Today, as I was cutting a lemon into my smoothie, and I smelled that fresh, bright scent – I found myself wondering, how do I know if a lemon is ripe? It made me laugh a little when I answered myself with… “If it’s sweet, it’s not ripe.” Right? Stands to reason, don’t you think? ;)

I decided to Google it. Even though I grew up in San Diego, and lemon trees are in many backyards… I had no idea what I should look for in a ripe lemon.

Turns out that color is an important  indicator. Lemons on the tree are green. As they get ripe, the richer yellow their color. So, if like me, you live in the PNW and have to buy lemons from your local grocery… Here’s what you want to look for:

  • bright, glossy yellow color
  • firm, but not over-hard or too soft or with squishy spots (it’s too far gone at that point)
  • sounds simple, but it should smell lemony
  • choose lemons that are heavy for their size
  • peels that have a finely grained texture

The only potential flaw with using how the fruit looks is that lemons are often waxed to lengthen shelf life, reduce bruising, and increase the aesthetic, visual appeal. Oranges are sometimes dyed in addition to waxed, but I couldn’t find reports of dyed lemons.  The most helpful information on oranges and dye that I found was at Earthbound Farms website:

Color is not necessarily an indicator of ripeness or quality. Oranges are always picked when they are ripe, but Florida oranges (with the exception of organic fruit) are often dyed with food color. This is not true of oranges produced in California or Arizona, where state laws prohibit adding color to citrus fruits. Also, fully ripe oranges can sometimes turn green, especially Valencias. “Regreening” is a natural process that can occur if there is ripe fruit on a tree at the same time the tree is producing blossoms. The tree produces chlorophyll to feed its blossoms, and the mature fruit also receives some of this chlorophyll, which contributes a green tint to the skin. Oranges that have “regreened” tend to be extra sweet because they were not picked early and are tree-ripened.

Okay, back to lemons and waxes. From

Plant, insect, animal or petroleum-based waxes may be used. Carnauba palm is the most common plant-source wax. Other compounds, such as ethyl alcohol or ethanol, are added to the waxes for consistency, milk casein (a protein linked to milk allergy) for “film formers” and soaps for flowing agents. Since you may not be able to determine the source of these waxes, this is another good reason to choose organically grown lemons and limes.

The rule is that if dyes and/or waxes are used, the grower is supposed to include it on the list of ingredients. Problem is, when was the last time you saw a list of ingredients for the lemon or orange you bought at the grocery?

The good news, lemons don’t rank on’s Shoppers Guide to Pesticides. So if you aren’t going to use the peel, you are probably okay buying the non-organic lemons. The oranges are right in the middle of the list… so if you are zesting, opt for the organic. If you are eating just the fruit, and your budget won’t allow – buying non-organic is an understandable choice.