Food Snob Chronicles — Meyer Lemons 101

Google ‘Meyer Lemon’ and you’ll get more than 2.95 million returns. That’s a far cry from the 300-500 returns of just 10 years ago. What makes the increase especially interesting is that Meyer Lemons are just barely more commercially available now than they were then — which is not much.

Why the increase in popularity? Meyer Lemons became en vogue a few years back, showing up in jellies, jams, olive oils, soaps and lotions. But I also believe the spike in popularity is because more people are growing their own.

First things first
Of all citrus trees, the Meyer Lemon is one of the hardiest and easiest to grow. It is also extremely productive. It’s not a true lemon though. In fact, the mature fruit of the Meyer Lemon tree looks more like a large orange with a small nipple – which is fitting – since the Meyer Lemon is a natural hybrid of sweet orange and lemon (hence the X < in the botanical name). Compared with a true lemon, the Meyer Lemon also has very little pith and a much thinner skin.

A brief Meyer Lemon history
Introduced to the United States (from China) in the early 20th century, the Meyer Lemon was discovered by Frank N. Meyer, who was on assignment from the USDA as an agricultural explorer. Meyer was originally hired by the USDA as a gardener and worked his way up the bureaucratic ranks by studying flora in Mexico at his own expense. By the time his career was over, Meyer had introduced more than 2,500 plants to the U.S., including the ever-popular southern ‘Centipede’ grass variety.

The Improved Meyer Lemon is not something you’d concern yourself with when buying the fruit at a farmer’s market, but it is worth mentioning for people who want to grow it. In 1975, the University of California released virus-free Meyer Lemon trees to the citrus industry. Such was necessary because old-clone Meyer Lemons generally carried tristeza and tatter leaf viruses. In 1976, the California Department of Food and Agriculture ruled that propagation of non-improved Meyer Lemon trees should be stopped. Currently, when a legitimate nursery or citrus farm propagates Meyer Lemon trees through grafting techniques, it uses budwood that originated in the California Virus Free Budwood Program.

Lemon with an Orange tang
The easiest way to describe the flavor of a Meyer Lemon is that its tart like a lemon, with the tang of a sweet orange. It’s definitely sweeter than common Eureka or Lisbon lemons (both true lemons), but will still make you pucker.

Though true lemons are higher in sugars than their Meyer Lemon cousins, I have often found it necessary to reduce the amount of sugar for a recipe in which Meyer Lemons are being substituted.

How much sugar should you leave out? Well, that’s up to you, but I typically reduce it by 25 percent in pies (curds) and cakes. — When it comes to substituting Meyer Lemons for true lemons in main dish recipes (such as Meyer Lemon Piccata or the delicious creamy Meyer Lemon Pasta listed below), I usually substitute even-Steven.

How do I know that you can grow your own?
For about six years during the early 2000s, I operated an upstart dwarf citrus tree farm in northeast Texas. Funny thing is, when the Texas Dept. of Agriculture visited our facility for the purpose of issuing a nursery license, he let us know that citrus wouldn’t grow beyond the Rio Grande Valley (11 hours and 3 heat zones south of us). Really?

meyer lemon

We featured this (homemade) graphic on our website back in the day. Thankfully, my Photoshop skills have come along since then.

Within about three years, we’d shipped thousands of trees — including to every state north of Florida along the East Coast — with great success. Our trees were featured in Family Circle, the Associated Press (more than 120 newspapers) and on the ‘Regis and Kelly Show,’ to name a few.

If I had to guess how many trees we sold to Meyer Lemon-lovers in the Tri-State and Down East, I’d have to say at least 10,000. (The syndicated AP article came from a surprised and happy customer who lived on a mountain in Maine. He just happened to be an editor.)

The only real keys to growing your own Meyer Lemons are:

  • Make sure the soil drains well (use sand/bark mixture).
  • Elevate the potted tree above the drain tray (just place some stones in the tray).
  • Leave it alone. Too much TLC is just bad.

