Though there are about 40 different types of lemons in the world, we typically only see three or four types on the regular. We may even know a couple of them by name, since some restaurants like to name-check Meyer or Eureka lemons as a specific ingredient. From a practicality standpoint, however, lemons tend to come into two categories: waxed and unwaxed.
The waxed versions are bright, shiny, and longer lasting, which is why they can typically be seen in grocery stores. The unwaxed versions are muted, subdued, and have a shorter shelf life, which makes them ideally suited for farmers’ markets or speciality stores touting organic produce. Deciding which one to use at a bar or at home can be an important decision, since the juice, zest, and peel can contribute to the build of several drinks. If using a waxed or an unwaxed lemon can make a noticeable difference in a cocktail, it’s worth knowing about. With that in mind, we reached out to Matt Nichols, general manager and beverage director at The Kennedy in Pensacola, Fla., to find out more.
Using a waxed or unwaxed lemon isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a snap decision. There’s nuance and complexity behind the choice. This is because the thin layer of wax, usually the product of a bug secretion like beeswax, has purpose. “The wax on a waxed lemon is sprayed on [by producers] to help preserve them longer,” Nichols explains. “The wax they use is natural, and it can’t be broken down by the digestive system. It also does make them prettier to look at, although that element doesn’t matter much in a bar with low lighting.”
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Because the wax only affects the exterior of the lemon, Nichols says waxed or unwaxed lemons are interchangeable for juicing purposes, although it is important to double-check to make sure you’re using ripe fruit. The peel or the zest, however, is a different matter. “Unwaxed lemons are better for expressing the lemon’s oils,” he says. “If you’re using waxed lemons at your bar, make sure you get the wax off first by washing it with hot water before using it as a zest.”
Location, Location, Location
There’s an asterisk that must be added when discussing waxed or unwaxed lemons, specifically pertaining to geography. The Kennedy’s Pensacola locale puts it on the western tip of the Florida Panhandle, where fresh citrus options abound. While Nichols prefers his lemons to be unwaxed, local, and organic, he understands he has a luxury that bars in other parts of the country don’t have. “Because we’re in Florida, we get fresh citrus in here every day, so we can be a little choosier,” he states. “This would not be the case if you’re running a bar in Alaska. In that case, you get what you can get.” In addition to location, Nichols also notes that cost may also factor into what lemons are used at a bar from an operational standpoint, as unwaxed lemons — particularly organic unwaxed lemons — tend to be pricier than the waxed kind.
How to Use Them at Home
Since lemons are an integral part of many popular cocktails either as a juice or a zest, they tend to function as a utilitarian ingredient at a bar, particularly on a crowded night. But home bartenders have a little more leeway when using them, since they don’t have to worry about whipping together drinks for 30 to 40 people. Nichols encourages the home bartender to use this extra bandwidth to their advantage. “Experiment with all kinds of lemons, especially if you find specific lemon types like a Meyer lemon at the market,” he says. “Take the time to analyze what works and what may not work as well. You’re not in a time crunch, so you can be choosier.”
According to Nichols, this extra room for pickiness can hopefully lead home bartenders to explore local and organic lemons if possible. These lemons will likely be unwaxed so they will have a shorter shelf life, so picking them up should come with the intention of using them sooner than later. That said, some customers may encounter shiny citrus as they shop. While this could indicate the lemons are waxed, Nichols says this isn’t always the case. “Some types of lemons are more porous, and they’ll secrete a natural oil. This may give them a sheen like a waxed lemon,” he says. “If you’re at the local market and you’re not sure if a lemon is waxed or unwaxed, just ask the person selling the lemons. They should know.”
Once you’ve purchased your lemons, Nichols says they should always be washed before they’re used. Hot water will remove the wax from waxed lemons, but giving the fruit a good wash also ensures clean produce.“You should always wash your lemons, regardless if they’re waxed or unwaxed or where you’re getting them from,” he says. “This really is a blanket statement for any citrus you plan on using for a cocktail.”