Professor Produce

Q: What are these Meyer Lemons I see sometimes in the produce department? Can I use them just like normal lemons?

— Mike, Robbinsdale

So glad you asked! Meyer lemons one of my all-time favorite winter citrus arrivals, but they just don’t get the same attention as more snack-friendly show-stoppers. They are in fact, quite different from “normal” lemons, aka lemon varieties like Eureka or Lisbon most commonly found in the produce section. For one thing, they’re only really available December through May. They also have a totally different flavor profile.

Less acidic than normal lemons, Meyers are much sweeter without the same jaw-clenching tang. Their rinds have a spicy bergamot fragrance (they smell like a bag of Earl Grey tea) and when added to baked goods imparts a more herbal taste, as opposed to the bright high notes of normal lemon zest. Meyer lemons also have a pretty crazy backstory. They wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for two people. The first, Frank N. Meyer was an agricultural explorer (yes that was his actual job title!) who was sent to Asia by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the early 1900s. In China, Meyer found a decorative houseplant that was a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange, with a smooth golden skin and thin, edible rind. He added it to his collection of 2,500 plants that were brought back to the U.S. While he never saw them become a hit in his native land (Meyer died in an expedition near Shanghai in 1918), the trees and fruits that were later cultivated in Florida, California, and Texas all bore his name.

In the 1960s, the majority of Meyer lemon trees in California were destroyed by a virus that threatened the entire citrus industry. Even though one resistant line of trees saved the crop from total destruction, the fruits faded from public view—until a few decades later when food and lifestyle maven Martha Stewart started featuring them on her show and in recipe books. Thanks to her, Meyers made a big comeback, and now you can find them reliably at co-ops and some grocery stores.

But what to do with them? Meyers can generally be used anywhere you want to add pure lemon flavor without the burn. Squeeze the juice into salad dressings or over fish. Grate the zest over roasted vegetables or into baked goods like scones and muffins. Because of its soft, thin skin that’s less bitter than normal lemons, you can also use the fruit whole—cut into slices they’re a great addition to a roast chicken or a vegetable tagine.

I also really like to use them in hot toddies! Throw a few slices of lemon in a mug with some fresh ginger, honey and a cinnamon stick; add hot water and let steep for a few minutes before enjoying. It’s a perfect cure to a cold winter’s day! (Especially with the addition of a little brandy or whiskey).

Meyers will keep in your refrigerator for about five days. If you need more time, grate the zest into ice cube trays then fill with the juice. Once frozen, transfer the cubes to freezer bags and enjoy whenever you need a little burst of lemon flavor. When purchasing, look for a lemon that’s smaller and rounder than usual, with smooth skin the color of a rich egg yolk. Or just ask one of your friendly Produce department employees; we’re here to help!

I hope that answered your question. And as always, keep sending any and all of your pressing produce ponderings to

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