Of course, there are some minor fertilizer requirements, which are easy enough. And you might have to move your tree to a bedroom or living area during the worst part of the winter. But, since Meyer Lemons are everbearing trees — fruit and/or blooms at all times — your house will smell like a citrus grove, which is a good thing.

Buying a Meyer Lemon tree
Trust me. You want a grafted Improved Meyer Lemon tree (not the rooted cuttings that occasionally show up at Lowe’s and Wal-Mart). Grafted trees have more cold hardiness and a better shape. Fruit production also increases on a tree that has been grafted.

If you live north of Florida, there is only one source for Improved Meyer Lemon trees (and several other varieties of Citrus) that I’d recommend. Stan McKenzie owns and operates McKenzie Farms in South Carolina. In addition to being an old friend of mine, he also happens to be one of the premier citrus tree grafters and purveyors in the U.S.

He’s also a really nice guy who finds pleasure in helping people.

That means, he’ll ship a tree right to your door for a reasonable price (a bargain, really) and answer any question you have. He’ll also offer up unsolicited advice that will help you get the most Meyer Lemon bang for your buck. Before you know it, you’ll be ‘friending’ Stan on Facebook and passing his name along to your friends. Yep. He’s that good.

If you are in Texas, Arizona, Florida or California your state laws prohibit Stan from shipping you a citrus tree. Talk to your elected officials about changing those (ridiculous) laws, or shoot Stan an email. If anyone knows of the good sources in those states, it’s Stan McKenzie.

Website — McKenzie Farms
Telephone — (843) 389-4831
Email – citrusman99@hotmail.com (Stan, himself!)

By the way, if you tell Stan that I told you to call him ‘Outlaw,’ you might get a bonus (funny) story out of it. Whatever he tells you, though, I swear I was unaware of local laws and ordinances.

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. I’d also love for you to join me on Facebook (click the ‘like’ button), Pinterest and Google+.


It’s rare, for me anyway, to incorporate lemons with a side dish. After all, lemons work in just about any cuisine and, because of that, generally get the centerpiece. Think about it … Lemon Chicken. Shrimp Scampi. Piccata. The dishes pretty much run the gamut — far beyond what I’ve featured. But, lemons also make a for a nice supporting cast, especially when the main dish — such as Garlicky Sun Dried Tomato Shrimp (listed below) — is savory.

I’ve made Meyer Lemon Pasta 15 different ways through the years — with Ricotta, heavy cream and Mascarpone. I’ve prepared it with a few herbs and I’ve also served it with artichoke hearts, asparagus, spinach and sugar snap peas. I finally decided that I needed to come up with a recipe and stick with it. The version below is similar to Jamie Oliver’s, but I prefer a dry white wine to thin out the sauce. Also, roasted almonds add a nice element.

Creamy Meyer Lemon Spinach Pasta

meyer lemon pasta

Served as a side or centerpiece, Creamy Meyer Lemon Spinach Pasta is the star of the show. (The savory Garlicky Sun-Dried Tomato Shrimp ain’t too shabby either!)

1 – Meyer Lemon*
1 cup – Mascarpone cheese**
1 tsp – Kosher salt
1 tsp – Dried Thyme
½ tsp – Freshly ground black pepper

1 lb – Pasta

8 cups – Fresh baby Spinach (9-10 oz. bag)
½ cup – Dry white wine
Chopped roasted almonds (optional)

In a medium-sized bowl, zest and juice Meyer Lemon. Add Mascarpone, salt, pepper and thyme. Mix well.

Boil pasta in salted water to the al dente stage. Drain.

Add pasta back to pan over low heat. Add Mascarpone mixture and fresh spinach. Stir gently until combined. (The spinach should begin to wilt fairly quickly.) Add wine to thin sauce somewhat. Stir until spinach is slightly cooked — about 3-4 minutes.

Top each serving with a small handful of chopped roasted almonds if desired. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a main dish, or makes about 6-8 side dishes.

