Cocktail 101: Selecting and Caring for Citrus

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This week, we're going to look at how to select, store, and use citrus fruit. I work mainly with lemons, limes, and Meyer lemons (when they're in season) at home because my wife is allergic to oranges and grapefruits, but these tips apply equally to any citrus—lemons, grapefruits, whatever.

Selecting and Purchasing Citrus

Unless you're lucky enough to live in a climate suitable for growing citrus, you'll very likely be purchasing it at a grocery store. There's not much to think about when buying citrus, except for this...

Organic or conventional? Conventional citrus, as most of you surely know, is often sprayed with pesticides, which cling to the fruit until washed off. This may not be a problem for you, especially if you're not going to be using the zest. In that case, just rinse the fruit briefly before cutting it, so your knife doesn't drag the pesticide residue across the interior of the fruit.

If you're going to be using the zest, though, I strongly suggest that you buy organic, and buy just what you think you'll need. Organic fruit does, in my experience, go bad more quickly than conventional, so make sure you don't overbuy, or you'll have moldy fruit to discard.

Storing Citrus

The big question with regard to storing citrus is whether you should refrigerate it. Keeping it cold will certainly keep it fresh for longer. The bad news is, refrigerated fruit doesn't juice quite as easily, and you'll be leaving precious drops behind if you refrigerate it.

You could take a cue from bartenders, storing your fruit in the fridge overnight and then removing it before you need it the next day, allowing it to reach room temperature prior to juicing.

Regardless of how you store your citrus, be sure to keep it in bags or containers that allow airflow. If you keep it in airtight bags or containers, you'll encourage the growth of mold on the fruit. For the same reason, don't wash it before you store it; dampness leads to mold. Wait and wash citrus just before you use it.


Most fruit, whether organic or not, is coated in food-grade wax to keep the skin looking fresh and glossy. Because it's of food grade, of course, you can eat it without suffering ill effects. But do you want to?

Various methods for dewaxing fruit exist, but the most common you'll probably find recommended is this:

  1. Put the fruit in a colander and pour recently boiled water over the fruit.
  2. Scrub each piece with a vegetable brush under cold running water.
  3. Rinse the fruit with cold running water and dry with paper towels.

Other methods include placing fruit in the microwave on high for 10 seconds and then scrubbing, or using a commercial vegetable wash solution.

As with washing fruit, you'll want to dewax fruit just before use, unless you make absolutely sure it's dry before storage.

Zesting Citrus

Zesting citrus properly entails removing the colored peel, while leaving the bitter pith behind on the fruit. (Although I must say, there are people around who like the bitter pith, and if you're among them, it won't harm you.)

Michael Dietsch

Again, there are a couple of different methods for zesting, depending on what you're hoping to do with the zest. If you want strips of peel, the easiest way is to simply take a vegetable peeler and carve swaths of peel from the citrus. Or you can open yourself up to scoffing by using a knife, like this guy did.

If you need grated zest—if, for example, you're making limoncello—use a Microplane-style grater.