Enhance your cooking with lemon zest, fresh juice

When life gives you lemons, squeeze them! Please pass the salt, pepper and lemon. Salt and pepper are staple seasonings in any kitchen but there is another ingredient that should also be within reach: lemons.

Next to salt and pepper, lemons are the best natural flavor enhancer in cooking. My kitchen is never without them. I rarely leave the market without tossing a few in the shopping cart. I always season with salt and pepper while cooking, as most foods fall flat without them. However, over the years, I have found myself reaching more often for lemons. They are truly an amazing fruit. Not only is their juice invaluable in cooking, the zest is just as important.

As I continue to explore the culinary world and improve on taste, it is the lemon I go to. Just a splash of juice squeezed from a fresh lemon can elevate an ordinary dish to extraordinary. Science is behind this, I know, but you cannot argue with your palate.

Before you reach for the salt, think about using a splash of freshsqueezed lemon juice, instead.

Is your homemade salad dressing a little flat? Do you feel like your pasta sauce falls short of amazing? Want to highlight the flavors of your proteins? Grab one of these little yellow beauties and give it a squeeze.

Culinary speaking, there are three main components to the lemon: the zest, the pith and the juice. The zest, the outer yellow skin, is rich in oils and has the most complex flavors and aromas. The zest is more heat tolerant than the juice of the lemon, therefore it is used in baking as it retains its complex flavor when cooked.

When zesting, be sure to simply graze the surface of the lemon peel, avoiding as much as the white pith as possible as it can result in bitterness. I prefer to use a mircoplane zester/ grater when zesting lemons and try to harvest the zest right before it is needed as the aromas will begin to diminish once they are released. The pith, the white part under the zest, is bitter and normally avoided as its flavor can be too harsh for cooking or eating.

The juice is acidic, tart and full of flavor. The acid in fresh juice along with the wonderful citrus taste are amazing natural flavor enhancers. Fresh lemon juice helps balance flavor, prevents oxidation, preserves color and highlights the natural flavors of other ingredients’ subtlety.

Fresh lemon juice is best added at the end of cooking as exposure to high heat can reduce its aromas and effectiveness. Always begin with a slight amount as too much can cause the acidity to become unbalanced. This may require several tastings, but trust me, it is worth it.

Lemons can be used in sweet and savory dishes alike and should not be overlooked when specifically called for in a recipe.

Lemon juice can be used to balance out salad dressings, soups, stews, pasta sauces, pan sauces, side dishes such as rice, grains and pastas, brighten the flavors of fresh and cooked fruits and vegetables, and enhance the flavor of chicken, fish and other seafood.

If you find that a dish falls shy of exciting add a little fresh lemon juice, and — viol! — you will be surprised.

Lemon juice is a great alternative to vinegar or white wine. When making salad dressings, experiment with fresh-squeezed juice with a ratio of 3:1 oil to lemon juice. Add a pinch of sweetness such as honey, agave syrup or sugar along with a pinch of salt, pepper, herbs, shallots or garlic and you have quick, fresh vinaigrette.

When making pan sauce, try fresh lemon juice in place of wine. Lemon juice complements browned butter sauces perfectly.

Give fresh roasted vegetables a small splash of fresh lemon juice right out of the oven before serving and you will discover that the natural flavors of the vegetables become more pronounced.

Toss fresh fruit with a little sweetness and drizzle some freshsqueezed lemon juice, and you will find that the fruit’s natural flavors will shine.

Serve pan seared or oven roasted chicken or fish with a lemon wedge and give it a squeeze. The acid in the lemon juice will emphasize the taste of the protein, especially with crab, shrimp, oysters, mussels and clams.

Toss warm pasta with a little lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper and you have a great foundation for a refreshing pasta salad.

To soften the harshness of fresh garlic, mince or press the garlic and soak it in a small amount of lemon juice for 10 minutes.

A tablespoon of fresh lemon juice can be quite handy when needing to create a quick buttermilk substitute. Combine one cup of milk to one tablespoon lemon juice. Let the soured milk rest for 5–10 minutes and then proceed.

When shopping for lemons, the most important characteristic to look for is fruit that gives a little with a squeeze. Pick out lemons that are thin-skinned, which indicates less pith and more juice. If a lemon feels hard, pass on it.

I normally buy four or five at a time. I store a few in the refrigerator in a sealed bag and leave one out at room temperature. Lemons will last longer if they are refrigerated and a sealed bag will help preserve their moisture. Room temperature lemons will yield more juice than cold ones so I always have one out and ready.

Before cutting into a lemon, be sure to roll it on the counter and press down on it with the palm of your hand while rolling back and forth to release as much juice as possible. (Always remember to zest the lemon before you juice it if the zest is needed.) Bottled lemon juice falls short of a good substitute for fresh lemon juice. Bottled lemon juice contains the acid we want but not the fresh taste.

Now let’s get cooking!

Suzanne Hanzl is a personal chef, culinary instructor and owner of TournCooking School, tournecooking. com. Email her at tournecooking@ gmail.com.


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