Sour power: 17 delicious ways to cook with lemons, from sponge cake to sorbet

Nothing says ‘summer’ like the scent of citrus. Brighten your winter with these mouth-watering recipes for pasta, pudding, slow-cooked pork …

A lemon with leaves is more than mere affectation – it gives you an idea of how long ago your fruit was picked.
A lemon with leaves is more than mere affectation – it gives you an idea of how long ago your fruit was picked. Photograph: nitrub/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s always lemon season somewhere. Even across Europe the harvest period is so long – running from November to July – that it would make more sense to speak of a brief off-season, and even then I’m sure you wouldn’t notice any shortage.

But for what it’s worth, we are now embarking upon the more lemon-saturated period of the year, and those fancy, expensive lemons with the leaves still on are just starting to appear in shops. They bring a strong note of summer to the dark winter months, and to almost any dish you make with them. Now is the time to expand your citrus repertoire.

Lemon appears in all kinds of cooking, sometimes as the star, sometimes in a small, uncredited cameo. It’s almost always worth a try; I can’t recall a time when I’ve spontaneously added a squeeze of lemon to a dish and regretted it. There’s no rule about how much lemon must be used for a dish to count as an actual lemon recipe, so I made one up: at least one whole lemon – juice of, zest of, or both.

Jeremy Lee’s lemon tart.
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Jeremy Lee’s lemon tart. Photograph: Ola O Smit/The Hunturdeals

Jeremy Lee’s lemon tart is an easy qualifier, using nine lemons. It also requires a little faith: a raw, well-beaten mixture of lemon juice, zest, sugar, creme fraiche, half a dozen eggs and a bit of rum is poured into a blind-baked tart case and then left in a low oven (like, 130C/gas ½ low) for between 45 and 90 minutes until set, but not even slightly coloured. Forget lemons: belief might be the main ingredient here.

There are many ways to get the zest off nine lemons, all of them pretty labour-intensive, but a box grater is possibly the easiest, using the second-to-smallest holes. Be careful not to grate down to the white pith, which is bitter, and be sure to use unwaxed lemons, which tend to be more expensive because of what they don’t put on them. Unwaxed lemons don’t keep as long as waxed ones, and for this reason a lemon with leaves on it is more than mere affectation: it gives you an idea of how long ago your fruit was picked.

Tamal Ray’s lemon, rosemary and olive oil cake.
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Tamal Ray’s lemon, rosemary and olive oil cake. Photograph: Yuki Sugiura/The Hunturdeals

Lemon meringue pie occupies a category somewhere between “classic” and “unfashionable” but Felicity Cloake makes an admirable stab at reclaiming the retro dessert for the modern age by producing the best possible example. It happens to use the ideal egg yolk-to-white ratio: four of each, so no wastage.

Rachel Roddy’s Sicilian lemon pudding is pleasingly simple: just lemon juice, zest, sugar, cornflour and eggs, with perhaps a few cherries on top for serving. Tamal Ray, meanwhile, has two delicious lemon cake recipes: the first is a sophisticated lemon, rosemary and olive oil cake, the second a cosier sponge and buttercream affair. The latter was intended as a Mother’s Day tribute. You’ve got two months to practise it, so you don’t disappoint your mum.

Lemons form the base of countless sauces and dressings, but here are two you need to know about. The first, gremolata, is a traditional Italian condiment used to accompany lamb, chicken, osso bucco, fish, pasta and almost anything else that needs its help. With just three ingredients – lemon zest, garlic, parsley – it hardly requires a recipe, but here’s one anyway, just for rough proportions. Gremolata will keep for a few days in the fridge, but it’s meant to be a fresh and zingy addition, whipped up as needed.

The other topping, salmoriglio, is just as basic: olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and oregano (fresh is good, dried is better). Rachel Roddy’s method is a good standard. It may not sound much, but spooned on to a just-grilled piece of fish with a few fork-holes poked in it, or over a plate of warm veg, it makes a world of difference, especially if your lemons happen to be the finer sort.

Rachel Roddy’s salmoriglio.
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Rachel Roddy’s salmoriglio. Photograph: Rachel Roddy/The Hunturdeals

Roddy has another meal that deserves a place in your weeknight rotation: spaghetti with lemon, basil and breadcrumbs. It’s a handy reminder that as long as you’ve got some lemons in, you never need to visit the shops in order to make yourself some supper. If, however, you fancy the walk, Paslia Anderson’s tom kha tai can be thrown together with stuff you should be able to buy at any supermarket. If pressed, you can use limes instead of lemons.

The acidity of lemons provides a sharp, rewarding contrast to rich meats and fish, although in the case of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fried fish with very lemony mashed potato, all the acidity is in the side dish. Joe Trivelli’s sausages, lentils and lemon is a one-pot, slow-cooked winter stew with a hint of spring in its step, while this pork shoulder with lemon is slower still – almost four hours’ cooking time, most of which you can spend away from the kitchen watching a feature-length film, possibly even two.

Joe Trivelli’s sausages, lentils and lemon.
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Joe Trivelli’s sausages, lentils and lemon. Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

Even the freshest lemons don’t keep for ever, so if you’ve got a glut, a spot of preservation is in order. Lemon curd is a traditional option and Nigel Slater’s recipe comes with a bonus: another recipe for a lemon curd and orange parfait – a frozen, sliceable confection of cream, curd, orange and meringue.

In the same vein, following Fearnley-Whittingstall’s instructions for preserved lemons will yield you, in about a month’s time, an ingredient you can use for all sorts of other dishes, such as Yotam Ottolenghi’s butter beans with preserved lemon, chilli and herb oil. Bear in mind that the bit of the lemon you’re preserving is the rind, so you’ll need unwaxed ones again.

To finish, a lemon sorbet recipe from Cloake requiring no fewer than 14 lemons, plus sugar and water. Once you’ve got that together, try Rachel Roddy’s sgroppino al limone cocktail: sorbet, vodka, prosecco, and maybe a chair.