Everything You Need to Know About Yuzu, Including Our Favorite Ways to Make the Most of This Rare Citrus
If scents are siren calls, the intoxicatingly aromatic yuzu is a formidable force. Yuzu is the citrus fruit from East Asia that everyone wants. It is forbidden to import it into the United States, but in the borderless digital world, where a beautiful picture taken in one country inspires the uniquely human urge to acquire and emulate, foods that used to be unknown or unavailable beyond their immediate culinary context become sought-after by a new audience. Enter the desire for yuzu, whose tart juice and famously fragrant skin are very different from the limes and lemons many of us know better. Because it's more expensive than more common citrus fruits and remains hard to find, it's helpful to know how to use the yuzu and its juice.
What Is Yuzu?
Botanically, yuzu is Citrus x juno, a cross between a wild citrus and a sour mandarin that was thought to have originated in Korea before moving into China and being developed further in Japan. The fruit is valued at every stage of ripeness. When it is completely unripe and green, the zest of the small, rock-hard yuzu fruit is the essential ingredient in yuzu kosho, a fermented and powerful paste-like Japanese condiment whose other ingredients are chiles and salt. It is vibrant and refreshing—a little goes a long way. And a whisper of green zest from a microplane is sufficient to infuse shoyu, for a home-made ponzu to use as a dip or dressing. Green yuzu are available in-season (late summer) from New Jersey growers Flavors by Bhumi.
A ripe yuzu is the size of a small clementine. The texture of its skin is lumpy, which feels loose and strangely puffy around the fruit segments inside. The small citrus is deeply perfumed, offering a complexity utterly different from lemon, with unexpected herbal, floral, and warm spice notes. Slice the yuzu open and you'll find many, many seeds. While yuzu contains much less juice than lemons, that juice is very appealing and very aromatic. So by all means, juice your yuzu (we recommend a lemon press to get every drop out, rather a quick but more wasteful hand-squeeze). Another option is to slice the ripe yuzu into thin rounds and pry the seeds out to make Korean yujacha (yuzu tea), where the slices are layered with sugar in a jar, and left to macerate, creating a vibrant syrup. A spoonful in boiling water makes the delicious tea (the jar keeps indefinitely in the fridge). The slices, minus seeds, also make an unforgettably good marmalade.
Ripe yuzu are also used to make yubeshi, a regionally-varying Japanese sweet-and-salty confection made by stuffing the hollowed-out yuzu skins with a mixture that may include, nuts, rice and miso, before being wrapped and steamed, then hung up to cure (perhaps alongside your winter hoshigaki). Yubeshi is eaten sliced thinly (and is wonderful on a gaijin cheese plate).
Most yuzu is grown in East Asia as well as Australia, but the USDA has banned the import of fresh yuzu fruit (because citrus diseases are notoriously portable and can wreak havoc on domestic citrus economies). Luckily, yuzu is now increasingly cultivated in the U.S., and that fruit is available seasonally (during the winter) from small growers. California's Mud Creek Ranch supplies shippers like FruitStand with ripe yuzu, and regional specialty grocers like Eataly often stock the fruit for a few exciting weeks in the winter.
Yuzu juice is much easier to locate. Visit a Japanese or Korean market in person or online and snag a bottle of the aromatic juice. It adds wonderful perfume in small doses to mixed drinks and to dressings. While it is very sour there is more than a hint of its mandarin heritage in the flavor.
There's good news for anyone with green fingers and an appetite for yuzu but little access to the fresh fruit: More nurseries are offering the trees for sale. Yuzu is one of the hardiest of the citrus trees (thanks to its origins) and is able to tolerate freezes in USDA Zone 8. Any colder and you should overwinter it indoors. Yuzu trees from Four Winds Growers are grafted onto dwarf rootstock, which makes the them ideal for portable containers. (This writer's tree lives happily in Brooklyn, New York, moving out in May and in at the end of October.) While the trees are thorny, they make up for their prickles with their aromatic and distinctively double leaves. Bruise a few to add to a botanical cocktail or shred them and stir them into a dressing for grilled fish or a herb salad.