5 Ways You Can Use Lemon to Brighten Up Desserts

Squeeze the most flavor out of your lemons with these expert tips for using the zest and juice — plus lemon extract.

<p>Food & Wine / Photo by Kelsey Hansen / Food Styling by Annie Probst / Prop Styling by Gabe Greco / Getty Images</p>

Food & Wine / Photo by Kelsey Hansen / Food Styling by Annie Probst / Prop Styling by Gabe Greco / Getty Images

From sunny lemon meringue pie to sweet-tart lemon bars, lemon desserts are a foolproof way to brighten anyone’s day. But how do you get the most flavor out of your lemon?

Classic lemon flavor comes from two parts of the lemon: the tangy juice and the fragrant zest. Lemon zest is packed with essential oils that give lemons their distinctive aroma, while lemon juice provides the zing of citric acid that makes lemon desserts so mouthwatering. Here are five tips for getting maximum lemon flavor into your citrus desserts.

Related: 23 Sweet-Tart Lemon Desserts for Spring

Rub lemon zest into sugar

Sugar granules act as an abrasive to release the zest’s essential oils, so this is a great trick for heightening lemon flavor in your desserts. Use a Microplane or zester to grate the zest directly into a bowl with your sugar. Then, get your fingers in there and rub the zest and sugar together until the mixture smells fragrant and the sugar looks moist. This tip works particularly well when you’re adding lemon zest to the batter for a cake like Lemon Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting or Lemon Ricotta Cake.

Combine lemon zest with oil or butter

The essential oils in lemon zest are fat-soluble, meaning they infuse best when combined with the fat in your recipe. Making a lemon cake or shortbread cookies? Rub the lemon into the sugar, then add your cooking fat, like butter or oil. The tangy zest will infuse the whole batter, elevating the tart flavor of your dessert. For a shortcut, you can use lemon-infused olive oil. You can also steep lemon zest into ingredients like cream or coconut milk, or steep strips of lemon zest into the custard base of ice cream for lemon ice cream.

<p>Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Josh Hoggle</p>

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Josh Hoggle

Make a quick lemon soak, glaze, or icing

Lemon shortbread cookies and most lemon cakes don’t have much, if any, lemon juice in them —  the lemony flavor comes from zest or extract. But you still want some of that bright tang that only the juice can provide. For lemon cookies, top with a quick glaze made with powdered sugar and lemon juice to add some zip. For lemon cakes, create a simple syrup of lemon juice and sugar, then brush it all over the warm cake to add zing.

Related: How to Get the Most Flavor When Juicing a Lemon

Embrace lemon extract

Don’t feel like buying a lemon? Extract is just fine. For some reason, most casual bakers only have vanilla and almond extract in their arsenal, but lemon extract, made from the natural essential oils in lemon zest, is wonderful for adding vibrant flavor to baked goods. I often use some lemon zest and a little extract to give the lemon flavor some oomph.

For extra color, add turmeric

I avoid artificial food coloring whenever possible, so I employ a little ground turmeric to enhance the yellow color of my lemon desserts — we eat with our eyes first, after all! Just 1/4 teaspoon for a nine-inch square lemon snacking cake gives you a sunny yellow color without a drop of Yellow 5. You can also add turmeric to homemade lemon curd to amplify the color.

You won’t be able to taste the turmeric, but you'll certainly see it — start with a pinch, then add a bit more until you get the color you’re looking for. Note that the color will intensify a bit after baking or cooking.

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