How to choose and use lemons

Which lemon to choose: large or small, organic or not?

How do I choose a good lemon?

First of all, what do you want to use it for? For juice, the lemons you find in the supermarket are just fine. Most of them are grown in California (with some from Arizona) and are either the Eureka or Lisbon variety, which are difficult to tell apart, even for a lot of lemon growers. Choose a lemon that’s heavy for its size and has a pleasant fragrance. The skin should be bright yellow with no wrinkling. A thinner-skinned lemon will yield more juice, while a thicker-skinned one may be better for zest. Be sure to check that the lemon is not too soft and has no signs of white or green mold. Small blemishes and spots won’t affect the juice.

How do I know if a lemon is ripe? As long as it isn’t rock hard, it’s ripe. Since you don’t buy a lemon for its sweetness, you don’t have to worry about that part.

Small or large? Research indicates that it’s usually a better bargain to buy smaller lemons: you get more juice for your money. It means a little more labor on your part, though.

Lemon watercolor by Cathy Mihalik

Organic or not? If you want to use your lemon for its rind, or zest, it can be worth it to pay more for organic or unwaxed lemons. Be extra careful in choosing organic lemons–since they are not treated with fungicide wax, they are much more susceptible to mold. Look for telltale white or green spores on the lemons, and check any lemons that are nearby, as mold easily spreads from one fruit to the next. Avoid lemons with soft spots. See more about zest below.

Lemon varieties include the golden colored Meyer lemon and the striped Pink Lemonade, the latter mainly used for its decorative value

What about Meyer lemons? Meyer lemons are actually a natural cross between a lemon and an orange, discovered by plant explorer Frank N. Meyer in China in 1908.  They have a delicate floral fragrance and flavor; their skins are thinner and they’re  sweeter, or  less acidic, than a true lemon, as they contain about four times the amount of sugar. That said, they still have a refreshing tang.

Unless you live in California or have a friend with a Meyer lemon tree, you may find them too pricey to use on a regular basis as they don’t transport well and have a limited season. Also,  when you want that tangy acidic kick, you’re better off getting true lemons. But for certain desserts and dishes where you want the rind to be edible, they’re worth paying extra for. I recommend them especially for lemon marmalade.

How should I keep my lemons at home? Store lemons at room temperature, out of the sunlight, for a week or more, unless they are organic lemons — then they should be used within a couple of days or stored in your refrigerator crisper. A bowl of lemons will make your house smell sweet. Keep lemons away from moisture; wash and dry them just before using.

What about substituting bottled lemon juice for fresh lemons?  Don’t do it, except in an emergency. Fresh lemon juice is so much better, plus you can use the lemon zest.  Rather than buying bottled juice, just keep a bowlful of lemons on your table or counter — they will beautify and scent your home and that way you’ll always have fresh lemons available for your recipes. And you can freeze leftover lemon juice in ice cube trays for all the convenience of bottled juice.

Tips on cooking with lemons:


4 to 5 medium lemons = approximately 1 cup of juice

One medium lemon = approximately 1 tablespoon grated peel

The wooden lemon reamer is my favorite hand tool for juicing lemons. Yes, you still have to strain the seeds, but it’s brilliantly effective, using the power of one’s hand to squeeze out all the juice.

Lemon juice: To increase the amount of juice you can squeeze, the lemon should be room temperature or warmer. If need be, place in hot water for a few minutes. Then roll the lemon firmly on the counter-top with the pressure of your palm until it feels softened. Lemons will become juicier with this method as the membranes inside start to break down, releasing the juice more easily. I’ve also read that microwaving a lemon for 15 seconds will release more of its juice (I haven’t tried this).

Two types of lemon squeezers that strain juice. I found the one on the left in Amsterdam; the one on the right at Campo di Fiori in Rome.

Cooking: Always use nonreactive cookware with lemon juice, avoiding aluminum, uncoated cast iron or copper. It’s best to add lemon juice to dishes after they’ve been cooked to retain vitamin C and for the freshest brightening flavor.

  • Fresh lemon juice can be used in place of vinegar in many recipes and is excellent with oil as a salad dressing.
  • Lemon juice is also excellent in marinades as it tenderizes meat.
  • Using a teaspoon of lemon juice in place of ice water in a pie crust will add to its tenderness.
  • Perk up wilted lettuce or tired vegetables by soaking them in a big bowl of cold water with a teaspoon of lemon juice for half an hour.
  • Add a squeeze of lemon juice to the water when poaching eggs to keep the whites together.
  • Lemon juice can be used to prevent artichokes or cut fruits, such as apples,  from turning brown (oxidizing)
  • Add half a lemon to the cooking water when you’re cooking cauliflower and it will stay white. Or add lemon juice to cooked purple cauliflower and observe a startling color change to fuchsia:
    • However, when you want cooked green beans to stay bright green, don’t add lemon juice until right before serving or they’ll turn an olive color. A good way to add lemon flavor to a dressing for green beans while preserving their color is to use the zest.

