Depending on your experience with cooking, you may only be familiar with using lemons to flavor your water or seeing them in viral videos of kids trying lemon for the first time. But, contrary to those baby faces, lemon is also an incredibly useful ingredient in your cooking. Lemon can be healthy for you, potentially helping to improve factors like heart health, digestive health, and weight control. While it may not have the versatility of an ingredient like garlic, lemon is extremely good at what it does best. What exactly is that? That’s just what we’re going to find out!

What Does Lemon Taste Like?

For most people, the flavor of lemons begins and ends with one word — sour. And that’s true, lemons are a great way to add sourness to a dish because they are sour. However, that misses a great deal of the flavor complexity that lemons possess. If you want to experience pure sour, there are candies out there that get you much closer to pure sour than lemons, through a combination of citric and malic acids. Instead, lemons have other flavors that round out and enhance the sourness to make a deeper, more-valued taste.

These deeper flavors are why lemons are so worth using in your cooking.

Lemon is a citrus fruit, which puts it in the same category as limes, oranges, and grapefruits. Like its citrus cousins, lemons contain citric acid, which is why they’re sour. The higher the concentration of citric acid, the sourer the fruit, which is why lemons are more intense than oranges. That said, lemons do have a degree of sweetness and floral tones that balance out the sourness that are specific to the sour fruit. These deeper flavors are why lemons are so worth using in your cooking.

What are the Best Ways to Cook It?

So, when you’re cooking with lemon, how can you best utilize the flavor without making everything a puckering mess? First and foremost, it depends on how you’re integrating lemon into your dish. There are two primary ways to include lemon into a dish — use the juice or the zest. The difference does matter. Lemon juice is sourer with less lemon-specific flavor and aroma. It’s also more liquid-y. Zest, on the other hand, is less sour, but contributes more lemon-y flavor and smell. This is because the zest, which is essentially shavings of the lemon peel, contains lemon oils and less citric acid.

Whichever type of lemon product you use will define how you can cook with it. For example, lemon juice is so sour that it can curdle milk, and due to its liquid content, it can throw off a recipe when baking. Lemon zest, however, doesn’t really have much tartness at all. So, if you’re looking to add that tart brightness to a dish, like in an overly fatty or sweet dish, zest will only give you lemon flavor, not the pucker.

You can narrow down which part of the lemon to use by asking yourself a few questions:

  • Do you want to add sourness or tartness to the dish to liven it up? Go with juice.
  • Looking for just a hint of sour, but mostly want the flavor of a lemon? Use zest.
  • Want to balance out the fat or spiciness in a sauce? Juice it up.
  • Are you working with dry ingredients where you want to control the moisture? Zest is your friend.

It all comes down to sourness over flavor and how moist your ingredients can be. Lemon zest and lemon juice can also be used together to get both the flavor of a lemon (zest) and the tartness (juice).

The last bit of advice with cooking with lemon is true for both zest and juice. Don’t add it too early to a dish — when it’s still cooking and very hot. When introduced to too much heat for too long, lemon can easily turn bitter and even discolor other ingredients being cooked with it. The best time to add lemon to something cooking is after you remove it from the high heat, or when it’s cooking at a lower temperature.

It’s worth experimenting with, though, because there are two reasons lemon turns bitter. If you’re using lemon juice, it could be because the juice is reducing at high heat, which means the water is evaporating out. This leaves behind only the sour citric acid, throwing off the flavor balance. If you’re using zest and it’s getting bitter, this could be because the zest is burning at a high heat, or you grated the lemon down too low and there’s some pith (the white bitter area between the peel and the fruit) mixed in with the zest.

What Goes Well with Lemon?

Lemon is usually used as a flavor enhancer in a dish, rarely acting as the main flavor. This is because the flavors and acidity of the lemon act much like salt in their ability to enhance other flavors. The sourness also primes the mouth to taste other flavors by causing you to salivate, again enhancing your ability to taste the other ingredients. This is why lemon goes well with so many diverse flavors.

Lemon and seafood are a famous combination, and for good reason. Seafood has a mild, but unique flavor that could easily be overpowered by strong flavors (it’s why you don’t drink red wine with seafood). Lemon pairs so well because it adds flavor to the dish, and also helps bring out more flavor from the seafood itself. Additionally, lemon can neutralize strong fish smells, which can sometimes overpower the dish’s taste on its own.

Sourness tends to also play well with sweet flavors, giving you a layer of flavor that helps you to appreciate both the sour and the sweet. This makes lemon desserts a really popular after-dinner treat. With lemon zest specifically, the floral notes and hint of sourness goes really well with sweet, which is why you see it pair nicely with vanilla and sweet creams to make custards and rich cream sauces. Also, the floral zest pairs nicely with many herbs, which is why lemon-basil pesto is exceptional, along with ginger, sage, rosemary, and others. Lemon juice can even be used to keep some vegetables from discoloring, like we discussed with artichokes!

Citric acid can neutralize some of the capsaicin to make it less spicy, helping you to enjoy that jalapeno-heavy dinner without effectively lighting your mouth on fire.

Finally, lemon is a great combination to fatty or spicy ingredients. For fatty ingredients, like steaks or butters, lemon can cut the greasiness and fattiness, allowing your mouth to taste the other flavors to a greater degree. This is a similar logic to adding vinegar to fries. At the same time, lemon is able to reduce the heat from spicy foods. This is why you’ll often see lemons and limes served with spicy dishes. Hot foods are hot because they contain an oil called capsaicin. Citric acid can neutralize some of the capsaicin to make it less spicy, helping you to enjoy that jalapeno-heavy dinner without effectively lighting your mouth on fire.

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Lemons are an incredibly versatile, useful ingredient to have in the kitchen. They go well with sweet, fatty, savory, and even spicy. It’s why people across most demographics have started falling in love with using lemons in their cooking. They’re the ultimate team players that build up the flavors they are cooked with while leaving a little bit of their own flavor. What’s not to love about that?