Every season we like to pick one ingredient and find a variety of ways to love it and use it. You can find our complete ingredient archive here.
When we think of summer, one of our absolute favorite ingredients is lemons. Think of that first refreshing sip from a tall glass of lemonade. And there’s something so perfect about the tart bite from a lemon bar or a slice of lemon meringue pie at the end of a long summer day. While we like to work with ingredients that are in season, and we know that the primary season for citrus harvests in the US is during the winter, as you’ll see below, lemons sort of break that rule. So we thought they were ripe (haha) to be this season’s featured ingredient!
Like oranges, it is believed that lemons originated in parts of Asia, primarily northern India, Burma, and China. It is believed that lemons entered Europe through Italy in the first century AD, but they weren’t widely cultivated on the continent until the 1400s. Near the end of that same century, Christopher Columbus carried lemon seeds to the Americas, where they spread in line with the Spanish conquests of the region. It wasn’t until the 1700s that experiments were done showing that lemon juice would help sailors avoid scurvy while at sea. Larger-scale cultivation of the fruit in California and Florida did not begin until the 1800s.
Today, the top three producers of lemons are China, India, and Mexico, with each country producing over 2 million metric tons in 2012. The US was in 6th place, producing over 700,000 metric tons.
Lemons are a broadleaf evergreen and they are capable of producing ripe fruit year round! The leaves of the tree are shiny, have a nice lemony scent, and make a great foliage addition to flower arrangements. Some, but not all, lemon trees have thorns. Like oranges, lemons will not ripen any further once picked, so it is important to only pick ripe lemons. A ripe lemon is one that feels firm and is bright yellow without a hint of green on the rind.
Through genetic analysis, it is believed that lemons are a hybrid combination of the bitter orange and the citron. While it’s easy to grow a lemon tree from the seed of a grocery store lemon, it will likely take the tree years (up to 15!) to produce fruit. Furthermore, while there’s a chance that your seedling will grow to produce true lemons, there’s also a chance that the fruit won’t be like the lemons you’re used to because of the nature of hybrids. Commercially grown trees are cultivated by either growing a cutting or grafting a segment of a mature tree onto the appropriate rootstock. The benefit of a grafted tree is that they will produce fruit much sooner and can do it on a smaller sized tree.
In addition to the many culinary uses for lemons, they are valued for a few other reasons. Lemons were the primary source of citric acid, a common organic preservative, before it was discovered that fermentation processes could fuel large-scale commercial production of the compound.
Lemon essential oil has antifungal, antibacterial, antibiotic, and antiviral properties. As such, it makes a great addition to many cleaning products. A little post foreshadowing ~ I bet we’ll come back to this topic throughout the season!
Lemon juice is great in the kitchen and has the power to keep insects and odors at bay. Spritzing some lemon juice on a door frame or counter will discourage roaches, ants and other insects. A lemon juice soaked cotton ball will absorb your fridge’s smell if left in there for a day. If you drop some lemon juice into the cooking water of rice, it keeps it from sticking and some juice in the potato pot will keep them from turning brown. Lemon juice and water can also re-crisp your lettuce in a pinch!
Lemons are often used for beauty purposes as well. As kids, we would rub lemon juice in our hair in order to create some nice highlights. Lemons can also be used to lighten age spots and to clean and whiten your nails especially if they’re stained or smelly. Apparently lemon juice also soothes poison ivy, disinfects cuts, hydrates dry skin, and exterminates warts. If you’re using lemons to lighten your skin and hair, you might as well use them to lighten your laundry stains too. Lemons are much milder than bleach, yet just as effective.
After all my internet searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that lemon juice is perfect for removing just about any odor, breaking down stains on objects and yourself and helpful for disinfecting any and all surfaces. I’m excited to do a little bit of testing and experimenting with all these lemon uses and share the results with you.
There are a number of lemon varieties, but common supermarket varieties in the US are the Eureka, Lisbon, and Meyer.
- Eureka – this is a thornless variety that produces lemons year-round. It is the most common variety in the US and was first grown in California in 1877.
- Lisbon – this was the most common lemon in the US for about 30 years before the Eureka was propagated. The Lisbon is a thorny tree that produces two crops per year, and can grow in slightly cooler climates than the Eureka.
- Meyer – They Meyer lemon was discovered in China by a US Dept. of Ag explorer, Frank Meyer. It is believed that the fruit is a cross between a lemon and either a mandarin or other sweet orange. While the Meyer lemons have been widely grown in California since the mid 1900s, their popularity has spread across the country in recent decades as they’ve been featured in recipes by well-known chefs. The tree fruits year-round, but produces its largest crop in the winter.
A Few Fun Facts
- When given a choice of apples, orange, grapefruit, peaches, and lemons, cattle will eat lemons first. It may be because lemons and their citric acid aid in digestion.
- If you attach electrodes to a lemon, you can create a battery that produces electricity; several lemon batteries can power a small digital watch. Try this next time you feel like carrying around a fistful of lemons and your watch battery is dead..
- Stylish ladies used lemon juice as a way to redden their lips during the European Renaissance.
- According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s heaviest lemon weighed 11 lb 9.7 oz and was grown by Aharon Shemoel on his farm in Kefar Zeitim, Israel.
- Lemons are essential on a shopping list. Okay, I made that up, but I sincerely believe it.