If there is a Johnny Appleseed of lemons, it’s largely believed to be Christopher Columbus, who brought them to the new world. The first plantings were probably in Florida, but an Italian hybrid initially planted near L.A. is believed to be the origin of lemon production in California and Arizona, which now accounts for 95% of the U.S. crop.
In the U.S., it’s difficult to find a freshly picked lemon in the supermarket. Here the demand for most lemons does not align with their natural ripening cycle. As a result, commercially produced lemons are picked while they are still green and cured for several weeks in controlled environments until they are ready for distribution.
The lemons grown along Italy’s Amalfi Coast are prized for their sweetness and are used in making limoncello, a lemon liquor.
There seem to be as many varieties of lemons as there are people; the differences between them are often indistinguishable. They tend to vary in size, number of seeds, rind thickness, sweetness, juiciness, and seasonal peak. Here are a few of the more prominent varieties.
This is your common supermarket variety. They are large and juicy with few seeds and a high acid content. The pulp is a pale yellow although a pink varietal also exists. While they are available year-round, Eureka lemons peak from late spring to mid-summer.
Virtually indistinguishable from Eureka lemons (even experts have a difficult time telling them apart), the Lisbon has a thinner, smoother skin and is considered to be a bit juicier with a pronounced nipple and short neck. Peak season is mid-winter to early spring.
Meyer (citrus x meyeri)
While native to China, Meyer lemons are named after the Dutch botanist who discovered them while on assignment for the US Department of Agriculture in the early 1900s. Meyers are a hybrid, believed to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange. Sweeter, less acidic and highly fragrant, they have a thin smooth rind that is slightly orange when fully ripe. They peak from mid-Autumn to early-winter.
Femminello (aka Italian lemons)
The Femminello family of lemons accounts for 75% of the Italian lemon crop. There are various sub varieties. Chief among these are the Ovale, but the Santa Teresa and Sfusato Amalfitano are some of the most prized of the Italian varieties. The latter come from Italy’s storied Amalfi Coast and are fiercely protected by a consortium of producers. It is believed that Amalfi lemons are the best for making limoncello.
Primofiori (aka Fino, Mesero, and Blanco)
Because of this variety’s extreme sensitivity to cold, few regions of the world can produce them. Spain is one of those regions, where the Primofiori is widely grown. Smaller than most other lemons, it has a moderate seed count, but it has a high juice content which makes it popular for export.
Buying & Storing Lemons
Choose firm plump lemons that aren’t too hard and feel a bit heavy for their size. Their color should be bright yellow with show no sign of green. Avoid lemons that are brown, soft or appear to have patches of dried skin or even mold. If you intend to use the zest, avoid waxed lemons.
Fresh lemons will keep at room temperature for about a week, but they will last 2 weeks or more when stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Tightly wrap cut pieces in plastic wrap, store in the refrigerator and try to use as soon as possible.
Taste & Flavor Affinities
The fruit’s tangy, sour taste is caused by citric acid (5%) and its sweetness comes from the natural sugars. Their aroma comes from two compounds, limonene and citral.
Lemons pair so well with so many different ingredients that it might be easier to list those items with which they do not. Chief among the flavor affinities are fish, honey, shellfish and sugar. Other strong affinities include artichokes, blueberries, butter, capers, chicken, garlic, lamb, olive oil, oranges, poppy seeds, pork, raspberries, rice, and vodka. Soft cheese, especially goat, mascarpone, and ricotta, also pair well. Strong spice and herbal pairings include basil, cinnamon, mint, rosemary & time.
Cooking with Lemons
The culinary uses for lemons are too numerous to mention. Commonly used in dressings, marinades, sauces and mayonnaises, they also go great with vegetables and meats; but especially fish and seafood. A percentage of lemons are used for garnishments for dishes and cocktails.
Your tongue can only taste the sour and sweetness of the juice. The distinctive lemon flavor is picked up by your sense of smell. Most of the flavor is in the zest. So when you want the acidic sour edge, use the juice. When you want that great lemony taste without the sour taste, use the zest.
To remove the zest, it’s best to use the right tool. I recommend a Microplane or similar ultra-fine grating tool when cooking or baking with zest and an actual lemon zester when using the zest as a garnish. In either case, use delicate hand. Only the very thinnest outer layer of skin is desired. The white pith just below it is bitter and will ruin your zest. Always clean the lemon well and remove any stickers before zesting.
On average, a lemon will yield about 2 tablespoons of zest and 3 tablespoons of juice, but this depends on the size, variety and ripeness. When using both, zest first, then juice. When only the zest is needed, there are two ways to preserve the juice. If you anticipate using the juice in the next day or two, tightly wrap the zested lemon in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. It should keep for 2-3 days. Otherwise, extract and strain the juice and freeze in ice cube trays covered with plastic wrap.
Lemon’s acidic juice acts as a preservative. Use on freshly sliced apples, bananas or avocados to prevent browning.