Lemon pepper is having a bit of a cultural moment. It is, perhaps, the first seasoning blend to blow up since everything-but-the-bagel mania in 2017. Thanks in large part to the wildly popular lemon pepper hot wings served in Atlanta, as chronicled in Donald Glover’s eponymous cult-favorite TV show, the oft-ignored bottled seasoning blend is enjoying a much-deserved renaissance. In my own home kitchen, lemon pepper’s brightness and versatility makes it an absolute staple.
Many lemon pepper fans insist that the best blends are made at home, with freshly grated lemon zest and cracked black pepper. That flavor profile is more natural, sure, but it’s also more mellow and easily lost among other flavors in a recipe. To my mind, the real appeal of lemon pepper lies in those vivid yellow granules bottled up by brands like Lawry’s and McCormick, imbued with citric acid for extra tang, salt and garlic for savoriness, and probably some chemicals, likely deemed hazardous by the European Union and the state of California, that trick my brain into loving lemon pepper even more.
On its own, lemon pepper is a perfectly cromulent flavor. It’s got enough personality to sprinkle over a side of steamed vegetables or to dust onto chicken thighs before throwing them into a blazing-hot oven for a quick dinner. It’s also my favorite topping for a bowl of cottage cheese, a combination that sounds weird but is truly more delicious than the sum of its parts. The real magic, though, happens when you use lemon pepper to round out your recipes with a subtle punch of brightness. This trick works well in a dish that is desperate for a little acidity — some roasted vegetables that are a little too salty or a pan sauce that’s a little too bland. Some may say that a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or perhaps a flurry of citrus zest works better in these cases. But there are plenty of occasions in which you don’t want the liquid to sog up your roasted vegetables, or the aromatic oils in the zest are just too potent for the dish’s flavor profile.
In those instances, nothing works better than a sprinkle of lemon pepper. I find myself throwing it into random dishes all the time, even if I’m using just a pinch. It works perfectly in tandem with Cajun seasoning, my most commonly used seasoning blend, and in my favorite fajita marinade. It’s great in a pasta sauce made with canned tomatoes that might taste a little one-note and tinny. In basically any scenario in which something I’m cooking feels too heavy or needs a little bit of oomph, a sprinkle of lemon pepper almost always does the trick.
Not all lemon pepper blends are created equal. Some brands are infused with cheap lemon extracts, which give them a flavor profile that recalls bathroom cleaner rather than fresh citrus. Others contain substantial amounts of sodium, making them difficult to use in recipes with salt from other sources. Sometimes those grains of salt are too coarse, which makes the lemon pepper impractical as a finishing spice. In my esteemed opinion, the best brand is Lawry’s because it’s ground super finely and the zest tastes decently fresh. A close second is McCormick — its blend is slightly more coarse, perfect for clinging onto chicken or fish but still finely ground enough to sprinkle over a salad.
Sure, making your own lemon pepper with freshly dried citrus zest is worth it if you’ve got the time. But if you don’t, that’s no reason not to eat more lemon pepper, a truly perfect creation that belongs in the Seasoning Blend Hall of Fame right alongside Tony Chachere’s and Lawry’s.