Squeeze them, salt them, freeze them. Lemons put zest into cooking, but they don't stop there. After flavoring a dish, they'll help clean the kitchen.
And lemon lovers, you're in luck. A golden harvest is rolling into stores and farmers markets.
"There will be a plentiful crop of fresh lemons this year," said Claire Smith, spokeswoman for Sunkist Growers, "although the harvest in some parts of the desert areas will be a bit smaller than the previous year due to some freezing temperatures" early in 2011.
Lemons second to navel oranges among our state's major citrus crops are harvested year-round in California, which grows about 88 percent of America's lemons. According to National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates, California produced 840,000 tons of lemons during the 2010-11 season up 8 percent from the year before and is on track for an equal crop this season.
The key to California's lemon harvest: It keeps moving. Lemons ripen at different times in various parts of the state. Why? Each region's distinct climate affects tree growth and fruit maturation time.
"The first harvests of the new lemon season are in the fall and early winter in the California desert areas," Smith explained. "Fruit is available from the Central Valley of California in the winter months and, in summer, lemons are available from the southern and coastal areas of the state."
Which means it's lemon time now in Sacramento.
Most commercial growers stick to the standard varieties: Eureka and Lisbon. Off the tree, they're hard to tell apart.
"They are very similar in taste and appearance," Smith said.
But due to popular demand, Meyer lemons favorite of backyard gardeners and gourmet cooks are squeezing their way into commercial orchards.
"Increasing acreage of Meyer lemons have been planted as that variety has gained popularity," Smith said.
Also on the rise: organic lemons and seedless lemons.
Lemons once seemed confined to beverages, pies and baked goods or alongside fish. No more.
"Because lemons are so versatile, consumers are always finding more ways to enjoy their many benefits," Smith said. "Besides their flavor-enhancing abilities that make them one of a cook's best accessories, they are great health and beauty aids."
As a "flavor catalyst," lemons boost the flavors of other ingredients, Smith explained.
"Lemons are a natural flavor enhancer," she said. "Try replacing salt in your salad or seafood dishes with lemons for a healthier alternative, without sacrificing the flavor."