* – Substitute 2 TB Lemon juice and 1 TB Orange juice — and 1 tsp (each) of zest
** – Substitute 4 oz. Cream cheese, 1/4 cup sour cream and 1/4 cup heavy cream

Garlicky Sun-Dried Tomato Shrimp

1 lb – Large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 TB – Extra virgin olive oil

2 – Garlic cloves, minced
2 TB – Sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, chopped finely
1 tsp – Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp – Dried Thyme
½ tsp – Dried red pepper flakes (optional)
½ cup – Dry white wine

2 TB – Butter (cold)

In a saucepan, heat olive oil to medium high. Add shrimp and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. (Shrimp will be partially pink at this point.)

Add minced garlic and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Add sun-dried tomatoes, black pepper, Thyme and (if desired) red pepper flakes. Add wine.

Liquid should begin to boil fairly quickly. Once boiling begins, cook shrimp another minute, or so. Remove from heat. Add cold butter and swirl, until melted. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this really interesting insight into an ingredient I have never used or even tasted. I’m going to track some down when in London- no chance up here! :( If I find some, will give your recipe a try. Thanks!

    • Several years ago, there were Meyer Lemons (and the trees) available on your side of The Pond. If you want to search them and shoot me an email, I might be able to tell you whether they are legit. I’m glad you stopped by.

  2. Good article. What made you leave the citrus industry?

  3. This is both awesome and hilarious!! I just did an Ingredient Spotlight on Lemons that pry published at the same time yours did! I love the thoroughness of your discussion on Meyer Lemons so if you don’t mind I’m going to link to this post for people to learn more information! :-)
    Kenley

  4. You make me want to cook…and I don’t cook, so that’a a compliment.

    Now, for those of us that don’t cook, how much zesting do we need from the lemon???

  5. I did not know that a Meyer lemon was not a lemon at all. Thanks for the info!! I love your pasta dish! Huge fan of any pasta dish with a lemony flavor. It’s so refreshing!

  6. They’d be good to use for preserved lemons moroccan style having a thin skin.

  7. I am a total Meyer snob and I have always suspected them to be more of an orange … who knew?! I shamelessly buy them by the case at Costco. :)

  8. Looks delish Adam! Will be trying this…

  9. Thanks for all the great info! I first time used Meyer Lemons this year (made a citrus pie). I really love the taste and they smell heavenly! :)

  10. For the longest time I couldn’t even distinguish between lemon and a lime (wasn’t it just an unripe lemon??) Thanks for the informative post. :)

  11. Love this article. I am totally going to email your friend for a cutting! LOVE LEMONS!!

  12. Oh now you’ve got me on a quest. First that pasta is going on my table with or without Meyers because I can’t stand waiting if I can’t find the Meyers around here. But my second quest is to check out Outlaw’s website. It sounds like the only way to go is with the grafted tree so I’ll skip Lowe’s on your advice.
    I have a question about your lemon visual – if you pick a lemon before it’s fully ripe, will it ripen on the counter? I’m visualizing a tree in my house & thinking how lovely it will look & smell but I’m also thinking it wouldn’t hurt to have some extras up in my field. Do you think they could make it through a Mass. winter if say you put up these little wooden tee pee type shelters that we sometimes use to protect shrubs from the snow?
    Now I’m really getting antsy waiting for the snow to melt & the ground to get soft!

    • Good question, Diane. Unlike stone fruit and berries, Citrus will not ripen once picked. – I have ideas that might enable you to enjoy the best of all worlds. Could you email me with a little about your home, porch, patio areas? What kind sun do they receive? Is there electricity nearby?

  13. Brilliant post Adam. They say that if one wants depth of engagement, quality content is essential.

    This is deep,

    deep engagement.

    Best,
    Conor

  14. I feel fully educated on Meyer Lemons…and, yes, I love them, darlin! Dang, you put some time, energy, research and work into this post! Thank you,cutie pie! Love the pasta more!! xo Ally

  15. Very interesting! I’ve seen Meyer lemons mentioned in blogs, but I’ve never actually seen one and I don’t think they are available around here. So it’s great to finally know more about them. thanks!

  16. This recipe sounds incredible. I must try it. Obviously Colorado is out for growing Meyer Lemons. I do have a green thumb…and lots of windows…wonder if they’d grow inside?

