22 Zesty Lemon Recipes to Squeeze the Day
Delightful sweet and savory recipes — from entrees and sides to desserts and drinks — that will leave your mouth puckering for more!
Few flavors are as eye-opening and uplifting as a pop of lemon, whether you’re indulging in a cheery golden dessert or sipping a summertime lemonade. But lemons can do so much more: They add a bright, high note to smoky grilled chicken, lively seasoning to your favorite veggie dish — and have you tried preserved lemons? They’re quick and easy to prepare, and add supple notes of briny acidic mystery to any dish.
Lemons are believed to have originated in Northern India, but by 1000 AD had been shared across the Middle East, China, parts of North Africa and the Mediterranean. Lemons only made their inaugural journey to North America on the shores of Haiti in 1493; however, the bright yellow, sweet-tart fruit was quickly embraced and within 20 years had become a cultivated, high-quality crop. Today, lemons shine throughout American cuisine, and have been growing in Florida and California for hundreds of years, both commercially and plucked from backyard trees.
So what recipes can you make with lemons? The collection below has been carefully curated to let its lemon flag fly, but even these are just a start. Lemons are also brilliant in home canning as a flavoring agent, source of pectin, and decay prevention; they make homemade mayonnaise really sing; a squeeze keeps cut fruit from turning brown; and combined with baking soda they make an effective natural home cleaner!
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Lemon tips & tricks
Learn about zesting, juicing, and cooking with lemons
How do I zest a lemon?
There are two kinds of zesters out there: The best was originally a woodworking tool! A long skinny micro-plane zester with sharp little teeth makes quick work of getting the peel off. There are also smaller tools with several tiny circular holes and a sharp triangular wedge that are useful for removing long strips of zest. However, if you don’t have either you can also use a paring knife to carefully cut off swaths of the yellow peel (avoid the bitter white pith as best you can), and then mince it as finely as your knife skills allow.
And be sure to zest your lemons before you squeeze them for juice! It’s nearly impossible to zest a squished lemon peel.
How do I cook with lemon zest?
Lemon zest is where the essential oils of the fruit can be found, and has a softer, rounder citrus flavor compared to the acidic tang of the juice. It can be added to almost anything: salad dressings, lemon cookies, desserts, pastas, morning oatmeal, mashed into a compound butter, or stirred into melted butter to drizzle on popcorn. Mix some with chopped fresh herbs and sprinkle on top of a seared steak — it’s hard to go wrong with lemon zest.
What’s the best way to juice a lemon?
Rolling the lemon on the counter while pressing down with your palm breaks down some of the cell walls and helps the lemon (or any citrus fruit) release its juices more freely. You can purchase a pricey countertop juicer (be sure to peel the fruit first), but the traditional Mexican tool for hand-juicing citrus is very effective and widely available these days: A lemon half is placed cut-side down into a small, bowl-shaped metal tool with holes at the bottom, then pressed down from above to squeeze the juice through. You can get through a lot of lemons quickly with this tool. In a pinch, you can also take half a lemon and turn a fork into the cut side while squeezing the exterior to get the juice out.
Help! What do I do with lots of lemons?
A glut of citrus from a tree or an impulse purchase at the farmers market can be overwhelming, but there are many ways to enjoy them! A pitcher of lemonade is always a crowd-pleaser, preserved lemons (more on those below) will last a year in the fridge and make lovely gifts for foodie friends, or if you have great stamina you can candy the peels or can them as marmalade or jelly. But most simply, crank up some music and squeeze them all for juice, then freeze it in ice cube trays. When solid, pop out the cubes into freezer bags for a taste of summer whenever you like.
Lemons for dinner
Whether it’s seafood, pasta, or lemon-inflected chicken, these dishes are sure to please
Fish is the original fast food — these delicate cod fillets are roasted briefly with butter, garlic, and thinly sliced lemon for a simple, satisfying, and healthful meal. And it gets a spectrum of lemon flavor thanks to the crisped slices roasted atop the fish in the oven and the bright squeeze of juice right before serving.
Boneless, skin-on chicken thighs come out juicy and delicious because they’re marinated in a mixture of lemon juice, olive oil, cumin, garlic, honey, red pepper flakes, and paprika. Best of all, they can be grilled outside or roasted in the oven, making this an excellent year-round dish.
This hearty vegetarian pasta dish is redolent with lemon and broccoli, and has enough flavor and textural contrasts to be a satisfying meal on its own. For carnivores, feel free to stir some sliced sausage or shrimp into the lemon pasta at the end for a heartier entree.
This delicate and delicious one-pot meal can be made in under a half hour in the microwave, a rice cooker, or on the stovetop.
This protein-packed dish can be the centerpiece of a zesty vegan plate, or a protein-packed side. It uses both the zest and juice of a lemon, plus quickly sautéed shallots and freshly chopped herbs for a bright homemade side that tastes restaurant-worthy.
Preserved lemon dishes
This venerable way to prepare lemons makes a lemon tree’s bounty last beyond its season and adds a supple texture and enigmatic saline notes. Preserved lemons are seen most often in Moroccan cuisine, but they shine bright in dishes across the Middle East and high-end restaurants here in the U.S.
