Fresh Lemon Syrup Recipe

Stop throwing lemon rinds away, make this no-cook lemon syrup instead.

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Photograph: Vicky Wasik

Why It Works

  • Lemon rinds are acidic enough to dissolve up to half their weight in sugar, imparting a strong flavor and vivid color without any added juice, flavoring, or dye.
  • Nonreactive equipment keeps the syrup's flavor clean and fresh.
  • Pressing the rinds with a ricer, or through a cheesecloth, helps express the lemon's essential oil.

I am a notorious cheapskate.

I started my first restaurant job at 14, and by 18, the Book of Yields was my grimoire. I learned how to stop profits from vanishing into thin air and to maximize every return. If you're in this industry long enough, battling food costs simply becomes a way of life. Particularly in the realm of pastry, where wildly expensive necessities often break the curve—fresh cream and butter, imported chocolate and vanilla, flats of local eggs, and fat spring strawberries.

Which is how I stumbled into the habit of making fresh lemon syrup from leftover lemon rinds, just the sort of thing a penny-pinching pastry chef would come up with at home. Home, because in my restaurant days, I'd always zest my lemons before juicing, or else carefully peel them for candy, so I never felt too bad about pitching the pithy rinds. But, living outside the pastry dungeon, my resentment of having to pay retail for citrus has grown to an all-time high, while my need for candied peel has hit an all-time low.

That cocktail of frustration and thrift saw me hoarding lemon rinds in a bowl, stubbornly refusing to toss them out despite having no clear purpose for them in mind. The mountain grew with every batch of lemon bars that I tested, retested, and tweaked, until my husband was convinced I lacked the strength to part with the rinds on my own. He dragged a trash can to my side, gesturing to the bowl, palms spread and pleading.

"What are you waiting for," he implored, Samwise to my Frodo. "Just let it go!"

But I couldn't see past the golden glow, nor could my greed be overcome. The rind was mine!

A used lemon rind may not seem precious to you (wicked! tricksy! false!), but toss one into the garbage disposal and consider the instant blast of springtime freshness Exhibit A—proof positive that we're all flushing essential oil down the drain, then paying out the nose to buy it back again, one teeny-tiny bottle at a time.

Or, at least, that was my first thought when I was forced to part with my lemon rinds or come up with a plan on the fly. So I threw in a few cups of sugar and hoped that science would kick in and reward my determination with something juicy-sweet.

Sugar's too hygroscopic to just sit there. I knew it would draw out whatever juice the rinds had left to offer, maybe even a bit of essential oil. Nothing to rival the intensity of commercial, expeller-pressed oil, but certainly enough to boost the aroma of my lemon bars with some citrus-scented sugar.

What I didn't expect was that within a few hours, the sugar would dissolve completely, leaving me with a full pint of liquid sunshine: thick and yellow and sweet, but tempered by the natural astringency of the pith. The rinds seemed almost rehydrated, so plump with syrup that I crushed them in a potato ricer to squeeze out every last drop.

I was all but vibrating with glee as I bottled it up.

Two photos showing lemon rinds in a bowl with sugar that has turned to syrup.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

See, unlike any other sort of homemade syrup, the technique I stumbled upon—one I later learned was a sort of quick and dirty oleo-saccharum—didn't require adding any juice or water to the rinds. Fourteen ounces of sugar went in, 16 ounces of syrup came out; as close to alchemy as I'll ever come.*

*Of course, that's not how science works, and I knew that at least a portion of the syrup was surely juice. My obsession with The Book of Yields taught me that some of the sugar and syrup was inevitably discarded with the rinds, so it wouldn't be a simple matter of addition and subtraction to determine the final percentage of juice. Even so, from the syrup's viscosity alone, I can presume the juice content to be very low. And, given what I know about its low juice and high sugar content, I suspect that citric acid in the rinds may have partially inverted the syrup, since I've yet to have a batch recrystallize.

The syrup was luscious and, well, syrupy! Clearly more sugar than water, and thus amenable to recipes that won't tolerate any significant quantity of water or juice. Like, say, whipped cream.

