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Lemons (Recipe: avgolemono — chicken soup with rice and lemons) {gluten-free}


Peter, Paul and Mary, I love you guys.

I love Puff, that magic dragon, and the big blue frog, too. I know where all the flowers have gone, and what's blowin' in the wind.

But when you dissed the lemon ... well, what you were thinking?

Lemon tree, very pretty,
and the lemon flower is sweet.
But the fruit of the poor lemon
is impossible to eat.

Impossible to eat?

More like impossible to do without. 

Whether you're going sweet or savory, unless you live in a country that grows limes instead of lemons (Mexico, for instance, or much of Southeast Asia), you probably can't imagine cooking without lemon.

The Citrus limon, native perhaps to northwest India or China, is a thorny and prolific tree, a cross between a lime and a citron; though it grows only 10-20 feet tall, it flowers year-round and can produce up to 2,000 fruits per year. Leading producers are the United States (California, Arizona and Florida), Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel and Turkey.

Eureka and Lisbon are the most common varieties; in my local grocery stores, the lemons are never labeled. Eureka has a textured skin, a short neck at one end, and a few seeds; Lisbon has a smoother skin, no neck, and is seedless. In California you can find Meyer lemons, in season; a hybrid of lemon and mandarin orange, they're sweeter than the other varieties.

How to choose and use a lemon (this applies only to fruit, and not to defective cars):

  • Look for fruits that are thin-skinned and heavy for their size, to yield the most juice.
  • Make sure the fruit is fully yellow; if it's greenish, it's not quite ripe, and if it has brown patches, it's overripe.
  • Store lemons at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for up to a week. For longer storage, refrigerate for up to a month.
  • For even longer storage, strain and freeze the juice (handy to do in ice cube trays), and dry or candy the lemon peel.
  • For storage up to a year and a whole new world of culinary possibilities, turn fresh fruits into preserved lemons.
  • To get the most juice out, press down gently but firmly and roll the lemon back and forth on the countertop a few times.
  • Room temperature lemons will yield more juice, so if your lemon is cold, pop it into the microwave for a few seconds before squeezing.
  • If you don't have a lemon reamer, stick a fork into the side of the whole lemon, and twist the lemon back and forth while holding the fork still; you'll be amazed at how much juice comes out, and the seeds stay behind.

Lemons are one of the world's healthiest foods, for exactly the reason you'd guess: an abundance of antioxidants and Vitamin C. They're also one of the world's most versatile flavorings, starring in (and perking up) lemon meringue pie cupcakes, sesame and lemon chicken, strawberry-lemon bars, Meyer lemon butter cookies, hashed Brussels sprouts, and, of course, lemonade.

So, Peter, Paul and Mary, maybe it's time to rethink the whole love-and-betrayal theme of the Lemon Tree Song. After all, lemons -- the ones you keep in the kitchen -- never let you down.

Avgolemono -- chicken soup with rice and lemons

My friend Greg makes a wonderful version of this famous Greek soup; this recipe, slightly different, came to me from Effie Pesiridis, whose family owned a convenience store for many years in Boston's South End. Serves 6-8 generously.


3 whole boneless chicken breasts
3 heaping handfuls long-grain rice (approx. 2 cups)
3/4 stick butter
Juice of 2 lemons
3 eggs


In a large stock pot cover the chicken breasts with water. Bring to a boil and continue to cook 20 minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked through. Remove the chicken and set aside to cool. To the stock in the pot, add rice, butter and a pinch of salt (or more to taste). Cook at a low boil for 20 minutes, or until the rice is cooked (if the soup is too thick, add some boiling water). Shred the chicken with your fingers into large pieces, and add to the soup. In a small bowl, beat the eggs until frothy; slowly beat in the lemon juice. Mix 1 cup of the hot soup slowly into the eggs, being careful not to cook the eggs. Then slowly beat the egg mixture back into the soup, stirring constantly. When all the egg is incorporated and the soup has thickened slightly, it’s done. Serve hot, with crusty bread.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Lemon curd
Traditional hummus
Honey and lemon green tea cupcakes
Spiced lentils with squash and raisins
Brick-grilled chicken breasts or thighs
Lentils with spinach and preserved lemon
Shish taouk (garlic chicken on skewers)

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


Lydia, this is so interesting! I wish I can get my hands on Meyer lemons. I wonder if they will eventually grow some in Australia. Thanks for the tips on choosing lemons. The type of lemons makes a huge difference when I make my own limoncello.

Lemon! I love them. They are really adorable, aren't they?

I too love lemon.
This past week I made a chicken thigh "osso buco" and topped with gremolata; gremolata is a mix of lemon zest and parsley (and usually garlic, but I passed on it this time).
I can't tell you what a difference it made. It just brightened the entire dish up.

