This Ingredient Is as Important as Garlic

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
February 19, 2014

Photo credit: StockFood

You know to always have salt kicking around. And pasta. And garlic. But what of the humble, essential lemon? As is true of its emerald sibling, the lime, a lemon has a million uses that will make your life brighter, cleaner, and better-tasting. Here are a few of our favorites: 

Add acid to dishes: “I love lemons so much that I included an entire chapter on them,” wrote Ruth Reichl of her first cookbook. Perhaps the kitchen’s most underrated staple, the lemon adds a citrusy brightness to a finished dish that neither vinegar nor salt can replicate. Start testing your cooking for both saltiness and acid content before serving. Does that plate of grilled shrimp/pasta/sautéed greens need something to make it taste more alive? Give it a squeeze of lemon. 

Throw a slice in a cocktail: Whether it’s standing in for lime in bourbon and gingers or making for a more delicious hot toddy, lemons are tough to beat for cocktail charm, especially when you’re able to spare a slender wheel as a bright garnish. (Our current obsession: bourbon, ginger liqueur, and lemon, stirred and served up.)

Cook more fish: You know you’re supposed to eat more fish; having a lemon on hand might just mean you’ll stop by the fishmonger’s or swing by the fish section of the supermarket

Clean your counters and cutting boards: Out of paper towels? Not a problem. Slice a lemon in half, squeeze a bit of its juice on a cutting board, and use the half as a scrubby sponge for instantly cleaner surfaces. 

Make more lemon desserts: Give your chocolate dessert routine a rest; citrus desserts brighten the darkest winter days. Less intense Meyer lemons, in particular, are lovely in sweets. They’re also in season, meaning you have more reason than ever to make this unctuous lemon olive oil custard.

Clean your microwave! How fabulous is this idea from The Kitchn? Squeeze lemon juice into a Pyrex container, toss the lemon halves and some water in there, throw the whole thing in the microwave, and the lemony steam helps loosen gross stains on the walls. Magic!  

Store your lemons smartly. It’s true that they look gorgeous on the counter top, in a bowl, and we wouldn’t judge you if you put them there. (We’ve been guilty of doing the same.) But lemons love a slightly chilly environment, so if you want them to last four times as long, pop ‘em in a sealed bag and put them into the fridge.

Go forth, and be lemony.