A lemon cut in half and a small yellow bowl of lemon chantilly.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

What followed was nothing short of an infomercial as I ran around the kitchen dorking out over the possibilities of my fresh lemon syrup. Oh, look, a French 75! How about some crystallized violets? Maybe I should make lemon chantilly, or pancake syrup? Hot damn, now we're talkin' brunch. Mmmm, brunch, I bet it could make a nice lemon poppy seed vinaigrette, or a glaze for salmon....

But, wait, there's more!

Honestly, there really is. Since then, I've discovered that fresh lemon syrup is a fantastic addition to homemade granola, a replacement for cream in white chocolate ganache, a complement to sweet tea, and a worthy part of almost any sorbet. Because the syrup is never boiled to dissolve the sugar or reduce the juice, it doesn't take on any of that slow-cook funk that ruins so many fruity desserts. Its flavor stays pure and clean, adding a burst of lemony sweetness to everything from marinades to cocktails and candied pistachios, without ever watering them down.

A bunch of candied pistachios, scattered on a white background.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Since the syrup's mostly sugar, it produces a crispier shell than candied nuts that call for simple syrup, while in cocktails, its one-two punch of sweetness and flavor simplifies the common combination of simple syrup and lemon juice.

Wringing out every ounce of value may only seem important to you after paying up for cases of pricey citrus, like Meyer lemons (which make an intensely aromatic syrup), but you don't have to be managing food cost like a pro to appreciate having a bottle on hand—plus, my recipe truly shines with workaday supermarket fruit. So, the next time you find yourself juicing a big bag of lemons for meringue pie, or even just a handful to make garlicky tahini, do me a favor and don't toss out those precious rinds.

This syrup is pure sunshine in a bottle, made from nothing but sugar dissolved by the acidic pulp—no cooking required! Since there's no added juice, it tastes more sweet than sour, but is balanced by the subtle bitterness of lemon oil. Use it to make Crispy Candied Pistachios and Lemon Chantilly, or try it as a mixer in your favorite cocktails.

March 24, 2016

Recipe Facts

4.9

(9)

Active: 10 mins
Total: 3 hrs
Serves: 8 servings
Makes: 1 cup

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Ingredients

  • 15 ounces (2 1/2 cups; 425g) "used" lemon rinds, from 6 medium lemons or 12 Meyer lemons (see notes)

  • 7 ounces (1 cup; 200g) sugar

Directions

  1. Cut each lemon into a few chunks and toss with sugar in a large glass, ceramic, or stainless steel mixing bowl. Cover tightly and let stand at room temperature, stirring once every 45 minutes or so, until sugar has completely dissolved, about 3 hours (or up to 12 if timing is an issue).

    From top right, lemon rinds in a bowl, adding sugar, stirring, and resting.

    Serious Eats / Vicki Wasik

  2. Using a cheesecloth-lined or fine-mesh stainless steel strainer set over a nonreactive bowl, strain syrup. Working in batches, transfer rinds to a stainless steel potato ricer and squeeze to release any extra syrup, allowing it to pass through strainer into bowl; discard rinds. Refrigerate syrup for up to 3 months in a glass bottle or pint jar.

    Using a potato ricer to squeeze juice and sugar syrup from lemon rinds.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Potato ricer or cheesecloth

Notes

This recipe takes advantage of the pithy rinds left over from juicing lemons for other projects, so it's all right if some or all of the lemons have been zested. When starting from whole lemons, simply zest (if you like) and juice beforehand.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Refrigerate syrup for up to three months in a glass bottle or pint jar.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
108 Calories
0g Fat
29g Carbs
0g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 8
Amount per serving
Calories 108
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 0g 0%
Saturated Fat 0g 0%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 2mg 0%
Total Carbohydrate 29g 10%
Dietary Fiber 3g 9%
Total Sugars 26g
Protein 0g
Vitamin C 32mg 160%
Calcium 33mg 3%
Iron 0mg 1%
Potassium 40mg 1%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)