Lemon zest: When a recipe calls for zest, try to use unwaxed or organic lemons. Most grocery store lemons are waxed. If you cannot use these, then blanch the lemon in boiling water for a minute to loosen the wax, and scrub the skin well before grating.

A Microplane grater, based on a rasp design, will give you finely grated zest; a lemon zester produces slightly longer threads of zest, or you can use a sharp vegetable peeler to peel strips, then finely chop. Be sure to grate or peel only the yellow part of the skin, not the white part beneath, which can be bitter.

My favorite of these methods is the Microplane — it’s easy to use and the fine zest gives intense flavor. I add freshly grated lemon zest to many baked goods — scones, cakes, muffins, pies — as well as to pasta and rice dishes, salads, tuna salads, fish, chicken, and much more.

I often travel with a Microplane zester and a lemon reamer.

Preserving juice and zest: Lemon juice can be frozen in small containers or in ice cube trays. Lemon cubes can be added to lemonade or thawed to use in a recipe. Lemon zest can also be frozen, wrapped in small packets of plastic wrap or aluminum foil. You can also add strips of lemon peel to a jar of sugar to use for baking.

Classic lemon juicers: the wooden one on the left is an early American model, which was not very effective


You can find lemon recipes on the pages above in these categories:

Antique recipes include 12th century preserved lemons, Limuniya from the Middle Ages, A Lemon Sallet from 1653, a Lemon Pudding from 1747 and Shaker Lemon Pie from the 1800s.

Savories include Avgolemeno (Greek lemon-egg soup), Lebanese lemony lentil soup, ceviche, roast chicken with lemons, slow roast chicken (pieces) with garlic and lemon, chicken piccata, , lemon basil linguine, lemon risotto, lemon pizza and tuna-lemon-green bean salad.

Sweets include lemon curd, French lemon tart, lemon meringue pie, S-cookies, Rachel’s lemon squares, David Leibovitz’s whole lemon bars, granita di limone, Meyer lemon marmalade and candied citrus peels.

Lemonade — I think this is self-explanatory!


Filed under citrus, food, lemon, lemons, Meyer lemons

13 responses to “How to choose and use lemons

  1. Lemons have a number of uses, including adding flavor to recipes and dishes and garnishing drinks. They’re helpful around the house when cleaning copper pots or eliminating rust. Fresh lemons last approximately two weeks, and whole lemons, like most citrus fruits, do not freeze well. When you extract the juice, you can freeze it separately in ice cube trays and use it later to flavor drinks, add to recipes or use around the house for cleaning. By freezing the lemon juice, it will be readily available even in the off-season when lemons can be very expensive. Add this to my Recipe Box.

  2. Margaret

    I am just starting to use lemons for water drinks & somebody told me that she onlly uses organic. So I’m glad that was cleared up for me, as organic is so expensive & don’t last as long. Thank you!

    • lemonodyssey

      You’re welcome, Margaret! Organic lemons are not only more expensive to grow, but also develop mold more easily in the market, as the skin isn’t treated with fungicide. That makes them worth buying when you want lemon zest, but for juice, conventional lemons are fine.

  3. ETTA

    I sometimes have a craving for lemons just to eat. Im in ohio but the lemons are not the greatest. I just want to know what are the best lemons

    • lemonodyssey

      Well, it’s hard to know what the problems are with your lemons. You should be able to get good lemons in Ohio! They’re all pretty similar taste-wise, so I look for ones that are juicy and don’t have loads of seeds. Marks on the outside are just cosmetic and don’t affect the quality. I’ve noticed that Sunkist seems to care about their brand name and their lemons seem consistently good. Hope that helps.

  4. Ronnie Andreu

    Thanks…very informative!

  5. Whollyfool

    I like to boil lemons to make lemon water that is so much better than just squeezing lemon into the cold water…. I remove all the seeds every time, but sometimes the result is wonderful, sometimes bitter. This happens even in lemons from the same bag (usually Sunkist).

    Do you know why this might be?


    • lemonodyssey

      hi and thanks for writing. I really don’t know, but it probably has something to do with the peel. You know how recipe books always say to not include white pith (of oranges and other citrus) because it is bitter? It doesn’t seem to always be bitter, but maybe that’s the problem you’re having if you’re boiling the lemons with the peel. Sorry I don’t have a more definitive answer!

      • Whollyfool

        Thanks for weighing in! I’ll do some more testing…

        Give the boiled lemon water a try, btw, it’s (generally) really good! 🙂

  6. MC

    Only problem with conventional lemons is that they absorb about 40 % of the pesticides. Plus all the pesticides used on the plants go into our drinking water, our land and damage the health of the workers spraying them.

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