Real Food Encyclopedia | Lemons

Where would we be without lemons? They garnish our drinks and liven up our food. Delicious paired with garlic, they are an imperative with anything remotely fishy.

Lemons even teach us lessons: When life gives us lemons, as the saying goes, we make lemonade. They’ve become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to believe that they are a relatively recent addition to our kitchens.

Fun Facts about Lemons:

  • The first known reference to lemons in print was in a 10th Century Arab treatise on agriculture, alchemy, astrology and magic.
  • The word lemon traces back to the Arabic word laymun.
  • Botanically, lemons are berries, and the lemon tree is an evergreen.
  • The Eureka lemon is the most commonly grown cultivar in the United States, favored for its year-round growing season and lack of thorns. Before the development of the Eureka in the 1870s, the Lisbon lemon was the most popular variety.
  • Lemons are between five and six percent citric acid, which is why they are so mouth puckeringly tart.
  • Lemon juice has been used for ages as a natural alternative to hair bleach, as well as a deodorant.

What to Look for When Buying Lemons

So perfectly yellow and sour, the now-ubiquitous lemon is practically an international symbol for both of these qualities. Look for lemons that are bright and evenly colored. A dull lemon is a sign that it’s been sitting in your supermarket past its prime. Lemons should also be firm yet not rock hard and should feel heavy — a sign that it has a lot of juice!

Sustainability of Lemons

The citrus industry is under threat from a disease called citrus greening or Huanglongbing. Spread by insects, the blight is ravaging groves across the world. In an effort to beat back the disease, producers are either pulling out and burning down affected trees in order to quarantine the blight or resorting to a controversial tactic of “chemotherapy.” Another tactic is genetic modification. While there are currently no GMO lemons on the market in the US, that may change as the blight forces the industry to take drastic measures in order to survive.

Pesticides and Lemons

Because they need to store — or cure — for a period of time before shipment, lemons spend a lot of time off the tree before they reach your kitchen. Conventional lemons are treated with imazalil, a fungicide, after harvest to prevent mold and stem rot, in addition to a coating of wax — often petroleum or shellac-based.

If that wasn’t enough of a bummer, imazalil has been labeled “likely to be carcinogenic” by the Environmental Protection Agency. And while the lemon is not on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, a study by the Food Additives & Contaminants journal revealed that 95 percent of sampled citrus tested positive for pesticides. With that in mind, you should buy organic lemons when possible, and give them a good scrub when you can’t.

Lemon Seasonality

Due to global imports and the dominance of the season-less Eureka and Lisbon varieties, the lemon is available in supermarkets all year round. The Meyer lemon, however, is typically available from December until May.

Lemons and Geography

In the United States, lemons are predominantly grown commercially in California followed by Arizona and Texas. While one readily associates citrus with Florida, commercial lemon production hasn’t been strong there after a series of devastating freezes and disease. The US ranks behind China, India, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil in global production.

Lemon trees, which grow anywhere from 10 to 20 feet, need warm weather, lots of water and abundant sunshine, making them perfect for subtropical and Mediterranean climates. They are generally cloned onto rootstock as many hybrids are sterile, but some lemon varieties can be grown from seed. However, they need about eight years to produce fruit. For those of us in colder climes, Meyer lemons make lovely indoor plants.

Eating Lemons

Storing Lemons

Lemons will keep at room temperature upwards of a week. In the refrigerator, they’ll last up to three weeks in dry and sealed conditions. Lemon juice, however, will freeze for about a year.

Cooking with Lemons

Lemons should be considered a staple of any kitchen like salt and spices. There are few dishes that couldn’t benefit from a squeeze of lemon juice, or a pinch of zest! A sprinkle of lemon juice perks up roasted vegetables, is an invaluable partner to seafood and adds complexities to fats such as butter.

Lemons are a great alternative to chemical cleaners. Yes, you can clean with lemons! The low pH of lemons means the juice is antibacterial. It can also deodorize, disinfect and cut through grease. Here’s a recipe for homemade lemon cleaner.

Preserving Lemons

While lemons won’t last more than a few weeks in your kitchen, there are many ways to preserve a bumper crop. The first, obviously, is freezing the saved juice in ice cube trays where it can be later added to recipes. Or you can freeze it in larger quantities to make lemonade.

Countries where lemons are native have a culinary tradition of preserving them. In Morocco, lemons are preserved whole in a mixture of brine and lemon juice. In India, lemon pickle is often served as a condiment. You can even preserve lemon zest, which when dried turns to a spice you can add to dishes.

Lemon Nutrition

Lemon juice is a great source of Vitamin C, and a good source of both folate and potassium. The essential oil from the peel can be used as an antiseptic on wounds or as a natural alternative to toxic hand sanitizers. In ayurvedic medicine, lemons aid in proper digestion and detoxification of the liver.