Some produce is obviously special—take always-stunning dragon fruit, for example, or perfect, in-season peaches and berries, which are here for a short while and then gone until next year. Other fruit seems more ho-hum, and easy to take for granted. Lemons, for instance; we see them every time we go to the store, and they’re useful for lots of different dishes, but not terribly exciting. The exception to that rule are Meyer lemons. When they show up in early spring, people swoon. But what makes them so special, and how are they different from regular lemons anyway? Read on to find out.
The most apparent and important difference when it comes to using each type of lemon is the taste. Conventional lemons (which are generally either Eureka lemons or Lisbon lemons, essentially interchangeable) are tart enough to make your mouth pucker up. Meyer lemons taste recognizably lemony, and they do have acidity too, but significantly less than Eurekas or Lisbons, and are sweet enough that they can be added raw to various dishes; although you probably still wouldn’t want to eat one whole like you would an orange, you can mix chunks or slices into salads and salsa.
The zest of both regular lemons and Meyer lemons is fragrant and bright, but Meyer lemon zest has a more floral and even subtly spicy depth to it. The peel on a Meyer lemon is thinner too, and there’s much less bitter white pith beneath it, which means you can eat the entire fruit (sans seeds) in certain preparations—however, if you want to do that, be sure your fruit is organic and untreated with wax or other coatings, or else you’ve scrubbed it well under hot water to dissolve any residue.
Before lemons became a culinary crop, they were grown as ornamental plants, which makes sense when you behold a beautiful tree hung with bright citrus fruit. When you gaze at the fruit itself, you can see that Meyer lemons are smaller, often rounder, and smoother-skinned than their more common oblong and frequently-bumpy cousins. Meyer lemons are a deeper, more orange-toned color than sunny yellow Eureka and Lisbon lemons (both inside and out).
The other thing that makes Meyer lemons so attractive is that they’re comparatively elusive. They usually show up in November or December and disappear by March. Their limited window of availability, coupled with their more fragile nature, which makes shipping them more difficult, naturally makes them more expensive than hardier, year-round regular lemons too.
So, what can you do if you want to make a Meyer lemon recipe and you don’t have any of the titular ingredient on hand? Substitute a mix of equal parts regular fresh lemon juice and orange or tangerine juice (the latter is a bit more complex and floral). Similarly, you can use equal parts regular lemon zest and orange or tangerine zest to stand in for Meyer lemon zest if need be. Since Meyer lemons, which are native to China, are said to be a hybrid of lemons and mandarin oranges, you can use mandarin juice (or zest) in concert with the regular lemon juice/zest as well (instead of navel orange or tangerine). Basically, you’ve got options.
You can also make a Meyer lemon recipe with conventional lemon juice or zest instead, but the results will be much tangier and far less sweet, so you may need to adjust other ingredients, like sugar (or whatever other sweetener is called for). Conversely, when Meyer lemons are in season and you want to add them to everything, choose your applications wisely. If the goal is to brighten a dish with a shot of acid, Meyer lemons won’t have as big of an impact and may be wasted—but they’ll still lend their own unique character to things like simple vinaigrettes and cocktails (speaking of, when you’ve got ’em, make our Meyer Lemon Disgestif to extend the pleasure even when the season’s over). You can try making Meyer lemonade too, though it’ll be a pricey pitcher. Ultimately, as is the case with anything you make, you can—and should—always taste and adjust the flavor until it’s just right (read: precisely to your own liking).
Try some of these recipes to spark your imagination—and your taste buds.
This beautiful icebox cake is simple to make, although if you’re feeling extra ambitious, try swapping in our Meyer Lemon Black Pepper Cookies for the store-bought lemon or vanilla wafers. They’ll add another layer of savory-sweet intrigue to the fabulously fragrant cake. Get the recipe.
A lightly salted shortbread crust and a dash of honey in the filling are unexpectedly brilliant complements to this sweet and floral Meyer lemon tart. Get the recipe.
While Meyer lemons are wonderful in desserts, they shine just as brightly in savory dishes, like this tender focaccia with aromatic rosemary, perfect for nibbling with cocktails, or pairing with a main course. Get the recipe.
A simply roasted chicken is a gorgeous thing, and all the better if it’s surrounded with juice-soaked potatoes and caramelized Meyer lemons (which you can cut up and eat along with the other morsels of meat and potatoes). This dish comes from Martha Stewart, who is often credited with popularizing Meyer lemons in America, for which we thank her. Get the recipe.
Preserved lemons, a staple of Moroccan and Middle Eastern kitchens, are a great addition to your pantry too, and ultra easy to make. Meyer lemons are preferred, but you can use regular lemons in the same way too; here, they’re simply scored, packed in salt, and left to sit for a while. When you’re ready to use them, gently rinse off the salt and chop the peel. They add lovely lemon brightness to countless dishes, including salads, rice, pasta, and desserts, not to mention traditional tagines and the like. Get the recipe.
The acidic zing of conventional lemons is a perfect counterpoint to rich smoked salmon and Yukon Gold potatoes, with black pepper and fresh parsley adding even more punch. Get our Smoked Salmon Hash with Lemon-Parsley Vinaigrette recipe.
This classic Greek soup relies on eggs for creaminess and fresh lemon juice to make it as bright as the Aegean coast. Tender chicken and orzo make it a full meal. Get the recipe.
Lemon is an old friend to fish and seafood of all sorts; here, the juice and zest cuts through the richness of golden-seared scallops and pasta and perks up the vodka-based sauce, while a dab of heavy cream smooths it all out. Get our Seared Scallops with Lemon and Vodka recipe.
Tangy, creamy lemon curd is like a little pot of sunshine. Spread it liberally on pancakes, toast, or scones, or use it to fill tarts and cakes, and pair it with plenty of berries. Get our Lemon Curd recipe.
Old-fashioned lemon bars never go out of style. You can certainly make them with Meyer lemons in season (and those are particularly great for making whole lemon bars, in which you include the peel), but there’s real harmony between the electric lemon topping and sweet shortbread base of the standard version. You can always dust them with powdered sugar to soften that sweet sting a bit more if need be. Get our Shortbread Lemon Bars recipe.
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