Before the lemon, there was the citron.
This ancient fruit looks something like an overgrown, bumpy-skinned lemon, but is actually one of the oldest, original citrus fruits—from which all other types, including those more familiar lemons and limes, eventually developed.
Thought to have originated in Asia, the citron has been used by cultures around the world for centuries. The fruit is revered as much for its impressive health benefits—it’s packed with antioxidants, and more vitamin C than a lemon—as for its powerful fragrance.
Though you’re not likely to find citrons among the apples and oranges at your local grocery store, you can track them down at a specialty store or an Asian supermarket in your area. Here’s why these unique fruits are worth seeking out.
What is a Citron?
The citron is a large and extremely aromatic citrus fruit, containing only a small amount of pulp and juice—or none at all—within a thick, spongy, white pith. Its peel, often bumpy and tough, is packed with fragrant essential oils.
Citrons can range from green to bright yellow-orange in color, and come in several varieties and hybrids, which can significantly vary in shape and size.
A notable example is the peculiar fingered citron, known as Buddha’s hand. Traditionally used as a religious offering in Buddhist temples, this strange, yet treasured variety is naturally segmented into a mass of long, gnarled “fingers,” bright yellow in color and even brighter in aroma. In the kitchen, the fruit is prized for its floral-scented zest.
Rich in vitamins and nutrients, citrons have long been used in traditional medicine for a wide range of conditions, from digestive problems to the common cold. The Ancient Greeks even used it as an antidote to poison. In Korea, yuja, a Korean variety of citron, is still commonly brewed with honey into a soothing tisane called yujacha, as a common natural home remedy for sore throats and colds.
Here are some of citron’s other amazing health benefits:
Anti-cancer properties: Citrons’ high levels of antioxidants can help remove free radicals from the body, inactivate carcinogens, and slow the progress of disease.
Lowering blood pressure: The vitamin C, potassium, and electrolytes found in citrons reduce the strain in your arteries, lowering your blood pressure and thus reducing the risk of stroke, heart disease, and atherosclerosis.
Improving the immune system: The high amounts of vitamin C in citrons stimulate the immune system to produce more infection-fighting white blood cells.
Balancing the acid levels in the gut: The oil and juice from citrons are able to improve digestion by balancing the level of acid in the gut. This also helps remove problems such as constipation, nausea, and flatulence.
Weight loss: Adding citron juice to warm water and drinking it can help boost your body’s metabolism and kickstart the fat-burning process.
Analgesic, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory properties: Citron fruit can help to relieve acute pain, headaches, and arthritis.
Relieving coughs and sore throats: Citron fruit has been used for years to help treat the common cold and suppress fever.
Note: It is always advised to first consult your doctor about how citron can affect your health.
While other citrus fruits are mainly used for their pulp and juices, citrons have little to speak of; instead, their thick pith and fragrant zest take the spotlight.
Citron zest can be used just like lemon zest: sprinkled over pasta, mixed into sauces and dressings, or folded into batters to perfume sweet cookies and cakes. For a versatile pantry staple and creative gift, try using the zest to make scented sugar and flavored salt.
Whole strips of peel, meanwhile, can be used to make infused liqueurs and simple syrups, while the pith can even be shaved thinly and eaten raw, such as in a salad or atop steamed fish.
Citrons can also be pickled or cooked into marmalades and jams, or chopped up, pith and all, and candied. Cooked slowly in sugar syrup, the citron pieces turn translucent and chewy, with a floral, slightly citrusy sweetness, sometimes tinged with a hint of bitterness. Candied citron is a common ingredient in baked goods, such as fruitcake, Italian panettone, and other holiday confections, but it can be enjoyed just as well on its own, as a sweet, sticky, aromatic treat.
Another popular use for citron is in honey citron tea, a sweet and soothing tisane that can be enjoyed hot or cold. South Korea-based honey and tea company Kkoh Shaem Food makes a top-quality version, with yuja, or Korean citron, mixed with honey into a thick, marmalade-like base. Simply mix a spoonful with water and enjoy—one of the easiest and most delicious ways to reap all the benefits of this ancient fruit.