The MVP of Citrus Fruits

January 23, 2016

Seasonal produce makes us giddy, so we’ve partnered with Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts to share the scoop on some of our favorite unique fruits and vegetables.

Which citrus fruit are we deeming the most valuable in our kitchens? The lemon.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Yes, kumquats may be cute, the fragrance of a pomelo is undeniably heady, and fruits don’t get much more fun than finger limes. But lemons are kitchen workhorses.

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In Ode to a Lemon, poet Pablo Neruda calls a cut lemon "a cup yellow / with miracles." They’re powerful, an ingredient as essential to have on hand as an onions—and perhaps more, as they can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. And although we think of wintertime as citrus season, lemons are available year-round thanks to different varieties and growing locations. Good thing, too, because we’d be lost without them—there's not much their acidic punch can't liven up.

Photo by James Ransom

We get lemon juice from the lemon's flesh (1, above), but that's not the only part of a lemon that's good to use.

The zest (2, above) is the thin, colorful, outermost layer of the peel, and it should never be left behind. If your recipe only calls for fresh lemon juice, zest the lemons first with a Microplane​, then freeze it for later (use an ice cube tray)—it's good in everything from cakes to soup to pasta.

The white part of the peel is the pith (3, above) and isn't often used, as it's very bitter.

Not a true lemon. Photo by Mark Weinberg

There may not be as many cultivars as lemons as of apples, but there are a few different types that you'll most likely be able to get your hands on:

Regular lemons that you pick up at the grocery store are almost never labeled by variety, but they are almost certainly Eurekas or Lisbons. The two varieties are hard to tell apart visually, but in How to Pick a Peach, Russ Parsons tips us off that you can tell what you’re buying by the time of year. Right now, you’re likely eating the latter type: “Lisbons, which originally came from Portugal to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, are cool-weather lemons and are harvested in the winter and spring.” Eurekas are picked in the spring and summer, but Parsons adds, "they can hang on the tree for months after ripening and often are available even in the heart of the Lisbon harvest."

Pink lemons are also known as variegated Eureka lemons or pink-fleshed Eureka lemons, which tells you almost everything you need to know about them. They are a type of Eureka lemon with yellow and green striped rinds and pink-tinged flesh. And although they might be hard to find, they aren’t a new cultivar—they’ve been around since 1931.

Meyer lemons have something akin to a cult following; they’re popular for their thin aromatic peel and flesh that's sweeter than that of other lemons—but, they’re not true lemons. Parsons explains: “Until recently, it was believed to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin, but DNA testing has found that it is really the offshoot of a union between a lemon and a sweet orange.” Meyer lemons have a rounder shape than true lemons and a much richer yellow-orange peel: Sometimes they are so deeply colored that it’s possible to confuse them with mandarin oranges.

Ready to add some liquid sunshine to your dishes? Here are a dozen ideas to get you started:

What are your favorite ways to cook with lemons? Tell us in the comments!

Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts was founded in 1977 to advance health-supportive culinary education—and more than 2,500 chefs from over 45 countries have graduated since. Find out more about NGI's Chef’s Training Program, recreational classes, and more here.

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I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.

1 Comment

Vicki B. January 23, 2016
Lemon Chess Pie is one of my favorite pies. I just discovered preserved lemons and use them in anything that could benefit from a bit of lemon zing. They make great gifts, too!