I love everything about lemons and think life would be boring and tasteless without them. A lemon’s aroma, flavor, and piquancy add a freshness that’s essential to good food. A lemon’s tartness is the perfect complement to sweetness and richness, and it’s because of this that lemons are especially wonderful in desserts. What’s more, a lemon is two fruits in one: you get both the fragrant flavor of the zest and the spirited zing of the juice.
Zest adds fragrance and packs flavor. For me, much of the joy of a lemon is in the zest, which I think is aptly named for its insistent lemon flavor.
Zest isn’t the entire peel, but only the thin, outermost, bright-yellow layer of the lemon, with none of the underlying white pith attached. Lemon zest is much more than just pretty packaging: Fragrant with aromatic natural oils, the zest brings complex floral and tangy flavors, as well as freshness, aroma, and subtlety. If you want to intensify the lemon flavor in any dessert, most often the best thing to do is to add finely grated lemon zest rather than more juice. Zest adds zip, yet it won’t affect the sweet-sour or liquid-solid balance of the recipe. Add a little at a time and keep tasting after each addition, as too much can impart a bitter flavor. Before zesting, be sure to scrub lemons thoroughly to remove the water-soluble wax coating that’s added to protect them during shipping.
For grating, I always use a Microplane. Its razor-sharp teeth shave the zest rather than rip or shred it, releasing more essential oils and removing more of the zest than other graters and gadgets. You’ll get at least a tablespoon of fine, feathery zest from each large lemon. A Microplane also seems to solve another problem. Other graters tend to nick at the lemon peel, yielding much less grated zest yet grabbing the pith right along with the zest. The Microplane grabs only the yellow zest—a minor miracle in itself. For more about zesting, see the sidebar below.
Juice gives tang and balance. Lemon juice is wonderfully tangy and refreshing; it’s perfect for balancing flavors in a dessert. There are lots of ways to juice lemons, but the tool I like best is a simple juicer with a ridged cone set in a dish. The reason I love these is because they strain the seeds but include the pulp, which I often add with the juice for added lemony flavor and great texture. Whether I use my electric or manual model depends on my mood—and how much juice I need.
For easiest juicing, roll a room-temperature lemon on the counter a few times, applying pressure with your palm (or drop it into hot water for a few minutes) before squeezing. Covered in the refrigerator, fresh lemon juice keeps well for three days. You can even freeze it; it will maintain its lemony zip for three months.
In addition to using a Microplane, Lori Longbotham offers other ways to get the most out of each lemon you zest.
• If you’ll be using both the juice and the zest of a lemon, grate or peel the zest first.
• When grating lemon zest, you want just the thin yellow top coat of the skin. Overzealous grating will result in bitter flavors.
• The lemon’s volatile oils are strongest just after zesting, so remove the zest just before using.
• Grate lemon zest over waxed paper to make it easier to gather for measuring.
• Finely grated zest releases more flavor than larger strips.
• If you have more lemons on hand than you can use, grate or peel the zest, juice the lemons, and then freeze the zest and juice separately. Well wrapped, they’ll keep for up to three months.