When life doesn’t give you lemons, what do you do?
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You’re halfway through whipping up something delicious when you turn to your pantry to retrieve the bottle of lemon extract you think you have, just to come up empty-handed. It’s only now you remember that you used the last of it and forgot to pick more up at the store.
We’ve all been there.
Lemon is a hugely popular ingredient and its flavor brings a citrusy tang to a number of dishes in a way that elevates and delights.
So, it’s hugely frustrating when you find that you don’t have a trusty bottle of its extract, loved for its long shelf-life and concentrated taste.
Luckily, there are a few things that you can substitute for lemon extract when you’re in - or need - a pinch.
Some of these include the juice and extract of fresh lemons or fresh limes, lemon essence, and orange juice, so we’re looking at what they do and which is the best.
But first, let’s talk about the real deal.
What is Lemon Extract?
Lemon extract is essentially that lemony taste you get from fresh lemons, but in a stronger, more concentrated liquid form.
It’s usually made from fresh lemons with an oil or alcohol base and the extraction process involves soaking lemon peels in a neutral spirit, like vodka.
The peels release essential oils that infuse and flavor the alcohol. This distills the alcohol to about 77% causing the liquid to turn either a pale yellow color or to become completely clear.
The result is a deliciously citrus flavor minus the acidity and tartness of fresh lemon juice.
The great thing about lemon extract (one of many, actually) is that it has a wide range of uses making it a hugely versatile ingredient, so it’s well worth stocking in your cupboards. Sweet or savory, you can use it in desserts, dressings, baked goods, pickles, or marinades.
But hey, life happens, and sometimes when you need it, you just don’t have any.
That’s why we’re here to tell you how you can save the recipe and the day with a list of some great substitutes for lemon extract.
The Best Lemon Extract Substitutes
A lot of ‘lemon-flavored’ things don’t necessarily make a great lemon extract substitute, so don’t go reaching for the first thing that sounds like it might do. This could result in a flavor that tastes too artificial or it could be barely detectable, which is undesirable either way.
It’s a bit more complicated when it comes to finding the perfect lemon extract substitute, with these three things being the most important to consider:
- How it will affect the consistency of the finished product.
- How it will affect the taste of the finished product.
- How it will affect the texture of the finished product.
For example, when you’re working with sensitive ingredients like dairy products, you’ll need to consider how the acidity of the substituted ingredient will affect it, as it could end up curdling which would ruin the recipe. You’d need to start again or you can expect unsuccess.
In terms of taste, you’ll need to think about how much you’re going to use depending on how strong the lemon flavor comes through. This comes with its own factors to consider, like whether or not this will have an affect on the cooking, freezing, or setting times.
The science of cooking and pairing foods is what makes it such an art form, but it’s also what makes the process or picking the perfect substitute so complicated. But don’t panic!
With our help, you should be able to get it right.
After several experimental trials and taste-tests, some succesful and others… not so much, we’ve rated a selection of substitutes for lemon extract based on our findings which we’ve explained so that you can find the substitute that best suits the recipe you’re working on.
1. Lemon Zest
Lemon zest is what you call the fine shavings of the peel of a fresh lemon, so it’s best to wash the lemon before you start to rid it of any pesticides or dirt that may be on the surface.
When zesting a lemon, be careful to avoid reaching the pith which is the white stuff beneath the peel. This has a very bitter taste which will overshadow the lemon and spoil the dish.
This is easily the best substitute for lemon extract and it can be used to replace pretty much any lemon-flavored ingredient in any recipe.
Like lemon extract, it’s a concentrated form that isn’t too acidic, so it shouldn’t curdle when mixed with dairy products. It’s in a non-liquid form which means it has no real effect on the consistency, and as an added bonus, you can keep the lemon once zested to use later.
To substitute lemon extract with lemon zest, use equal parts zest to equal parts extract or add more if you prefer stronger lemon flavor.
Remember to keep in mind that while you can always add more of an ingredient to a recipe, it’s much more difficult to backtrack if you end up adding too much, so a little at a time is always a good idea with plenty of taste testing along the way to make sure it’s to your liking.
2. Lemon Juice
What could be more lemony than lemon juice, right? It’s the perfect way to extract the citrussy deliciousness of this fruit whilst retaining its most authentic and heightened flavor.
Compared to lemon extract, it is tarter and more acidic in taste. However, it’s less concentrated which means you’ll need to increase the quantity of juice to extract in order to achieve the same results.
Generally, the recommended substitution ratio is 1 teaspoon of lemon extract to 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, but this can cause issues if not factored in.
Whilst it’s less of a problem for dressings and marinades, using a higher volume of liquid in a baking or pastry related recipe or even in some desserts can drastically alter the outcome of the final dish. To mitigate this, simply use a reduced volume of liquid for another element.
The acidity, whilst beautifully sharp in fresh lemonade and icing, can also cause issues when there are certain other ingredients involved. Yep, we’re talking about dairy products.
Google will be your faithful sous chef when you’re working with this substitute, as you’ll need to know what the exact replacement ratios should be for the recipe you’re using as each is different.
If we’re being totally honest, we’d choose fresh lemon juice over lemon extract every time, but there’s just no beating the convenience of the easily stored, long-lasting bottled kind.
There may be less nutritional value in lemon extract, but there’s also less effort involved as instead of squeezing lemons and picking out pips, all you have to do is tip the bottle and tap.
3. Lime Zest or Juice
Due to their similar flavor profiles, lime juice can be used in a similar way to lemons. The zest is best to use as a substitute for lemon extract as there’s less risk of it altering the texture. Use equal parts of extract with equal parts of zest, or increase this as desired.
It’s a little on the sour side, but the acid pH level of lemon, and lime juice are practically the same meaning they behave in the same way, so you can substitute 1 teaspoon of lemon extract with 2 tablespoons of lime juice the same way you would with lemon juice.
And yes, this does mean that they share the same potential to go horribly wrong if used improperly. If you end up using lime zest of juice to substitute lemon extract, you’ll still need to think about its potential to curdle dairy or change the consistency of the final product.
4. Lemon Essence or Flavoring
Although they are often confused as being the same, lemon extract and lemon essence are actually entirely different. The former is a natural flavoring taken from fresh lemons, whereas the latter is an artificial flavoring made up of artificial colorants and chemical components.
That’s not to say that lemon essence doesn’t have its uses. It has a longer shelf-life, for one, and it’s pretty affordable as well as conveniently being stocked in most local supermarkets and stores. Plus, it brings a fun yellow hue to your food which can be an interesting touch.
Lemon essence is a trickier substitute to master due to the variation in concentrate strength across different brands. Some will taste more artificial than others and should be used in lower quantities, whereas others will have a mild flavor and can be used liberally.
It’s difficult to recommend an exact substitution ratio because of this, so it’s best to do a taste test to experiment with different amounts so you can find out what works and what doesn’t.
To start off with, use equal parts lemon essence to lemon exact, adding more if desired.
5. Orange Zest and Juice
Some people find lemon a little too tart, in which case orange can be a great alternative. It still brings the citrussy sensation but it’s much sweeter and without the acidic sour taste. You can substitute 1 teaspoon of lemon extract with 2 tablespoons of orange juice.
If you’re using orange juice in an already sweet recipe, you’ll need to be mindful of the fact that orange juice is sweet itself so you may want to reduce any other sugar elements.
If you’re using orange zest, however, you don’t need to adjust the sugar quantities. Instead, you can substitute equal amounts of orange zest to lemon extract or increase if desired.
Table of Quantities
Now we’ve walked you through each of the best substitutes for lemon extract and how you should use them as a replacement, but just to recap, here is a table of quantities that shows you how much of the substitute you should use in place of the lemon extract.
Quantity (For 1 tsp Lemon Extract)
1 teaspoon or as needed
1 teaspoon or as needed
1 teaspoon or as needed
1 teaspoon or as needed
1 teaspoon or as needed
Frequently Asked Questions
To clear up some common confusion before we round up this article, we’ve answered some of the most frequently asked questions we stumbled across during our research in case they could be useful to anyone else reading up about the best substitutes for lemon extract.
Can citric acid powder be used as a substitute for lemon extract?
Citric acid is naturally found in lemons so it will perfectly replicate the acidity of the original ingredient, but it doesn’t do as good a job at mimicking the lemon flavor in its powdered form.
You can still use it as a substitute, however, replacing 1 teaspoon of lemon extract with ¼ teaspoon of citric acid.
Are lemon oils dangerous to consume?
The lemon oils market is hugely saturated and there are a number of different types of product you can purchase, with some being safe to consume and others being dangerous.
If the product in question is something like an olive oil that has been flavored with lemon, then it should be perfectly safe for you to use in cooking. Just be prepared for the oil flavor to come through equally as strong or sometimes even stronger than the lemon taste itself.
It’s recommended that you do not ingest lemon oil directly, and that instead, you should dilute it.
Oil-based lemon extracts are also safe for human consumption.
However, not all lemon oils are safe for humans to eat so we recommend always checking the bottle first to make sure. Aromatherapy oils, for example, are not safe for consumption.