Ode to a Lemon

O knobby blob,
Yellow, round and waxy,
What bittersweet wonders await
Beneath thy sunny zest?

Ouch. Better not give up my day job (and anyway, Pablo Neruda had this covered a long time ago). If you’ve ever been inside a walk-in in a real pastry kitchen one thing will certainly strike you: how many dang lemons there are. Not gallons of pre-squeezed lemon juice, not jugs of lemon extract, but for-real fresh lemons. No pastry maker can do without them, for there is absolutely no substitute for the brightness of fresh-off-the-lemon lemon zest. The juice, well, that’s less useful, since it’s got so little flavor.

So little flavor you say? Yes, that’s right. At least so little lemon flavor. For that there is but one go-to spot on the fruit: the zest. It’s packed with volatile oils that give any lemon-flavored anything its true character. The rest is a lot of bitter white pulp and sour, acid juice. Being so awful tasting, the pulp is useless for all intents and purposes. The juice has a place of course, though primarily as a kitchen acid, perfect for jobs like leavening or for coagulating egg proteins in batters (so the chocolate chunks don’t fall to the bottom of your banana muffins). And of course it’s indispensable for brushing on apples and pears to prevent discoloration.

But it’s the zest that’s the true meat of the thing. Bake a tea bread with lots of lemon juice in it and you’ll scarcely notice the flavor. Fortify it with the lemon zest though, and you have a whole new experience on your taste buds: bright, fresh and aromatic. Which is why it’s always a good idea to add at least a few shavings of zest to any recipe than calls simply for juice. This rule goes for any citrus fruit: limes, even oranges. Citrus juice is like the bass note in a chord. The zest is where the overtones (and hence the real music) is.

All the more reason to be extra-discerning when you shop for citrus. Inspect that zest. A thick, firm skin is a good indication you have a quality fruit in your hands. And when in doubt, scratch and sniff. A small scrape with your finger nail should yield a release of aroma that you can feel in your brain stem. If not, move on. Life is too short for lame lemon, especially since it’s by far my favorite sweet flavor. Maybe it’s because my grandmother made such amazing lemon bars, but given a choice between lemon curd and chocolate sauce, I’ll take the lemon every time.

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