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Your food's not underseasoned — it just needs lemon

Yes, lemons are very commonly used in cooking, but they're still, somehow, underutilized.

Whether dressing a salad, finishing off seared scallops or squeezing into a drink, lemons are a handy, versatile ingredient in the kitchen. The acidic quality of lemon juice brightens up everything it touches. Yes, lemons are very commonly used in cooking, but they're still, somehow, underutilized.

One of the first things that my former editor at Serious Eats, J. Kenji López-Alt, taught me, was that food often tastes underseasoned because it’s lacking acid. While a natural reaction might be to reach for salt, a squeeze of lemon juice often does the trick, as it balances out the other ingredients in the dish, making it taste more well-rounded. Of course, lemon isn’t the only option, as there are many different acids available, such as other citrus fruits like lime (a touch more acidic than lemon) or Meyer lemons (less acidic but with sweeter, thinner skin) and the array of vinegars available such as apple cider, balsamic, sherry and so on, which will also differ in the amount of acidity and taste.

Keep your lemons in a bowl on your counter: Not only are they a nice decoration, they'll be ready to squeeze whenever you need 'em.Mary Lynn Strand / Getty Images/EyeEm

In the following recipes, you’ll find lemon in some of its various forms — zested, juiced and roasted — plus some best-lemon practices. And, if you’re not already into using lemon zest, know that it not only adds a bright pop of color but smell and taste, too.

Shopping: Look for citrus that’s firm without any soft spots. The exterior matters less unless you are zesting the lemon or using it for wedges as garnish, in which case you want it to be smooth and unblemished so you can get more out of it (plus, it looks pretty).

Storing: A tip I learned from Joaquin Simo of Pouring Ribbons in New York City when we worked on a cocktail book together is to never juice a cold lemon — you’ll get more out of one at room temperature. My favorite way to juice a lemon is this: Using a fork, stick the tines into the cut side and move the fork like a lever as you press down on the lemon, squeezing out the juice.

My favorite way to juice a lemon is using a fork.Dean Mitchell / Getty Images

Roasting: The lemon rinds will either become soft and caramelized or crispy, depending on the recipe. And, after roasting (or preserving), you can eat the rinds, which is why it’s often best to look for unwaxed and organic ones for those types of recipes. They will impart a lovely lemony flavor and scent to the dish, though eating the rinds tends to be a personal preference. I love the slight bitterness and burst of flavor, but some find it too intense. When roasting, push out the seeds as those tend to be bitter when eaten. If it’s not for you, then simply push it to the side of your plate or pass it over to someone who loves it.

Inspired by the classic Moroccan pairing of chicken with lemon and olives, this dish mixes the olives and lemons with pearled couscous for a warm salad that also tastes great the next day. Lemons roast alongside the seasoned chicken thighs, imparting them with a lemony flavor and leaving edible slices behind. The smashed garlic on the sheet pan does the same and becomes soft and creamy, though it can also be discarded if the flavor is too strong.

Either a weeknight dinner or a wonderful picnic dish, the meatballs draw on some of the flavors in a Greek salad and are mixed with Greek yogurt to keep them moist and tender. Here, lemon is squeezed on the meatballs right out of the oven, giving them a bright finish while the sliced roasted lemons will either get soft and pliable or crunchy, almost like a dehydrated lemon, depending on how thinly you slice them — both are delicious and edible. Lemon zest is mixed into the meatballs and the juice serves as the acid in the dressing.

Lemon is used in three ways in this one-pot dinner: first in zest form to season the fish and add some brightness to the dressing, then halved and roasted with the fish so it can be a finishing touch of brightness to the entire dish. The juice is used in a lemon-dill-mustard dressing, which is then poured over the fish. If you’re not a fan of dill, swap it for mint, cilantro or parsley.