What Are Lemons?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

what are lemons

The Spruce Eats / Chelsea Damraksa

Lemons are popular around the world for their signature complex sour flavor. The yellow, oval-shaped citrus fruit grows on flowering evergreen trees and is cultivated commercially and in backyard gardens around the world. Lemons thrive in mild, warm climates like Mexico, California, and India, and are used to add brightness and depth to all kinds of sweet and savory food and beverages. The fruit is harvested for its juice and peel, and oil expressed from the peel can be used on its own as an essential oil, or used in cleaning products.

What Are Lemons?

A lemon is a bright yellow citrus fruit that is known for its acidic juice. The fruit is harvested during several months of the year with the timing depending on the tree's geographical location. This makes fresh lemons available year-round in many parts of the world. The fruit can be dried, candied, preserved, or juiced and used in drinks or to add tang to a wide range of dishes.

Lemon Varieties

Nearly all lemon varieties sold in North America are either Eureka or Lisbon. These lemons are so similar—medium-sized, oval, bright yellow inside and out, few seeds, and a bright tangy flavor—that consumers can't tell them apart. If you're buying a lemon at the supermarket, you're buying one of these two varieties.

Meyer lemons, a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange, are available at some specialty markets in the wintertime. These lemons have a thin, deep orange-yellow peel, are smooth rather than bumpy, and have sweet, floral, citrusy juice and flesh.

How to Cook With Lemons

Wash and dry lemons before using in order to remove the outer layer of wax typically sprayed on their surface before shipping. What you do next will depend on your recipe instructions. If it calls for lemon zest, leave the lemon whole and use a zester or extra-fine grater to remove the peel, taking care to only remove the outermost layer and avoid the bitter white pith. You can also remove the peel with a sharp paring knife or vegetable peeler, and use whole or minced.

If the recipe calls for lemon juice, cut the lemon in half with the stem end on one side and the pointy end on the other (across the segments). Use a citrus reamer or juicer to extract the juice, or simply squeeze using your hand. Note that you'll also end up with a little pith and some seeds this way, so you may need to strain your juice.

Lemon juice can be used raw in desserts, savory dishes, and drinks, or cooked into recipes. Wedges and slices are often served with seafood and as a garnish for beverages, to be squeezed over the top for an extra kick of lemon flavor.

Lemon slices, wedges, and whole lemons

The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

What Do Lemons Taste Like?

Lemons have a bright citrus flavor that is very tart owing to the fruit's acidity. Because of this intense sourness, lemons are not typically eaten out-of-hand. The juice is frequently sweetened with sugar or added in small quantities to dishes to lend a fresh tartness. The outer peel has a fragrant lemon flavor that lacks tartness or sweetness, and can be candied or used to make the classic Italian liqueur limoncello. The white pith, between the outer peel and juicy flesh, is dry and bitter. It is frequently removed, but can be included in recipes like marmalade where a slight bitter flavor is desired.

Lemon Recipes

Lemons are used in a long list of sweet and savory dishes, from pasta and soup to cake and cocktails. To really showcase the fresh fruit, mix up a batch of lemonade, lemon curd, or sorbet. A lemon meringue pie or tart is always a classic treat, as are lemon bars.

On the savory side, lemon pairs well with ingredients like garlic, capers, parmesan, and parsley, butter, and all kinds of starches. It's a must on seafood and a key ingredient in salad dressings and sauces. Add juice to hummus, zest to rice, slices to baked fish, and halves of lemon to the cavity of a chicken before roasting.

Where to Buy Lemons

Lemons can be found at supermarkets year-round. They are in season between fall and early summer depending on the location. Pre-packaged lemon juice can also be found but lacks some of the bright flavor of its fresh counterpart. Look for lemons that feel heavy for their size. Smaller lemons tend to be juicier, with larger lemons containing more pith. Avoid bruises, cuts, or blemishes that will lead it to rot or mold.

Lemon trees are not tolerant of frost, and should be planted in full sun. Trees in particularly temperate areas can have fruit ripening nearly year-round. Some varieties can be raised in pots and even grow indoors as an ornamental plant.

How to Store Lemons

Lemons will be juiciest when stored at room temperature. If you plan to keep them longer than a few days, store in a zip-top plastic bag in the crisper drawer in the fridge. Lemons can last for up to a month this way, but let them warm to room temperature before juicing for best results.

Lemon juice can be frozen for use later. Simply freeze in an airtight container or, for ease of use, freeze in an ice cube tray. Once frozen, transfer to a zip-top bag and defrost a cube or two at a time. Lemon zest can also be frozen (large pieces of peel work best), but don't freeze whole lemons.

Another popular way to store this fruit is to make preserved lemons. Combine sliced lemons with salt and sugar in a jar, and leave to sit until tenderized. They will last for at least six months in the fridge and are a popular ingredient in Moroccan cuisine. Pair with poultry for tender, juicy, flavorful results.