Lemon zest is a powerful ingredient for baking or cooking. You can add a lot of flavor your recipes because citrus peel contains essential oils. Find out five ways to zest a lemon.
Zesting without a Zester
That yellow outer layer of a lemon can transform any dish--sweet or savory–steak, cake, salad dressing, a cocktail.
But, separating zest or peel of a lemon can be a trick unless you have the right tools.
All of these techniques work for removing peel from limes and oranges as well.
Orange zest and lime zest could also be a lemon zest substitute in some recipes--just keep in mind that lime zest is more acidic and orange zest is sweeter.
All of these techniques work for removing peel if you need orange zest or lime zest instead.
Lemon zest or the yellow skin is a powerful ingredient containing essential oils, which propel flavor into your favorite dishes like Lemon Bars or Lemon Shortbread Hearts or in the case of lime zest, Nellie & Joe's Famous Key Lime Pie Recipe (Just 3 Ingredients)
Five Tools for Zesting a Lemon (or any citrus)
- Microplane rasp-style grater (I have and adore this Microplane)
- Citrus peeler
- Vegetable or potato peeler
- Paring knife
- Cheese grater (box grater)
Note: before you begin removing the peel of any citrus, lay a piece of wax paper onto your work surface for easy transport of zest into your dish.
Zest Citrus Using a Microplane
- Hold the rasp in your non-dominant hand and hold the lemon in your dominant hand.
- Lightly run the citrus fruit over the rasp.
- Keep a light touch so you don’t zest any of the white part or pith of the lemon. The pith is very bitter.
- Keep grating the lemon over the rasp until all the lemon color is gone.
You should have accumulated a tidy little pile of lemon zest on the wax paper.
There will likely be zest stuck to the underside of the rasp that you need to grab.
Push your finger along the divot in the Microplane where the zest has accumulated.
Tap the rasp once or twice on the counter to help free the bits of zest.
BONUS: Microplanes are also great for grating parmesan or other hard cheeses or chocolate.
PRO TIPS FOR USING A RASPER:
Don’t touch the sharp, raspy side of the Microplane grater, you’ll end up with “skin zest, garnished with a bit of blood," in your dish. That’s no good.
Citrus peel can be very difficult to remove from a grater once it has dried. The nanosecond you're done zesting, pause the recipe and run that bad boy under hot water until you've gotten every last bit of peel removed.
How to Use a Citrus Peeler
You can also use a citrus peeler.
If you have a home bar, you likely have one of these on hand already.
A citrus peeler isn’t ideal but it will work in a pinch.
Citrus peelers produce channel-like strands of lemon peel, which you can then chop into tiny pieces and use like zest.
If you are decorating lemon desserts or chocolates, these narrow strands of peel will be an elegant touch.
- Hold the lemon or citrus in your non-dominant hand and hold the peeler in your dominant hand.
- Gently but with a bit of pressure, push the channel bar against the lemon skin, pulling the peeler along the fruit in a sort of raking motion.
- You'll be left with strands of peel that you need to finely chop for your recipe.
- Again, it’s better to do this over a piece of wax paper to capture all the bits.
How to Zest a Lemon with a Knife
- Slice one end of the lemon off and place the flat side on a cutting board.
- Hold one side of the lemon with your nondominant hand, keeping your fingers out of the way of the knife.
- With your dominant hand, make a thin slice of lemon peel, trying not to get any of the pith.
- Chop the length of peel into teeny, tiny pieces and use that in place of zest.
Zest Citrus with a Vegetable or Potato Peeler
This method is similar to using a knife only perhaps a bit safer.
- Hold the citrus fruit in one hand and the potato peeler in your writing hand.
- Push into the fruit as hard as you can and pull down to shave a length of peel.
- Again like using a knife to remove citrus peel, chop it into itsy, bitsy pieces before adding to a recipe.
How to Zest with a Box Grater or Cheese Grater
Removing citrus zest with a cheese grater should be your option of last resort.
This method yields the least amount of zest of the others and of course, wastes more of the yellow part because the skin gets stuck on the tiny teeth of the grater and is near impossible to remove.
The cheese grater method is also the messiest.
In hindsight, after trying this method, I wonder if I could have used a sturdy, silicone pastry brush to remove the zest from the teeth. Possibly that could have worked.
So, if you’re stuck in a snowstorm at a remote mountain hideaway with your secret lover and want to wow her with homemade lemon bars, and all you can find is one of those box cheese graters, give this a go.
How to Zest with a Box Grater
- Hold the box grater firmly with your non-dominant hand and with your dominant hand, scrub a lemon or grapefruit over the tiniest holes of the cheese grater until you’ve removed as much skin of the fruit as possible.
Yes, lemon zest is another name for lemon peel. Zest or peel refers to the yellow outer layer of a lemon. Just underneath the yellow is a layer of white called the pith. Leave that alone, the pith is very bitter. Try not to get any pith in your dish while removing the peel from a lemon or other citrus fruit.
A medium-sized lemon should yield about one tablespoon of zest. Remember that lemons vary widely in size so if you're working with a small lemon, you'll get less and a larger lemon will yield more.
- 1 lemon
- Using a Microplane: Hold the rasp in your non-dominant hand and hold the lemon in your dominant hand.
Lightly run the citrus fruit over the rasp.
Keep a light touch so you don’t zest any of the white part or pith of the lemon. The pith is very bitter.
Keep grating the lemon over the rasp until all the lemon color is gone.
- Using a citrus peeler: Hold the lemon or citrus in your non-dominant hand and hold the peeler in your dominant hand.
Gently but with a bit of pressure, push the channel bar (the section with the little holes in a row) against the lemon skin, pulling the peeler along the fruit in a sort of raking motion.
You'll be left with strands of peel that you need to finely chop to use as zest.
- Knife method: slice off one end of the lemon and place the cut side on a cutting board.
Hold one side of the lemon with your nondominant hand, keeping your fingers out of the way of the knife.
With your dominant hand, saw with the knife to make a thin slice of lemon peel, trying not to get any of the white pith.
Chop the length of peel into teeny, tiny pieces and use that in place of zest.
- Zesting with Potato Peeler or Vegetable Peeler: This method is similar to using a knife only perhaps a bit safer.
Hold the citrus fruit in one hand and the potato peeler in your writing hand.
Push into the fruit as hard as you can and pull down to shave a length of peel.
Again like using a knife to remove citrus peel, chop it into itsy, bitsy pieces before adding to a recipe.
If you need both zest and lemon juice, be sure to zest before you slice to juice a lemon.
It's a lot easier to work with a whole fruit when you're using one of these tools.
Not impossible of course if you forget and slice your lemon in half before zesting it, but a lot easier.
If you're making a recipe that calls for both juice and zest, no skipsies one for the other.
The peel of a lemon will give you a much more intense lemon flavor than the juice alone and they complement each other wonderfully.
You could use lemon extract in a pinch as a substitute for lemon zest, depending on the recipe, but extract doesn't compare to fresh.
Using lemon zest will set you apart from the rest of the crowd at the dessert table.
However, having said that, I do really love an extract called Fiori di Sicilia, which I use in an Italian Butter Cookie recipe.
Fiori is a combination of orange and vanilla and it is divine. Find Fiori di Sicilia at Amazon or at King Arthur or sometimes at your local grocery store.
The minutes total time for zesting a lemon using any of these five methods should be under five minutes.