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Main squeeze: Why lemons are one of the most crucial cooking ingredients

Lemons are blanched and then stir-fried quickly for Skillet Chicken With Lemon.
Lemons are blanched and then stir-fried quickly for Skillet Chicken With Lemon.
Published Jul. 12, 2017

When life gives you lemons, use them in everything.

The tart fruit is a crucial ingredient in the home kitchen, as important to cooking as key flavor builders like garlic and onions.

You know how on Food Network shows, judges always complain that a dish is lacking acid? That's because good cooking is all about balance, and something acidic like citrus can help bring unity to a recipe, make other ingredients pop and provide a necessary zing.

Lemons in particular can keep dishes with added sugar from becoming too cloying, cut the fat in pan sauces and on fried proteins, and help keep fruit salads and raw vegetables fresh and bright. Lemons can just as easily cozy up to sugar in a baked good as they can seafood and pastas.

The past six months in particular, I noticed I was using a ton of lemon. It even became a joke how many of the cooking videos I produce for tampabay.com contained lemon zest. I think it's because I've been experimenting with simpler cooking, and lemons are one of those few workhorse ingredients that have a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts vibe.

This summer, embrace the lemon as your main squeeze. Keep some on hand in the fridge at all times, and let them be the star in the following five recipes as well as in your everyday cooking. Here are some tips for getting the most out of the sun-kissed citrus.

• Don't be afraid of zest. It's super flavorful. But make sure you are zesting properly. Use a grater or, ideally, a microplaner to gently remove the yellow zest from the lemon. Try to get as little white pith as possible, which is much more bitter than the actual zest.

• If you're trying to cut down on the amount of salt in your cooking, lemon can help. Instead of salting a finished dish, try a squeeze of fresh lemon just before serving. This works especially well with fried foods.

• In general, if you're using fresh lemon juice for a pop of flavor, it's best to add it at the end of the cooking process. If you add it too early to something that's still cooking, like a sauce, it can turn slightly bitter. Also, be careful when adding lemon juice to dairy; it can cause the dairy to curdle.

• One of my favorite unexpected uses for lemon zest happened when I visited the Kellogg's store off Times Square in New York City. The specialty cereal shop sells bowls doctored with other ingredients. I ordered one with Special K (but any branlike cereal would work) that was topped with pistachios, fresh thyme and lemon zest. I now regularly add a small amount of zest to my cereal and oatmeal.

• Branch out and try to find different kinds of lemons if they're available at the grocery store. Meyer lemons, which are more orangelike, darker in color and sweeter than regular lemons, are available at certain times of the year. Pink lemons are more elusive, but they have a very distinct skin (typically yellow with green stripes), bright pink flesh and a floral flavor that complements the lemony tang.

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Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow @mstark17.