  17. Growing our own lemons instead of going to Whole Foods and paying out the nose for unwaxed lemons when we make limoncello? You’re brilliant, simply brilliant! Thank you, Adam; I’m ordering our tree tomorrow!

  18. Hey Adam, I just linked to this post from my blog. Thanks for all the info on Meyer lemons! :)

  19. thanks for the really great recipe! I made it tonight for dinner. I really liked using the Mascarpone for the cream sauce, simple and delicious. I linked back to your post so others could see your delicious creation. Thanks!

  20. I am such a sucker for meyer lemons. I froze some slices and some juice so I wouldn’t have to wait till next season to enjoy them. I’m oddly addicted to them.

  21. I was born in Santa Clara California, and my mother and father had a Meyer Lemon in the yard. My mother moved to Washington when I was about a year old. Still have pictures of me with the tree though! Later on I moved to Palm Springs to be with my mother in 1999, lots of citrus around but no Meyer Lemons! I then moved into a little house that had a very well established Meyer Lemon, triple grafted grapefruit (Ruby, Pink, White), and a satsuma.

    And of all the ones I missed the most when I was forced to move back to Washington in 2008 was the Meyer! I would get about 3 gallons juiced each year, then give away another 75 or so pounds of them!!! That tree was over 15 feet tall, and produced quite a bit year round down there!

    Now I am sitting here in the middle of winter with single digit temps and enjoying a present from my niece Brittney. A dwarf Meyer Lemon tree, with a single fruit ripening (it has been there for over a year according to my niece). It just got done flowering and looks like it has set about 8 more lemons (It better! I hand pollinated 1 to 3 times a day for almost 3 weeks!). It had a few issues related to the planting of the tree in soil right to the bottom branch. I pulled it up and raised it 3 inches to get the main trunk out of the dirt, and it has decided to drop a few leaves in protest/relief???

    It seems to have stopped dropping leaves for now, but it’s a tough little tree, and I look forward to being able to enjoy my own home grown Meyer Lemons again!!! The store bought ones just can’t compare to a fresh off the tree. Meyer’s are great for just munching on them skin and all, no bitterness, the peel is rather sweet to my tastes, and they have the most incredible flavor and aroma! I’m so excited I can hardly wait for the first one off my tree!!!

    • adamjholland says:

      Congrats on the Meyer Lemon tree! They can be temperamental indoors. Just make sure it’s draining well — place the pot atop a saucer filled with rocks. Citrus trees despise wet feet! Good luck!

  22. S Stroup says:

    Do you know if Grocery Stores sell Meyer Lemons, and if so which ones?

    • adamjholland says:

      I’ve seen them in grocery stores when the fruit are in season (Oct-Feb). Whole foods definitely carries them, and I’ve also seen Meyer Lemons at Wal Mart (Sunkist brand). You might contact the Sunkist folks.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] The most common variety found in supermarkets is the ‘Eureka’ lemon.  Another popular variety in cooking is the Meyer Lemon.  This fruit is actually is a cross between a lemon and an orange or mandarin.  Their taste is sweeter and less acidic which accounts for their popularity in dishes.  For some more information on Meyer Lemons, check out Adam’s awesome post discussing them on Food Snob Chronicles! [...]

  2. [...] For some interesting reading about Meyer lemons, while you enjoy your lemon bars and a cup of your favorite hot beverage, pop over to a blog I follow, The Unorthodox Epicure. He recently wrote an extensive post concerning our perky hero-here’s the link: Food Snob Chronicles — Meyer Lemons 101 | The Unorthodox Epicure. [...]

  3. [...] to the absolutely mouthwatering pasta photo from The Unorthodox Epicure this recipe landed on my ‘to do’ list. I’m always looking for new recipes [...]

  4. […] in traditional lemons.  Adam from The Unorthodox Epicure blogged all about the fruit in his post, "Meyer Lemons 101". I received a bag full of them from my friends at Frieda's Produce (thanks Frieda's!) and when […]

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