half a lemon, store the remaining half cut side down on a small plate in the refrigerator, and use it as soon as possible.
If some lemons do get away from you, don't use those past their prime for cooking. Their taste will have turned metallic and very unpleasant. Use them instead for polishing copper pans or for other household chores.
Elliptically shaped lemons have a neck on the stem, or peduncle, end, and a nipple on the opposite, or stylar, end. There are three layers to the lemon's elegant structure. The thin colored outer layer is called the epicarp, also known as the zest or the rind. For culinary purposes, the zest is the bright yellow outer covering of the fruit and the peel is the whole of the skin, composed of both the zest and the pith attached to it. (In the fruit's immature state, the green pigment on the outside of the lemon is chlorophyll; as the fruit ripens, this gives rise to the yellow carotene.) Beneath the epicarp lies the mesocarp, or, commonly, the pith. This white connective tissue joining the peel to the pulp is nearly tasteless but bitter. It is the chief source of commercial grades of pectin, which is used to set jams and jellies and thicken shampoos.
The pulp, or endocarp, is the flesh of the fruit. The pulp of lemons, and most citrus fruits, is naturally divided into segments called locules. The juice is contained in vesicles that grow from hair-like tubes on the segment membranes. Within each vesicle are many juice cells, or vacuoles.
There are many ways to juice a lemon. Probably the simplest method is cutting it crosswise in half and inserting a fork while squeezing the lemon over a bowl to catch the juice. Or you might use a "reamer juicer," either manual or electric: simply a ribbed cone-shaped tool that releases the juice when the cut fruit is pressed down and rotated against it. Countertop pressers, with a rack-and-pinion gearing controlled by a lever or a handle, mean business. They exert hundreds of pounds of pressure on the lemon half to extract the maximum juice. Some are tall and others short, but you do need counter space for them. If you often juice many lemons, you might prefer an electric juicer, but you'll want a quiet one.
A "lemon trumpet," or "lemon faucet," available from kitchenware shops and through the Williams-Sonoma catalog (800-451-2233), allows you to extract a small amount of lemon juice without slicing the fruit. Simply twist it into the lemon and squeeze the fruit; the juice flows freely through the tube, and the seeds are strained out automatically. You can even store the lemon in the refrigerator with the trumpet still in place, until you need juice again. It's made of stainless steel and is dishwasher-safe.
Roll a room-temperature lemon on the counter a few times or drop it into hot water for a few minutes before you squeeze it--the lemon will give up its juice more easily.
When using lemon juice for baked goods, discard the seeds, of course, but don't strain out the pulp--it will add flavor and texture.
For maximum nutritional benefit, use freshly squeezed lemon juice immediately. Because vitamin C is a very volatile substance, most of this nutrient will be lost if you let the juice stand overnight, even if tightly covered. You can freeze lemon juice, but it will lose nutritional value, just as the commercially frozen product does.
Bottled lemon juice can have a peculiar metallic undertaste, perhaps because it's the older, past-their-prime lemons that are processed. Always use freshly squeezed lemon juice, never the lemon juice sold in bottles or plastic containers.
For me, most of the joy of a lemon is in the zest. The juice is wonderfully refreshing and perfect for balancing flavors in a dish, but it's the aptly named zest that has an insistent lemon flavor. It's much more than just pretty packaging. Fragrant with aromatic natural oils, the zest imparts a freshness and a subtle yet lively layering of flavors whenever you use it. With its complex floral and tangy tastes as well as its slight, sophisticated bitterness, it heightens and accents other flavors.
If you wish to intensify the lemon flavor in a recipe, most often the thing to do is to add finely grated zest rather than more juice. The zest contains more flavor and will not affect the balance of the other ingredients. I find I almost always add a pinch of grated zest to a dish, even if initially I think I'll just use lemon juice; the zest underscores the citrus flavor and announces its presence both visually and texturally.
Zest can be used to brighten all kinds of dishes, sweet and savory, as a garnish, accent, or key ingredient. It adds a colorful counterpoint to fresh berry fillings, dried fruit compotes, suave custards, and creamy frostings. Mellowed when baked, it insinuates its sunny personality into cakes and cookies. A sprinkling of grated zest can brighten a rich stew, perk up a salad, or add zing to a stir-fry or vegetable saute.
Always use fresh or frozen lemon zest, not dried (unless you dry your own; see page 15). Store-bought dried zest generally has lots of preservatives and little flavor.
A vividly colored peel is usually an indication of flavorful zest. Scratch the lemon with a fingernail--the more fragrant the fruit, the more flavorful the zest.
Remember, overzealous grating will result in bitterness. What you want is only the thin yellow part of the skin. Precise measurement is crucial to the final balance of flavors, and that's especially true for lemon zest. Too much zest can also make a dish bitter. If you want to add more zest to a recipe, add it a little at a time, tasting after each addition.
Before zesting a lemon, wash it thoroughly. Fortunately, most of the insecticides used on commercially grown citrus fruits are washed off after harvesting. But after they are disinfected, they are coated with a water-soluble wax for protection during shipping. So lemons need to be washed thoroughly, even scrubbed with soap and warm water, to remove the wax. If you want to avoid pesticides completely, buy organic lemons, but they too should be washed thoroughly before using, as they are also usually coated with wax.
Removing lemon zest
There are a number of tools that can be used for removing the zest from lemons. The one you use will be determined by how you plan to use the zest.
