The Origin Of Lemon Bars Only Dates Back To The Early 1960s

Buttery lemon bars seem like they have been around forever – a sugary combination of shortbread and lemon curd baked together, forming sunny little bar cookies. Indeed, the two main ingredients are relatively ancient recipes. Shortbread took its current sweet and crumbly form in the 16th century, lemon curd is mentioned in cookery books of the early 1800s, and bar cookies came about in the 1930s, but they didn't come together to make the lovely confection we know today until 1962. 

The Chicago Tribune first published the recipe submitted by Mrs. Eleanore Mickelson on August 27 in its regular "Today's $5 Favorite Recipe" column. Legendary Tribune recipe editor Mary Meade started the recipe contest in the 1940s, and in 1948 the paper reported that in the first four months of that year, nearly 7,000 recipes were sent in by hopeful cooks – that's more than 50 recipes a day to comb through. The $5 prize Mrs. Mickelson received is worth about $51 today, but that's all we know about her legacy in developing this popular treat. Lemon bars received nationwide attention the next year when an almost identical version was published in the Betty Crocker Cookbook.

Modern lemon bar recipes are more zesty

Mrs. Eleanore Mickelson's thrifty recipe called for just 3 tablespoons of lemon juice mixed with a cup of sugar and 2 eggs, yielding a much sweeter bar than the recipes you're likely to encounter today. More often, you'll find versions similar to Tasting Table recipe developer Jennine Rye's best lemon bars recipe, which includes a full half cup of lemon juice along with some zest, resulting in a bright but balanced lemon flavor. 

Lemon bars have stood the test of time because they're not only easy to put together but require just a handful of inexpensive ingredients. The butter, flour, and sugar crust doesn't require any special pastry techniques – it's simply pressed into a baking pan and baked until golden. Stand-alone lemon curd can be fussy to stir into a glossy result, but for lemon bars, the ingredients are mixed and poured right onto the waiting crust. Baking at a relatively low temperature then thickens the lemon mixture into a perfect filling once it cools. We might never know how Mrs. Mickelson thought to combine the ingredients, but we're sure glad that The Chicago Tribune took notice!