Has anyone noticed that children are immune to the sour sense?
It always amazes me how my 3 yr old, Louise, can just grab a lemon and suck on it. However, she is a bit of a firecracker, so, maybe it's just her :)

Lydia, that is the most beautiful photo of a lemon! I didn't know that Meyer Lemons were a cross of a mandarin orange. The purchasing tips are great, since since I've got a slight sniffle, I might just make that delicious Chicken Lemon soup!

Very tasty-looking but how in heavens do you pronounce it?!

Another lemon tip: put the lemon skins into the garbage disposal to clean the blades and freshen up the sink.

Great post about lemons! I envy my brother in California who has a meyer lemon tree in his yard. I have to make do with those big bags of lemons from Costco, and I do squeeze the juice and freeze it. Lately I've been wondering why you couldn't freeze the lemon zest too, since I never seem to have a lemon when I want lemon zest. Sigh, I wish I was not too lazy to make preserved lemons. So far I haven't been able to convince myself to do it.

Outstanding. There is a Greek restaurant around the corner from my home that makes the best avgolomeno and my wife loves it. I'm going to have to give this a try. We're expecting snow tonight in Boston, and lemony chicken soup has a way to warm us through. Thanks for sharing!

For an expanded view of lemons (and oranges, ugli fruit...) see Pierre Laszlo's "Citrus: A History." I reviewed it in my blog recently -- maefood.blogspot.com. You'll even find out about the man who gave Meyer Lemons their name.

Thank you for reminding me how much there is to love about lemons. One thing I've not done with them is to preserve them and today is going to be that day! Thanks for the motivating post.

So many things to do with a lemon, Excellent post Lydia, possibly my favourite.
A friend of mine makes this soup, her mother was Greek. I love it and crave it after a tummy bug.
Couldn't live without lemons either!

Nora, I've never made limoncello, but we've been lucky to have a friend who does make it, and likes to share!

Anh, sometimes I think they look like faces....

Sharon, gremolata is a wonderful blend -- I like to make it in summer, when I can harvest huge amounts of flat-leaf parsley from my herb garden. I think when I was young, I was one of those kids who could suck on lemons. But now I can't, though I do love the flavor.

TW, thanks -- I had fun photographing this lemon from both ends -- but this was the cute end! This soup will make you feel better. I'm sure of it.

Alanna, great tip, thanks! I haven't had a disposal in years, so I'd totally forgotten about that. Some people spell this soup avegolemono, but I don't know if that makes it easier.

Kalyn, we'll have to experiment with freezing the zest. I believe you can do it, but it seems that the freezing would change the quality of the oil in the zest. Would it make a difference? I don't know. I envy your brother his lemon tree, too.

One Food Guy, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Which Greek restaurant in Boston? There are a couple of good ones that I can remember from my days in the South End, when we also had wonderful Greek corner stores.

Mae, thanks for the heads-up about your book review. I'm sure Pantry readers will be interested.

Sharon, preserved lemons are easy and you'll always be glad to have a jar in the fridge. Here's the method I use, which is very easy:

Amanda, there is something about the lemon in this soup that is quite soothing. You'd think lemon soup would be hard on your stomach, but it's just the opposite.

And now I am singing that song. It's going to be a long night. Nice post though. I love lemons and am wondering if there is any flavor they don't brighten? Besides chocolate. Now I have a craving for this soup and all the ingredients in the house. Lunch tomorrow?

So if if I'm a good student, the lemon on the picture is a Lisbon. Thank you Lydia for this post. I've learned a lot(as always!)

I just had this for the first time recently, it's a really wonderful soup.

I love lemons so much that I always finish the last drops of each half directly into my mouth. makes me shiver, but I love it too much. Best thing ever, in every dish or sweet or sour combination.

Lemons and limes, limes and lemons - I like both of them. Sometimes, they even make spice dishes shine :)

Hear hear for lemons! I always have a big bag of them handy, and I was delighted to see Meyer lemons just hit the shelves in my neighborhood this weekend. I didn't know that they were a hybrid, I just knew they were better. ;-)

The soup sounds simple and delicious.

Christine, my kitchen always feels naked without a bowl of lemon on the countertop. I learned years ago that a shot of lemon is a great substitute for salt -- must tickle the same part of the taste buds.

Warda, I think you're right. I do wish the stores would label the lemons. But often when I order a case for a cooking class, I get a mix of the two types, so I'm not sure if the produce managers at my local market knows the difference.

Peabody, it is wonderful -- and easy to make!

Lobstersquad, whenever I cook something and can't quite figure out what's missing, I add a shot of lemon, and that always works.

Tigerfish, yes yes yes, lemon and spice are wonderful together.

Mike, you're so lucky to have Meyer lemons. Our local Whole Foods (which isn't exactly near me) will carry Meyers in season, but they are incredibly expensive here.

Those lyrics always bothered me, too. Lemon to me is as much a staple as skim milk, coffee and tomatoes.