Graters--I used the Microplane grater for every recipe that calls for grated zest. A rasp, like those you would find in a carpenter's tool chest, it works better than any other implement for grating lemon zest. (The wife of a tool distributor, fed up with her dull kitchen grater, used one of her husband's rasps instead, and the Microplane was born.) The Microplane's razor-sharp teeth shave instead of ripping and shredding, and it removes a lot more zest than other graters and gadgets; you'll get at least a tablespoon of zest from each large lemon. It also seems never to remove the white pith, which is a minor miracle in itself. I love the larger model that has a molded rubber handle; it's very comfortable to hold and use and is well balanced, like a good knife. Just stroke the lemon across the Microplane--as if you were playing the violin--and you'll have fine, fluffy wisps of zest that are easy to collect and measure. It's easier to grate lemons if you draw them diagonally across the grater rather than up and down. The Microplane is made of stainless steel, easy to clean, and dishwasher-safe. It's the one "must have" tool for lemon lovers.
Anolon Gadgets Lemon Zester Use the lemon zester to add a certain zing to pasta, risotto, or meat dishes! Anolon® Gadgets are made from a combination of polished 18/10 stainless steel and silicone rubber with ergonomic handles that provide a soft comfortable grip. Durable and strong, Analon Gadgets are handsome in design and will last you over time. Heat resistant to 400F and dishwasher-safe.
OXO 6.5-in. Steel Citrus Zester, Stainless Steel Oxo's citrus Zester has sharp holes on the end that let you quickly remove only the pure zest from fruits, and a channel knife built into the head lets you cut through citrus peels for garnishes or a strips of peel or zest. Made of sleek, sturdy brushed metal, it features Oxo's trademark flexible fins on handle sides for an extra firm grip. Pierced handle for hanging.Made from the finest materials, such as rubber-soft Santoprene, high-grade stainless steel and cast aluminum, Oxo utensils will serve you well for years. Each tool has been specifically designed for comfort and function and the patented handle absorbs pressure while you work. Dishwasher safe.
Chantal 14-in. Lemon Zester Manufactured of professional-gauge rust-proof stainless steel which resists warping and is ideal for all stovetops. Chantal was founded in 1979 by Heida Thurlow, president of Chantal Cookware Corp., who initially designed Chantal's products. She has received 18 design and utility patents from the US and Germany. Today, new product development has become a team approach from a creative, quality-oriented Chantal Team.
OXO 5.5-in. Good Grips Citrus Zester With the Lemon Zester by Good Grips, you can quickly and easily extract the flavorful oil from citrus-fruit rinds. Superior stainless-steel construction ensures durability and strength. The patented soft handle adapts to fit your grip, cushions your hand while you work and won't slip, even when wet. Dishwasher-safe.
Wusthof 6-pc. Garnishing Set with Roll Stored in their own carrying case are these six tools, essential pieces for creating beautiful garnishes and decorations for your salads, entrees, desserts and more. Included in the set:Apple Corer, Double Edge Potato Peeler, Butter Curler, Citrus Zester, Melon Baller, Peeling Knife
Henckels Twin Cuisine Gadgets Peeler Precision crafted for style and sharpness efficiency. Distinctive handle design (patent pending) combines soft rubber with stylish 18/10 stainless steel - ergonomic comfort and secure grip control. Full-tang construction is durable and safer. Silicone gadgets will not scratch non-stick cookware, its high heat resistance (550 degrees) and quick cleanup. Hanging hole for impressive display in kitchen.
Mario Batali Serrated Peeler, Espresso Why the serrated edge? It makes easy work of peeling delicate foods like tomatoes. You won't believe how easily the stainless steel blade lifts off the skin or peel. This Serrated Peeler is made of stainless steel with cast zinc for durability. This peeler has a soft grip, contoured handle for comfort and control while peeling; perfect for peeling vegetables and hard cheeses.
OXO 8-in. I-Series Swivel Peeler Oxo introduces the i-Series swivel peeler - who would have thought they could make a better peeler? Make any peeling job a snap with a precision ground, extra-hardened stainless steel blade. The longer blade means increased maneuverability and surface area coverage. Constructed of sturdy die cast zinc, this swivel peeler features an efficient "eyer" to quickly remove stubborn blemishes on fruits and vegetables. The non-slip handle with added "squish" in the grip areas provides cushioning and comfort. Dishwasher-safe.
Anolon Gadgets Grater Use this handheld grater to grate your favorite blocks of cheese, lemons or oranges for zest or even to create chocolate shavings for a decadent dessert. Anolon® Gadgets are made from a combination of polished 18/10 stainless steel and silicone rubber with ergonomic handles that provide a soft comfortable grip. Durable and strong, Analon Gadgets are handsome in design and will last you over time. Heat resistant to 400F and dishwasher-safe.
CuteTools! Peeler, Rose CuteTools! is a line of hand-painted one-of-a-kind household tools and kitchen utensils made in the USA. CuteTools! were created by an artist who founded Art For A Cause to teach business skills and work ethic to special needs individuals while raising funds for their schools. CuteTools! are sanded and primed by these individuals for different artists, who hand paint beautiful floral patterns on the tools. Each tool is made with high quality metal hardware and ash handles. Handwashing is recommended.
CuteTools! Floral Opener, Blue Cute Tools! began as a program of Art for a Cause to teach business skills and work ethic to children while raising funds for their schools. Now Helping Hand has partnered with Art for a Cause to bring this line of eye-catching, hand-painted household tools and utensils to America's homes. A portion of each Cute Tools! product sold is donated to Art for a Cause to continue its work in the schools. Hand wash in mild dish soap. Dry with soft dishtowel.