You can purchase a jar if you’re in a hurry, but homemade preserved lemon brings something special to the table — a briny citrus flavor and silky texture. And it lasts for a year in the fridge! The traditional preparation calls for cutting lemons in an X-shape almost to the bottom of the fruit so they open like a four-leaf flower, then pressing a tablespoon of salt inside and smushing them down into a sterilized jar (simply swish boiling water throughout the interior and let it air dry). If you can find Meyer lemons, they produce an exquisite fragrance, but any thinner-skinned lemon will still yield a mysteriously delicious result. While you can use these lemons in any preparation after a week, they taste sublime after a month.
Serve this complex and delectable dip that’s savory and satisfying with fresh mint and parsley, preserved lemon, plus fresh lemon juice, roasted garlic, and labneh — strained Lebanese yogurt — with toasted pita wedges, crudité, crisp crackers … or a spoon while no one is looking.
Only four ingredients (thanks to the deeply flavorful preserved lemon) and about 40 minutes from stovetop until you bite into the crispiest skinned chicken thighs you’ve ever tried? Try it once, and this simple lemon chicken dish will quickly become a weeknight favorite.
For this super simple and elegant dish, feel free to use a metal cookie sheet if you don’t have a baking stone, and keep the first three ingredients separate when you prepare the preserved lemon relish. Scallops have very delicate flesh — keep an eye on them, especially if they’re on the small side. It’s better to pull them out of the oven a little early than let them dry out.
Lemon adds vitamin C and bold flavor to any vegetable dish
There’s no need to pay grocery store prices for dressing that takes about five minutes to make and delivers a pure lemon flavor. The spoonful of Dijon mustard adds flavor but also ensures the emulsion won’t separate. Stick with a little honey if you’d like a sweeter note — maple syrup will muddy the (tasting) waters. A bright lemon vinaigrette can quickly dress a salad, but is also delicious drizzled on grilled or roasted veggies, steamed fish, or tossed with hot pasta and a handful of arugula and crumbled feta (or shaved Parmesan) cheese.
This luscious salad is a visual masterpiece when you use the loveliest tomatoes you can find. Long curled strips of lemon zest are festive to see and also add a lemony softness to blunt the acidity of the tomatoes. The longer this dish sits before serving, the better the flavors marry.
Lemon zest adds its own essential oil to complement the extra-virgin olive oil and garlic in this easy roasted vegetable side dish. Pop a poached or fried egg on top and you’ve got a light and gratifying main course that’s quick, vegetarian, and keto-friendly.
This savory and crisp salad makes a dramatic dish at a BBQ — plus grilling the lettuce and lemon sounds outrageous, but is really quite fun.
The classic flavors of Greece — lemon, olive oil, garlic, and oregano — come together to make these roasted potato slices so crisp and tasty you’ll want to gobble them up. Plus there are two options for preparation, depending on whether you treasure crispiness or greater lemon intensity from the bold yet simple sauce.
The cheerful taste of lemon in a dessert is like edible sunshine every time
This incredibly clever recipe uses the zest of the lemon in the shortbread base for a gentle and fragrant citrus experience, then the acidic punch of tart fresh juice in the luscious lemon curd-esque filling above for a different experience.
This dramatic dessert is a fun twist on a standard lemon cake, and is perfect for a lemon lover’s birthday fete. It gets a luscious citrus complexity by using both orange and lemon juice, and utilizes lemon gelatin to provide structure and an extra boost of lemony sweetness.
These cheerful pale yellow lemon cookies use both the juice and the zest of a lemon to bake up nuanced flavor with both gentle and vivid notes of citrus.
Americans love cheesecake, and this one is brightened by the use of lemon zest for a softer, more delicate lemon flavor, with a crunchy contrast from the gingersnap crust. Garnish each slice with a rosette of whipped cream and some lemon slices.
Soufflés are not as difficult to prepare as they may seem. This elegant French dessert has several steps, but as long as you don’t deflate the beaten egg whites when you fold them in, you’ll still serve airy, fluffy soufflés. Still worried about them rising? Use a slightly smaller ramekin than the recipe calls for — they’ll have nowhere to go but up!
Raise a glass
The bright acid pop of fresh lemon juice in any drink makes it a little more tart, a little more lively, and a lot more fun. Serve a glass for brunch or anytime of day.
Grown-up lemonade never tasted so good. Fill a pitcher, pour over ice in tall glasses, and kick back. If you’ve got some limoncello, you can trade that in for the superfine sugar for an even bigger lemon burst.
This sweet and salty soda requires just 2 minutes of prep time and is incredibly refreshing on a hot day, with electrolytes naturally built in to the recipe.
Lemons and mint go wild in the summer, and come together to make the perfect hot weather refresher. However, they both can be found at most markets year-round so a taste of summer can be yours even on the chilliest days.
More fruit-forward recipes
Check out these Yummly articles for more recipes that spotlight fruit: