Is Bottled Lemon Juice Necessary?


Like many home preservers, I've often wondered at the USDA's recommendation that one always use commercially bottled lemon juice when following tested recipes. I understand the underlying logic: You need a certain level of acidity to ensure safe conditions, and bottled lemon juice is guaranteed to meet a minimum acidity level of 4.5%. Consequently, in tested recipes where that level of acidity is sufficient (most say 5%, but since all USDA tested recipes refer to bottled lemon juice, I assume they were rounding up), all bottled lemon juice will ensure safety. But the elephant in the room has always been: Are lemons naturally acidic enough, or must we rely on the bottled stuff, which is often adulterated with sulfites? 

Linda Ziedrich at A Gardener's Table also wondered, and decided to do a little research into the matter. (It helps that she's married to a chemist.) It turns out that, even though acidity will vary from lemon to lemon, pretty much all lemons (excluding Meyers) exceed the minimum acidity required for safe use in tested recipes -- sometimes by quite a lot. 

Of course the USDA could never recommend using fresh lemons specifically due to the variability of acidity in the fruit. But knowing that the variability is irrelevant so long as it stays above safe levels dispels any fears for me, and I intend to use fresh lemon juice from now on. Moreover, in many cases where we use lemon juice, it's less for safe acid levels and more to make pectin set.

Linda's experimentation and learnings are fascinating, so do go read it to get the full story. And I'm just dying for the sequel when she explains how to titrate juice to test for acidity. Aren't you?

I also have a big lemon tree

I also have a big lemon tree in my back yard...but I have no idea what type of lemon it is as I live in a rental. Is there a way of knowing without actually talking to my landlord (he's not pleasant)?

Need more info

Sarah, without knowing where you are and what the tree and fruit look like, I can't really advise. Generally, if the pith of the lemons is thick, it's Eureka or Lisbon type, standard lemons. If the skin is very thin, orange-ish and smells almost like a tangerine, then it's a Meyer. If you want to be absolutely sure, invest in some pH paper and test the juice. It's not expensive.

Thanks! Sounds like I have

Thanks! Sounds like I have regular ol lemons. I am in Southern California...but what you describe is nothing like my lemons.


if you need to use bottled, there is organic. i just use citric acid.

Totally agree on lemon juice

Not only is fresh preferable to me, but I have a giant honkin lemon tree and I'll be damned (oops! can I say that?) if I'm going to buy bottled. My dad is a retired food scientist and was in charge of the canning process for a giant baby food company most of my life. He's always told me there's no worry whatsoever with using regular lemons (yes, excluding meyers) over store-bought lemon juice. Linda is awesome for showing us that!

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