Oh ho! I just posted about Greek food this morning! I wish I'd known you had done this post before that, I would have linked to you. Guess it'll have to wait until I'm home from work tonight. I loooooove avgolemono. thanks for the recipe :-)

I am inspred to try a lemon cake now, and your post has really refreshed me in the morning Lydia!!:)

btw. I'm hosting a Game Night Party event on my blog and would like to invite you to send in a delicious entry if you can! (details on my blog) Hope to see you there!

You know we went through a phase when everything was lemon scented. The smell of lemon pledge just ruins it for me.
I love lemon... just not when it tastes like lemon pledge smells.

Hi Lydia,

My name is Shannon and I'm the editorial assistant at Foodbuzz.com. I am very impressed with the quality of your posts and to that end, I’d like to invite you to be a part of our newly launched Foodbuzz Featured Publisher program. I would love to send you more details about the program, so if you are interested, please email me at [email protected].

And thanks for the lemon tutorial! Gives me inspiration to use the ones I have sitting around, and that little bit of knowledge makes me thirsty for more. Hooray for lemons!


Shannon Eliot
Editorial Assistant, Foodbuzz.com
[email protected]

Mimi, perhaps a letter writing campaign to PP&M -- or a sit-in (more appropriate to those of us who remember the 60s...)? Skim milk, coffee and tomatoes are staples in my kitchen, too.

Ann, I just read your post. Makes me want to drive down to NYC for some Greek food at your local restaurant!

Mansi, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Last year I posted a great recipe from Barefoot Contessa for a lemon-yogurt cake. You will love it! Here's the link:

Sandi, think of Lemon Pledge as a completely different life form (which it is!!) -- how sad that it ruins the beautiful aroma of real lemons.

Shannon, glad the lemons are inspiring you! There's a handy link to my email address over there in the right-hand column, and that's the best way to contact me (or any blogger) about things that aren't directly related to the post. Thanks for visiting!

We go through a ton of lemons and could never live without them. I used to think Meyer lemons were a waste of time, but have mellowed towards them lately. My wife also eats lemonade lemons, similar to Meyers, like a fruit.

I love lemons and I love this soup. I'm still lamenting that I haven't seen a decent Meyer lemon around here all winter. Great suggestions...I must do some preserved lemons soon.

Now I see where this is going -- lemons, coconuts : the Perfect Pantry Songbook (with recipes).

Neil, I've never heard of lemonade lemons -- will have to look them up. I've been using lemons more and more lately.

Julie, there's always at least one jar of preserved lemons in my fridge. I'm still discovering new ways to use them. Haven't seen Meyer lemons around here, either, except in the most expensive gourmet stores.

Susan, you're way ahead of me! You know I'll be looking for more songs now (though the coconut song works for limes, too, so it could make another appearance here)!

I'd never heard of it either, until my wife got them from somewhere, she loves them. According to this link, http://www.daleysfruit.com.au/plant/Lemonade.htm, they are a cross between a Meyer and regular lemon. You've reminded me to post about a lemon salad I saw one time, using either a Meyer or lemonade lemon.

Since limes are the stars here in Brazil, Lydia, I only tried lemons when I was a grown up already. And now I can't go without them either. :)

Neil, thanks! Will watch for your lemon salad post -- that sounds intriguing.

Patricia, limes are wonderful, indispensable in my kitchen. Neither one grow around here, so both are equally available!

Lydia that is such a great intro and I love when you go wild with applying it to lemons in the kitchen not cars. I love this soup! You are so way right-I'd be lost without lemons.

MyKitchen, it's so nice to know that someone else remembers these old songs... I think it's unfair to the lemon to use its beautiful name to describe dysfunctional cars!

Great post! I also like to keep a bottle of ReaLemon around - not for cooking, but for chemistry uses like acidulating some water to drop apples into after peeling & cutting, or as a stain remover or hair rinse. For the peels - I rarely have time to candy - I like to zest the lemons before I use them, leave the zest out to airdry, and then use the dried zest in recipes or tea.

Avgolemono is a favorite in our household. Our version is a bit different, though the principle is the same. When I make it, I usually add a bit of chopped cooked spinach - the frozen brick stuff does a great job - and I make it with onions and sliced carrots. The sweetness from the onions and carrots really complements the sour lemon flavor, and with the added vegetables, a bowl of avgolemono is a hearty meal in itself.

Incidentally, I'm lactose intolerant and the tempered-eggs technique that makes for creamy avgolemono can also make a great dairy substitute in several other dishes. I make "cream of" soup by using tempered eggs instead of cream, and a non-dairy- based rice pudding is much more like "real" rice pudding if a couple of eggs are tempered in, Swedish style.

LemonLover, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. You've reminded me of a phase I went through in high school, where I was rinsing my hair in lemon juice (to make it shiny? I can't even remember!). I've never heard of avgolemono with spinach, but I can see that it would be delicious.

So can you replace the lemons for lines in this recipe?

Yvonne, I can't imagine any Zgreek cook would agree to that! The taste really is different; this is a soup for lemons.

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